PREVIEW: Champions Cup, Quarterfinals
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Leinster continue the defence of their European title against Ulster on Saturday with their Irish rivals warning they were not travelling to Dublin just to make up the numbers.
The capital side will be seeking to bounce back from a surprise 11-28 Pro14 defeat by Edinburgh last weekend. However, they will have to do it without star flyhalf Jonathan Sexton.
The winner of the Dublin match will face the winner of the all-French quarter between Racing 92 and Toulouse, currently heading up the Top 14 and whose style of play belies the French national team’s stuttering form.
The weekend’s other quarterfinals see Saracens face Glasgow Warriors, while Edinburgh will host Munster.
Saracens twice saw off Glasgow in pool play, going through as the only unbeaten team and history is on their side, having won four of five previous home quarter-finals.
We take a closer look at all the quarterfinals!
Saturday, March 30:
Edinburgh v Munster
(Murrayfield, Edinburgh – Kick-off: 12.45; 12.45 GMT)
Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, the former Leicester and England hooker, was in bullish mood ahead of his team’s tie at home against two-time former champions Munster.
“We’re a good side and we’re probably set up for knockout rugby more than week-in, week-out rugby at the moment,” he said.
He added: “I think this is Munster’s 18th quarterfinal. This is our third, so history dictates that they should probably be favourites. They’ve got all the big-game experience.
“But the journey is good for us, because it’s new and fresh, it’s exciting and it’ll be a really good test to see where we’re at as a team, both as a coaching team and as a playing group.”
Meanwhile, Munster head coach Johann van Graan knows the challenge that awaits his team at Murrayfield.
“We’ve got big dreams, but to keep those dreams alive we have got to perform on Saturday afternoon against quality opposition playing really good rugby on their home turf,” Van Graan told the Irish Times.
“They’re very physical, I think their forward pack are very good scrummagers.
“You just have to look at what they did on Friday night in terms of their scrum and their maul.”
Prediction: Munster have won three of their four games against Edinburgh in the tournament (lost one), however, their one defeat came the last time Edinburgh hosted the fixture in Round One of the 2013/14 season. Edinburgh have won 17 of their last 19 home games in European competition (lost two), although their two defeats in that run both came in quarterfinals, albeit of the Challenge Cup – against La Rochelle in 2017 and Cardiff Blues in 2018. Munster have reached the knockout stage for a record 18th time, and they’ve progressed to the semifinals in 13 of their previous 17 appearances. With Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors both reaching the last eight, two Scottish clubs have qualified for the knockout stage in the same season for the first time. Munster missed fewer tackles (107) than any other side in the pool stage this season, resulting in a competition-high tackle rate of 89 percent.
Edinburgh: 15 Darcy Graham, 14 Damien Hoyland, 13 James Johnstone, 12 Chris Dean, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 WP Nel, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Magnus Bradbury, 20 Jamie Ritchie, 21 Charlie Shiel, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Mark Bennett
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Joey Carbery, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Tyler Bleyendaal, 23 Dan Goggin.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
Assistant referees: Ludovic Cayre (France), Jonathan Dufort (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Saracens v Glasgow Warriors
(Allianz Park, London – Kick-off: 15.15; 15.15 GMT)
Despite being at home, Saracens will not be taking the Warriors lightly in what should be an entertaining fixture.
Saracens fullback Andy Goode highlighted the threats posed by the likes of Scotland lock Jonny Gray, scrumhalf Ali Price and wing Tommy Seymour in the Glasgow Warriors team.
“They are a top side,” said Saracens back Alex Goode. “They’ve been doing well in the league, they’ve got a lot of internationals and a couple of guys are coming back for them who are very dangerous.
“They are well coached, so there is no doubt that they’ll want to come and spoil what we’re doing down here.
“The pack is run well by Jonny Gray. He does a great job for them and obviously works very hard.
“Ali Price has taken up the mantle of being more of an organiser without having Finn Russell there. [Adam] Hastings has come in and done a great job in that sense.”
Saracens are favourites for the encounter, but Warriors hooker Fraser Brown believes that can work in his team’s favour
“To know that we are not favourites going onto the game, to know that we are going to have to produce our best performance of the season, yeah it brings pressure, but it also brings an added focus to the week building up to the game, Brown told the Herald Scotland.
“If we can drive that in the right way then hopefully it should amount to something at the weekend that brings out a good performance.”
Prediction: Saracens have won all five of their Champions Cup fixtures with Glasgow including two pool games this season and a quarterfinal at Allianz Park in 2017. This is the ninth time Saracens have reached the knockout stage of the tournament, and only twice previously have they failed to progress to the semifinals. Saracens have won four of five previous home quarterfinals, their solitary loss coming against ASM Clermont Auvergne at Vicarage Road in 2012. Glasgow have reached the knockout stage for the second time in their history. Glasgow have won just two of 24 European fixtures away from home against Premiership opposition (Lost 22, Champions Cup and Challenge Cup), beating Exeter in Round Five, 2013/14 and Leicester in Round Six, 2016/17. Saracens won all six pool stage matches for the second time in their history.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Liam Williams, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Christian Judge, 2 Jamie George, 1 Richard Barrington.
Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Tom Whiteley, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Stafford McDowall, 12 Samuel Johnson, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Ali Price, 8 Matt Fagerson, 7 Callum Gibbins (captain), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Oli Kebble.
Replacements: 16 Kevin Bryce, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 George Horne, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Niko Matawalu.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
Leinster v Ulster
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin – Kick-off: 17.45; 17.45 GMT)
After Ireland’s less than impressive Six Nations campaign there will be plenty of players looking to put in a big performance this weekend.
However, one star will not have that opportunity and that is Leinster flyhalf, Jonathan Sexton, who has been ruled out of Saturday’s clash.
Leinster will also be looking to bounce back from that surprise defeat to Edinburgh last weekend.
Leinster are strong favourites for the match, but Ulster flyhalf Billy Burns insisted his team, which progressed to the last eight with five wins from six games from a pool which included Racing 92, Scarlets and Leicester, were there to compete for the win.
“This isn’t our big day out. It’s a stepping stone to where we want to be,” the former Gloucester flyhalf said of Ulster’s first quarterfinal since 2014.
“We want to be playing in finals and winning trophies. The boys are ready to go down there and execute our plan.
“It’s a huge game for us, as it is for them. The business end of the Champions Cup is where you want to be playing.
“We are hugely excited about going there and giving it a good crack this weekend. We’re going there to win.”
Burns added: “Leinster have been the best team in Europe for the last number of years and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but we back ourselves.
“We can’t go down there and roll over and respect these guys too much. We know they’re a top-quality outfit, but we’ve got to go down there and give it a real crack.”
Prediction: Leinster and Ulster have met just once before in Europe’s top flight – the 2012 Final in which Leinster were runaway 42-14 winners at Twickenham. Ulster have come up against Irish opposition twice in the tournament. The defeat to Leinster in the 2012 decider, as well also a famous away quarterfinal win against Munster at Thomond Park in the same season. Holders Leinster have won seven of their last eight quarterfinals and have not lost a home game at this stage since 2005 when they were defeated by Leicester Tigers, winning all six home ties since at the quarterfinal stage. Ulster’s last two appearances in the knockout stage saw them eliminated by Saracens in 2013, and by Saracens again the following season. Leinster scored the most points (204) and tries (27) in the pool stage this season.
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Rory O’Loughlin, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Seán O’Brien, 6 Rhys Ruddock (captain), 5 James Ryan, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Noel Reid, 23 Rob Kearney.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Nick Timoney, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Eric O’Sullivan.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andy Warwick, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Dave Shanahan, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Angus Kernohan.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pierre Brousset (France), Vincent Blasco Baqué (France)
TBC: Denis Grenouillet (France)
Sunday, March 31:
Racing 92 v Toulouse
(Paris La Défense Arena, Paris – Kick-off: 16.15; 14.15 GMT)
Racing were the beaten finalists last season, going down 12-15 to Leinster in Bilbao, and Toulouse assistant coach Jean Bouilhou highlighted possession as likely key when they meet Racing in Paris.
“I think it’ll be key to keep possession and not give it away to our opponents, because Racing are so strong on home soil,” said Bouilhou, who won three European Cups as a player with Toulouse.
“They’re a team who play differently, depending on whether they’re at home or away, and they have world-class players, so we know it’ll be a very tough game.
“First of all, they have a very experienced squad. They’ve played in European finals and have been French champions. They also have players like [Virimi] Vakatawa, [Leone] Nakarawa and Teddy Thomas in their ranks.
“They have a massive pack, with players who can carry the ball when it’s off the ground and speed up the game when necessary.
“They have players who are constantly looking to get forward, none more so than their No.10 [Finn Russell]. If you go through position by position, I think they have top-level players in each of them and I think that’s what makes them so good.”
Bouilhou recalled how, as a player, he would particularly enjoy the increased atmosphere, speed and emotion that came with crucial European Cup matches.
“The main memory that has stayed with me is the atmosphere, particularly during games against British teams,” Bouilhou added.
“It really took us out of the daily grind of the French league, and we loved playing in those games, because the level was always very high.”
Prediction: Racing 92 and Toulouse have never met in European competition before, however, this is the fourth season in a row there has been an all-TOP 14 clash at the quarterfinal stage. This will be Racing’s fourth appearance in the knockout stage, winning their previous two such games against French opposition (2016 v RC Toulon and 2018 v Clermont) but losing against Saracens in 2015. Four-time champions, Toulouse, are appearing in a 16th quarterfinal match, and only Munster (18 including this season) have reached the last eight more often. Toulouse have lost their last three quarterfinals, but conversely have won all four of their games at this stage against TOP 14 opposition.
Racing 92: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (captain), 1 Guram Gogichashvili.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Boris Palu, 21 Antoine Gibert, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Wenceslas Lauret,
Toulouse: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Sofiane Guitoune, 12 Romain Ntamack, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Zack Holmes, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Jerome Kaino (captain), 7 Francois Cros, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Richie Gray, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Guillaume Marchand, 17 Clément Castets, 18 Maks Van Dyk, 19 Selevasio Tolofua, 20 Piula Faasalele, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Thomas Ramos, 23 Pita Ahki.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Additional sources: @ChampionsCup, AFP, The Irish Times and Herald Scotland