PREVIEW: Champions Cup, Semifinals
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The European Champions Cup semifinals are finally here.
Munster will be hoping to end a run of six European Cup semifinals without victory on Saturday when they take on fellow two-time winners Saracens in their Champions Cup last-four clash at the Ricoh Arena.
Meanwhile, title-holders Leinster and Toulouse, who meet in Dublin on Sunday, are both four-time kings of Europe.
We take a closer look at both semifinals:
Saturday, April 20:
Saracens v Munster
(Ricoh Arena, Coventry – Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT)
Saracens will hope the focus returns to their rugby when they face Munster in a European Champions Cup semifinal on Saturday.
The English champions are under pressure off the field amid a probe by Premiership Rugby over a possible breach of domestic salary cap rules.
Saracens have also been dealing with the row sparked by Billy Vunipola liking a post from Australia’s Israel Folau that stated “hell awaits” for homosexuals.
The England No.8 was warned by both his club and the Rugby Football Union after a post of his own last week that read “man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal no?”
Vunipola was subsequently jeered by fans during Saracens’ 21-23 loss away to Bristol last weekend.
He is set to start against Munster in Coventry, with coach Mark McCall telling him to prepare for more boos.
“He has got to deal with that, and we’ve got to deal with that as a group,” said McCall. “It’s probably better to expect it to happen, and then wait and see.”
All four sides in the semifinals are former European champions, with both Saracens and Munster having won the tournament twice.
Saracens were beaten by Leinster in last season’s quarterfinals, but McCall said that defeat had only strengthened their passion for the tournament.
“I think it made our group, after winning the two finals the two years before that, really hungry to do well this season,” said McCall. “I think this group have grown to love this competition.”
Saracens cruised into the last four with a 56-12 thrashing of Glasgow whereas Munster had a hard-fought 17-13 win over Edinburgh.
The Irish province have not won the tournament since 2008 and scrumhalf Conor Murray is desperate to add a European title to his CV.
Boyhood Munster fan Murray, who turns 30 on Saturday, was not at his best during a disappointing Six Nations for Ireland after starring during a stellar 2018 that yielded a Grand Slam and a win over world champions New Zealand.
“I’ve been lucky with Lions tours and Six Nations wins and I wouldn’t trade them,” Murray told the Guardian. “But winning the European Cup with Munster would be unbelievable. It means the world to me.”
Prediction: Saracens have won three of their last four games against Munster in the tournament, after losing each of their first four prior to that run. Saracens and Munster have met twice before in the semifinal with Munster winning 18-16 at the Ricoh Arena in 2008 while Saracens secured a 26-10 victory at the Aviva Stadium in 2017; on each occasion, the winning side went on to lift the trophy. Saracens have reached the semifinal stage for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, progressing to the final from three of their last four appearances. Munster are appearing in the semifinals for a record 14th time (won 4, lost 9); however, they’ve lost each of their last six matches, and they last reached the final in 2008 following their win against Saturday’s opposition. Saracens have averaged more points (34.4) and tries (4.3) per game than any other side this season.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Mike Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Titi Lamositele, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle.
Munster: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Darren Sweetnam, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 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 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Dan Goggin.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
Sunday, April 21:
Leinster v Toulouse
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin – Kick-off: 15.15; 14.15 GMT; 16.15 France time)
Sunday sees another two giants of the European club game meet at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Jonathan Sexton returns for Leinster against Toulouse following a quad injury in what is set to be his first match since facing Wales on March 16.
“We’re giving Sexton the benefit of the doubt based on the calibre of player he is and his experience,” former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan told the RTE Rugby Podcast.
“There’s a risk in it and there’s a bigger risk for Leinster if you look at where they are coming from.”
Leinster, who have recalled several rested first-choice players, and Toulouse met twice in this season’s pool stages, winning once each.
The Irish side lost 27-28 in France in October but won 29-13 at the RDS Arena in the return fixture in January.
After those two fixtures, Leinster centre Garry Ringrose already knows the French side quite well.
“There’s a lot of excitement around this match,” said the 24-year-old, who was Man of the Match in the second game. “We saw in the pool phase that Toulouse are a very difficult team to beat.
“They have a lot of experience in this competition and are dangerous in all positions. All the team are playing well, but we have to keep an eye out for [Cheslin] Kolbe, who has scored some incredible tries this season.”
Toulouse edged out French rivals Racing92 22-21 in a thrilling quarterfinal despite being a man down for more than 50 minutes after Zach Holmes was sent off for a high tackle.
“I’m very proud of the team how we played with 14 men for most of the game,” said Toulouse captain Jerome Kaino.
Sunday’s match will be Toulouse’s first European semifinal in eight years and the French side received a boost Thursday when Joe Tekori was cleared to play after being cited for a dangerous tackle in last weekend’s Top 14 win over Clermont.
The 35-year-old Samoan lock risked being suspended but officials found he had “made his best efforts to make a regular tackle” in a challenge that left opponent Yohan Beheregaray unconscious.
Prediction: This will be the 12th tournament meeting between Leinster and Toulouse (Leinster won 5, Toulouse won 6), and only Munster and Castres have clashed more often (16 times). Leinster and Toulouse have met twice previously in the semifinals, with Toulouse winning the 2010 contest at Le Stadium before Leinster emerged victorious at the Aviva Stadium in 2011; on both occasions the winning side went on to lift the trophy. Leinster and Toulouse are both appearing in the semifinals for the 11th time and only Munster (14, including 2018/19) have reached this stage more often. Toulouse have won six of their semifinals, more than any other side. Since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, Leinster have won 15 of their 16 Champions Cup games, their only defeat in that run coming in Round Two of this season’s pool stage against Toulouse. Toulouse’s Cheslin Kolbe has beaten 45 defenders, seven more than any other player. Leinster’s Garry Ringrose ranks fourth with 29 defenders beaten. 6).
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain) 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Seán O’Brien, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Scott Fardy, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Toulouse: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Sofiane Guitoune, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Antoine Dupont, 9 Sébastien Bézy, 8 Jerome Kaino (captain), 7 Joe Tekori, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Richie Gray, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Clément Castets.
Replacements: 16 Guillaume Marchand, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Maks Van Dyk, 19 Selevasio Tolofua, 20 Piula Faasalele, 21 Francois Cros, 22 Romain Ntamack, 23 Maxime Médard.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce (England), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Both Challenge Cup semifinals will take place on Saturday.
La Rochelle welcome two-time Challenge Cup winners Sale Sharks to the Stade Marcel-Deflandre for the first time as they seek their maiden European final for the club on Saturday.
In Saturday’s other semifinal, ASM Clermont Auvergne welcome three-time Challenge Cup champions Harlequins to the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Saturday, April 20:
La Rochelle v Sale Sharks
(Stade Marcel-Deflandre, La Rochelle – Kick-off: 18.30; 17.30 UK & Ireland time; 16.30 GMT)
La Rochelle: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Vincent Rattez, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Botia Veivuke, 11 Arthur Retiere, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Alexi Bales, 8 Victor Vito (captain), 7 Grégory Alldritt, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 Mathieu Tanguy, 4 Romain Sazy, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Jean-Charles Orioli, 1 Dany Priso.
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Vincent Pelo, 18 Arthur Joly, 19 Thomas Jolmes, 20 Kevin Gourdon, 21 Thomas Berjon, 22 Maxime Lafage, 23 Jules Favre.
Sale Sharks: 15 Luke James, 14 Denny Solomona, 13 Sam James, 12 James O’Connor, 11 Chris Ashton, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Tom Curry, 6 Ben Curry, 5 James Phillips, 4 Josh Beaumont, 3 WillGriff John, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements: 16 Curtis Langdon, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 Joe Jones, 19 Matthew Postlewhaite, 20 Sam Moore, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Cameron Redpath, 23 Aaron Reed.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales))
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)), Ian Davies (Wales))
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Harlequins
(Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand – Kick-off: 21.00; 20.00 UK & Ireland time; 19.00 GMT)
Clermont: 15 Setariki Tuicuvu, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 George Moala, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Alivereti Raka, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra (captain), 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Arthur Iturria, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Etienne Falgoux.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Beka Kakabadze, 18 Mickael Simutoga, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Peter Betham.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Ross Chisholm, 13 Alofa Alofa, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Charlie Walker, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Jack Clifford, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Alex Dombrandt, 5 Ben Glynn, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Rob Buchanan, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Elia Elia, 17 Nick Auterac, 18 Josh Ibuanokpe, 19 Stan South, 20 Semi Kunatani, 21 Niall Saunders, 22 James Lang, 23 Francis Saili.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
AFP, @ChampionsCup & @rugby365com