European Cup Semifinals: Teams and Predictions
ALL OR NOTHING: Former New Zealand under-20s centre Pita Ahki said Toulouse have learnt from last season’s European Champions Cup last four defeat to Leinster ahead of travelling to Exeter Chiefs on Sunday.
The record four-time continental champions are 80 minutes away from a sixth final but Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs stand in their way.
“We’ve made another semi-final this year and we want to push on to the final. Exeter are a big team, probably the best English side at the moment with Saracens,” Ahki told AFP.
“We know it’s a big task. We’ve put everything into this week.”
Ugo Mola’s men only took part in their first training session of the week on Thursday to limit possible coronavirus contact ahead of crossing the Channel after the quarter-final win against Ulster.
Last weekend Castres were disqualified from the second-tier Challenge Cup after recording three cases of the virus among their players and coaches.
“That game on Sunday was pretty tough on our bodies so to have a few extra days off to recover might pay dividends for us in the long run,” Ahki said.
“As rugby players, you want to be able to train at least two or three days, especially before a semi-final, a big game. But with COVID we have to suck it up and work with what we’ve got,” he added.
Ahki features in an exciting back-line alongside France internationals such as Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Sofiane Guitoune as well as South Africa Rugby World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe.
“It’s unreal. You just want to get the ball to him as early as you can and let him work his magic,” Ahki said.
“I know he’s the best player in the world at the moment as you saw at the weekend. He has the best feet, and I’m just lucky that he’s on my side,”
The Auckland-born midfielder wears the same head guard as Springboks’ Kolbe and said it causes problems for his family watching on.
“My daughters get mixed up with us a lot, even my partner sometimes,” Ahki said.
The former Connacht centre is set to face the Chiefs’ England midfielder Hendry Slade at Sandy Park.
“Watching him in the last few games they’ve played he’s class. He picks his moments, he’s slick,” Ahki said.
“They got real good set-plays off their set-piece and he and Jack Nowell set the platform for them. It will be a good matchup, I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to keep an eye on him,” he added.
Elsewhere this weekend, Top 14 leaders Racing 92 host Saracens in a re-run of 2016 final but the Parisians will be without Wallabies fullback Kurtley Beale.
England captain Owen Farrell is missing for the visitors, who will be relegated from the Premiership at the end of the season for salary cap breaches.
The semifinal predictions and teams follow below …
“It’s 55% to Racing, 45% to Saracens…” 👀
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 24, 2020
Saturday, September 26
Racing 92 v Saracens
(Paris La Defense Arena, Paris – Kick-off: 14.00, 12.00 GMT)
Saracens have won six of their eight meetings with Racing 92 in the Heineken Champions Cup (L2), including victories in both knockout clashes during that sequence (2015 QF, 2016 Final). However, Racing were victorious at Paris La Défense Arena in Round 1 this season.
Racing have reached the semi-finals for the third time, qualifying for the final on both previous occasions. Saracens have reached this stage on seven occasions (W4, L3), winning their last three semi-finals in a row.
Racing have won 10 of their last 11 home games in the Champions Cup (L1), including seven of eight since moving to Paris La Défense Arena, although their solitary defeat came in their only knockout game during that run (2019 quarter-final v Toulouse).
Saracens have won 14 of their 16 Heineken Champions Cup matches since the beginning of 2018/19 (L2), although one of their two defeats was that 30-10 loss to Racing in Round 1.
Saracens have won 10 of their last 11 knockout fixtures in the Champions Cup (L1), including their last four in a row, with their only defeat in that spell against Leinster in the 2018 quarter-final.
Racing have made 88 clean breaks this season, more than any other side and their highest total in this category was against Saracens in Round 1 (20).
Racing have received six yellow cards to date, and no side has been shown more (level with Gloucester), while Saracens have had the most red cards this season (2).
Maro Itoje made 19 tackles in the quarter-final victory over Leinster, the most of any player last weekend, while his teammates Brad Barritt and Duncan Taylor made the joint-most tackles of any back (16 each).
Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92) has beaten 42 defenders, 13 more than any other player and over four times as many as any Saracens player (Elliot Daly – 10).
@rugby365com: Saracens will win by 7 points
Racing 92: 5 Simon Zebo, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Olivier Klemenczak, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Teddy Iribaren (captain), 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Fabien Sanconnie, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Georges Henri Colombe, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Teddy Baubigny, 17 Hassane Kolingar, 18 Ali Oz, 19 Boris Palu, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Antoine Gibert, 23 Francois Trinh-Duc
Saracens: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Alex Lewington, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Alex Goode, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Mike Rhodes, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Alec Clarey, 19 Callum Hunter-Hill, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Manu Vunipola, 23 Dom Morris
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Eric Briquet-Campin (France)
Exeter Chiefs v Toulouse
(Sandy Park, Exeter – Kick-off: 15:30; 14.30 GMT)
Exeter and Toulouse will go head-to-head for the first time in European competition on Saturday. The Chiefs will be the 12th different Premiership club that Toulouse have faced in the Heineken Champions Cup, and no other team has faced more English clubs (Leinster and Cardiff Blues also 12).
Exeter have qualified for a Champions Cup semi-final for the first time, while Toulouse have reached this stage for the 12th time – only Munster (14) have reached the last four on more occasions.
Toulouse have won their last seven games in the Champions Cup, the fifth time they’ve enjoyed a winning run of that length, however, they have only won more than seven games in a row once before – an 11-game streak that spanned the 2009/10 and 2010/11 campaigns.
Exeter are unbeaten in their seven games this season, and before this run they had never managed more than two matches without defeat.
Exeter have won five of their last six games against TOP 14 opposition, including their last three in a row. Toulouse have won their last six on the bounce against Premiership clubs.
Exeter have conceded 10.6 turnovers per game on average this season, fewer than any other side, while only Connacht and Harlequins (both 15.7) have conceded more than Toulouse (15.6).
Toulouse have made 481 metres per game on average this season, more than any other side, while they also top the charts for offloads, averaging 12.3 per game.
Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos has landed 31 successful place kicks this season, more than any other player and one more than Exeter’s Joe Simmonds, who has the best goalkicking success rate of any player to attempt more than five kicks. (94 percent, 30/32).
Exeter’s Jonny Gray completed 18/18 tackles in the Chiefs’ victory over Northampton Saints, and no other player made more without missing one in the quarter-finals.
Including his appearances this season for Glasgow Warriors, Gray has averaged 19.8 tackles per game, the most of any player to feature more than twice in 2019/20.
Ramos made 125 metres in Toulouse’s quarter-final victory against Ulster, the most of any player last weekend, while teammate Antoine Dupont recorded the second highest total (106m).
@rugby365com: Toulouse win by 10 points
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds (captain), 9 Jack Maunder, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Sam Skinner, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Jonny Gray, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Alec Hepburn,
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Tom Francis, 19 Dave Dennis, 20 Don Armand, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Ollie Devoto,
Toulouse: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Sofiane Guitoune, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Selevasio Tolofua, 7 Francois Cros, 6 Jerome Kaino (captain), 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille,
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Rodrigue Neti, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Alban Placines, 20 Louis Madaule, 21 Alexi Bales, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Matthis Lebel
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England) & Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Source: @ChampionsCup, additional reporting by AFP