Preview: Champions Cup, quarterfinals
Preview: Champions Cup, quarterfinalsSHARE
The Racing 92 flyhalf will make his debut in the competition at home to reigning champions Toulon on Sunday and the New Zealand legend said this was one of the reasons he chose to end his international career and head to Europe.
"When you think of European rugby, there's the great competitions with a lot of history like the [French] Top 14, the [English] Premiership, but the ultimate level is the European Championship," said the 34-year-old, who expects people to be sitting up and taking notice back home.
"I can see a few of the rugby supporters back home starting to take an interest once you get to the play-offs.
"I've watched a few European championship games and the finals, the play-off games, just to see the crowds that they get and the importance and just the hype around those games – that's something pretty special.
"So when I was looking for a club in Europe, I wanted a strong club that would give me a chance to play in that competition because as a player you want to be playing in the best competitions and that's definitely one of them."
Carter will come up against the man who spent much of the last decade in an All Black jersey playing on his outside shoulder: Nonu.
But Carter says facing up to his fellow cap-centenarian will be old hat.
"I haven't even thought about it to be honest, that I'll be lining up against one of my good mates," he added.
"I guess it's nothing new for me, we've played against each other at Super Rugby level for the last 12-13 years. We've matched up against each other in Crusader-Hurricanes games, so it's nothing new – I always enjoy playing against my good mates, it'll be good fun."
While Carter settled straight in at Racing and has been a huge success, Nonu took a little more time on the south coast and even complained a couple of months ago that his team don't throw the ball around enough.
"It's not easy to make that transition and the class of the player has come out and he's shown what he’s capable of the last three months playing at Toulon," said Carter.
"He's been fantastic, he's been one of their best players, so I'm not too sure what all the talk early was. He's found his feet and is obviously a lot more comfortable in that team now and he's showing why he's one of the best players in the world."
And Carter says the half-back position he plays, dictating the game plan, made it easier for him to adapt to the more forward and kick-oriented style in the Northern Hemisphere than centre Nonu.
"There's definitely challenges, it's not going to be exactly as we had at home. He [Nonu] is obviously in a slightly different position where I'm directing play and can choose to kick the ball or pass, whereas he's not in that position at one wider where he doesn’t have that decision.
"So I can understand his frustration. I'm lucky enough to have experienced roughly what to expect here six years ago [during a brief stint with Perpignan] so it's not about coming here to try to change things to the way we did it back home in New Zealand, it's more about just trying to fit in the best way possible to the way that things are done with your club.
"That's probably why he had those frustrations early on, but he's adapted now."
Saturday, April 9:
Wasps v Exeter Chiefs
(Ricoh Arena – Kick-off: 15.15; 14.15 GMT)
Can lightning strike twice in the same place? Not if Dai Young's Wasps side have got anything to do with it!
The now Midlands-based club have become the talk of Europe with their exciting brand of rugby and they warmed-up for their second successive Champions Cup quarterfinal with a 28-6 home win over another of the clubs in the last eight, Northampton Saints. They are a team on a mission – and have been ever since they were narrowly beaten by the soon to be triple champions RC Toulon in last year's quarterfinals.
Just how much they have improved under Young's excellent stewardship was revealed by them winning this season's 'Pool of Death'. The fact they had to play and beat previous champions Leinster and Bath, as well as meet the reigning champions Toulon once again, to get into the last eight spoke volumes about their advance.
Not that the Chiefs have been sitting on their hands this season. They emerged triumphant from a pool that included the Ospreys, Bordeaux-Begles and ASM Clermont Auvergne – they picked up a bonus point against each and every one of them at Sandy Park.
They currently lie in second place in the Premiership behind Saracens, two points ahead of Wasps, and look set for their first play-off since rising from the Championship in 2010. They are a side that has come a very long way in an incredibly short space of time, but you write off Rob Baxter's men at your peril!
Included among the coaching ranks is a man who knows exactly what it takes to win the top prize in European club rugby, the former Northampton Saints outside half Ali Hepher, and he can't wait for the quarterfinal to come around.
"We've got a big week coming up – it's our first quarterfinal in the top competition, which is great for us, but we're not just turning up to have a laugh. It's important we knuckle down because we are capable of winning up there," said Hepher.
"We know that from earlier in the season, so we're excited about the opportunities. You only have to win three games and you win the lot, so we're not too far away."
Can the Chiefs really go all the way and provide the Premiership with their first European champion since Wasps won their second title in 2007? Perhaps it's not such a long shot.
They possess international players in every rank of the scrum and throughout their three-quarter line. Last weekend they had hat-tricks from their No.8 and their wing, showing they can play very effectively in different ways.
They'll need every variation in style they can conjure up at the Ricoh, where they notched three tries from driving line-outs in December, because Wasps possess pace, power and panache in abundance with a side that is among the most pleasing on the eye in Europe.
There is a massive prize at stake or both clubs, who meet again in the Premiership on May 1 and could then clash in the play-offs, with a semifinal against familiar opposition in either Saracens or Northampton Saints. Wasps have the history in Europe, and recent experience at this level, but the Chiefs have proved they fear no-one with their remarkable rise through the ranks.
This is going to be one of those games to sit back and savour – a potentially explosive European extravaganza that will contain plenty of skill, tries and points. Picking a winner, though, is almost impossible.
These two teams have never met in the Champions Cup.
Prediction: Wasps have won six of their last seven knockout matches in the Champions Cup including each of their last three against Premiership clubs. Wasps have won only three of their last six matches at home in the Champions Cup, this after winning 15 in a row before that. Exeter will be making their Champions Cup quarterfinal debut; they have won one of two quarterfinal appearances in the Challenge Cup. Exeter are the only club to reach this season's quarterfinals without winning an away fixture in the pool stage. Wasps' Charles Piutau (561) was the only player to make more than 500 metres in the pool stage. George Smith made more tackles than any other player in the pool stage (81). Exeter spent longer in possession than any side during the pool stage of the tournament, averaging 20 minutes and six seconds per game; no other team averaged more than 19 minutes in possession. Wasps conceded only two second half tries in the pool stage, the fewest of any team and seven fewer than Exeter (nine). Exeter (492 metres) and Wasps (486 metres) gained more metres than any other teams during the pool stage. Wasps scored four tries off scrums in the pool stage, the second most of any team and only one fewer than Scarlets (five). Both teams have played some great rugby this season, however home-ground advantage should see Wasps edge this one by seven points.
Wasps: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Siale Piutau, 11 Frank Halai, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 George Smith, 6 James Haskell (captain), 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Ashley Johnson, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Thomas Young, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Rob Miller.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (captain), 9 Will Chudley, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Don Armand, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Moray Low, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Dave Ewers, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Michele Campagnaro, 23 James Short.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland), Tual Trainini (France)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Saracens v Northampton Saints
(Allianz Park – Kick-off: 17.45; 16.45 GMT)
Jackson Wray is predicting a ferocious physical battle as old foes Saracens and Northampton fight it out for a place in the semifinals of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
The Premiership rivals will clash at Allianz Park on Saturday looking to move a step closer to a place in the May Final in Lyon.
Saracens are looking to secure the first Champions Cup in their history having been beaten finalists in 2014 and being knocked out at the semifinal stage last season.
Mark McCall's men were highly impressive in topping Pool One and advancing as top seeds with six wins from six in a section also including previous tournament winners Toulouse and Ulster.
Northampton, the 2000 winners, came through as runners-up in their tightly-contested pool, in which they faced Racing 92, Glasgow and the Scarlets.
Wray believes an extra edge will be added to domestic rivalries as European competition resumes at the business end of the season.
"It is going to be a huge physical challenge, it always is when you play against Northampton," he said.
"Any time we play them we know it is going to come down to winning that physical battle and the occasions we have beaten them have been occasions where we have done that and taken that platform away from it.
"It will be an interesting game. In Europe you would maybe expect to be playing a side you do not know quite so much about, but obviously we have played Northampton plenty of times so we know about them and they know plenty about us.
"I am sure it is going to be a great occasion at Allianz Park, it will be a passionate contest and it will be who can deliver in the heat of battle who will come out on top."
Given their status as two of the Premiership's big-hitters, Sarries and Saints have met in some crunch fixtures in recent years. The two clubs have clashed in dramatic Premiership finals and semifinals, but Wray is sure previous results will count for nothing this weekend.
"We have had some great battles with them in recent years. I remember us winning a Premiership semifinal and there was the Premiership final at Twickenham where they snuck it at the end of extra-time," said Wray.
"But this is a completely different game and no-one is going to be thinking too much about previous games going into this one. We lost to them in the league a few weeks ago but that was a completely different situation as both sides had players away in the Six Nations.
"We played well that day and we were unlucky to lose but, like I say, what has gone before does not really come into it. It is about the 80 minutes on the day."
These two teams have never met in the Champions Cup.
Prediction: This will be the first time the clubs have met in the Champions Cup, however, they met once in the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup in 2008/09 with Saints winning the semifinal meeting on home soil. Saracens were the only side to go undefeated through the pool stage; it was the first time they achieved such a feat in the competition. However, no club has won six out of six pool games and gone on to win the competition in the same season. Saracens have won four of their five quarterfinal appearances in the Champions Cup, although their one defeat came on home soil (v ASM Clermont Auvergne). This will be Northampton Saints' eighth quarterfinal appearance in the Champions Cup and their sixth away from home; they have progressed from just one of their five away quarterfinals. Saints have won six of their last nine away matches in the Champions Cup, though one of those losses came in last season's quarterfinal against Clermont. Come kick-off, it will have been 904 days since Saracens last lost a home match in the competition. Saracens scored 17 second half tries in the pool stage, the most of any team in the competition. Saracens made an average 10.5 clean breaks per game in the pool stage, the second most of any side and one of only three teams to average more than 10 (along with Ulster and Stade Francais). Saints gained fewer metres than any other team in the pool stage averaging 288 per game. Saracens have been unbeatable at home in the last two years. Their team is also littered with international stars – they should take it by at least 10 points.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jared Saunders, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Michael Rhodes, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Marcelo Bosch, 23 Ben Ransom.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden (captain), 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Ben Nutley, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Christian Day, 4 James Craig, 3 Paul Hill, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Reece Marshall, 17 Campese Ma'afu, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Michael Paterson, 21 Tom Kessell, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Harry Mallinder.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Sunday, April 10:
Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais
(Welford Road – Kick-off: 13.45; 14.45 French time; 12.45 GMT)
Leicester Tigers are out to make home advantage count once again when they clash with European Rugby Champions Cup pool rivals Stade Francais, for a coveted place in the semifinals.
The Anglo-French rivals meet at Welford Road this Sunday in a mouth-watering quarterfinal contest. It's one-all between the sides who finished first and second in Pool Four. Richard Cockerill's men got off to a flyer in Round One as they cruised to a bonus-point 33-20 victory over the Parisians and went on to win their next four fixtures.
But Stade head coach Gonzalo Quesada steered his side to a pair of wins over Benetton Treviso and a home triumph over Munster to setup an all-or-nothing clash with Leicester at Stade Jean Bouin. And the Paris side came out 36-21 victors to earn a deciding quarterfinal clash against the two-time European kings.
The Tigers have muscled their way into the top four of the Premiership with recent victories over Champions Cup quarterfinalists Saracens and Exeter Chiefs, though they have slipped to defeats at Sale and Wasps. Stade may not be in the frame to defend their Top 14 title, with just seven wins from their 20 matches, but they will be firing on all cylinders as European rugby returns.
And Leicester captain Ed Slater is expecting Stade to show their heavyweight class in an all-or-nothing clash in what will be the third meeting of the two sides in European this season.
"This match will be completely different to the one in the pool stages. It's a one-off game and that completely changes the mindset of the players. Luckily we managed to get home advantage which is important, and we want to make the most of that. But it's definitely going to be a big battle," said Slater.
"To be involved in these huge European knockout games is one of the main reasons you play rugby. I've been to three quarterfinals and hopefully we can go a step further this time. But we know it's going to be a huge test against a Stade Francais side with a dominant pack and firepower out-wide."
Leicester have reached two Finals – in 2007 and 2009 – since they became the first team to successfully defend the European Cup in 2001 and 2002 – beating Stade in the 2001 Final in Paris. Stade have finished runners-up on two occasions, and are looking to go all the way this year.
But head coach Quesada has a tough choice this weekend, whether to play South African star Morne Steyn his French playmaker Jules Plisson at No.10.
"It's a tough choice this weekend. Throughout the period where Jules was away with the France team, Morné played very well. Both have a very good kicking game, both are good in in defence, both play rugby we want to play them," said Quesada.
"Both work hard and have a great attitude. I wish that the two make a difference, like during the week, if one was late for training. Both are internationals but I cannot say."
2016: Stade Francais won 36-21, Paris
2015: Leicester Tigers win 33-20, Leicester
2007: Leicester Tigers won 21-20, Leicester (European Cup quarterfinal)
Prediction: This will be Leicester Tigers 11th contest against Stade Français Paris in the tournament including their 2001 Final victory at the Parc des Princes. Leicester have won three of their last four matches against Stade in the Champions Cup and have won four of five home matches against the TOP 14 club. Tigers have lost just one of their last 31 home matches and have won each of their last six matches on home soil in the Champions Cup. Stade Français have made the knockout stage for the first time since 2009/10 however, they have not won a quarterfinal match since 2004/05. Leicester won 87 line-outs in the pool stage, 93 percent of their total contested – the most wins and second highest win rate of any team in the competition. Tigers have lost their last three quarterfinal fixtures, each by margins of seven points or fewer; all three of those defeats came away from home. Stade have lost all four of their away quarterfinals in the Champions Cup, suffering a record defeat in the competition (16-42 v Toulouse) the last time they reached this stage in 2010. The Parisians had the best tackle success from the pool stage (91 percent), missing just 12 tackles per game on average. Stade have scored 12 tries from inside their own half this season, no other side has scored more than eight from the same distance. No team scored more tries from kick returns than Stade in the pool stage (five – level with Exeter). This is a tough one to call, however, the Tigers should pull through in the last quarter and take it by five points of less.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Mathew Tait (captain), 14 Telusa Veainu, 13 Peter Betham, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Lachlan McCaffrey, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Mike Fitzgerald, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Dom Barrow, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Harry Thacker, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Greg Bateman, 17 Logovi'i Mulipola, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Ed Slater, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Adam Thompstone.
Stade Français: 15 Djibril Camara, 14 Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Jérémy Sinzelle, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Julien Dupuy, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Raphaël Lakafia, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Alexandre Flanquart, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Remi Bonfils, 1 Zurabi Zhvania.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Paul Alo Emile, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Julien Tomas, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Hugo Bonneval.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Derek Bevan (Wales)
Racing 92 v RC Toulon
(Stade Yves-du-Manoir – Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
For the first time in their three-year reign, holders RC Toulon go into a European Rugby Champions Cup not as favourites.
Racing 92 have been steadily building a team and a squad capable of dethroning the three-time European champions, not least with the arrival of World Player of the Year Dan Carter.
And now many believe this could be the year that the Parisians finally take the biggest crown in European club rugby. Racing always knew if they were to become European champions, it was likely they were going to have to beat Toulon.
Victories over Northampton Saints, Glasgow Warriors and a record win over Scarlets meant Racing were already into the quarterfinals before losing their final pool match in Scotland.
They were rewarded with the tie they craved, home at the former Olympic venue Stade Colombes against their arch rivals from the south.
Yet it is easy to forget that this is only the second time Racing have reached this stage after they were knocked out of the quarterfinal by Saracens – at home – last season.
The arrival of Carter, among others, suggests Racing 92 are in a stronger position and insist they have learned the lessons of that painful defeat.
However, Carter and Racing were outshone by Frederic Michalak and Toulon in Paris less than two weeks ago.
Late tries by Wenceslas Lauret and Carter looked to have sealed a comeback win for Racing at Colombes only for Michalak to hold his nerve with a last-gasp penalty to snatch a 21-20 win.
Michalak is among several injury concerns this week for Toulon boss Bernard Laporte that includes Drew Mitchell and Bryan Habana while Leigh Halfpenny is not yet ready to return from his lengthy lay-off. However, there are hopes Matt Giteau may return.
That would prove a major lift for the champions who also suffered a late defeat, 18-19 to title rivals Clermont Auvergne last weekend.
Toulon stuttered through the pool stage following a record defeat at the hands of Wasps in the opening game and required late scores against both Bath and Wasps at Stade Felix Mayol to progress from a closely fought group.
And defeat to Clermont, that saw Toulon slip to fourth in the Top 14, left owner Mourad Boudjellal pessimistic as to their chances of progressing to the Champions Cup semifinals.
He said: "The match against Racing does not worry me because for me it is already lost. After the game [Clermont], I do not know how we could win. I got the idea of losing the European Cup. Colombes is perhaps not the most beautiful place to die but we will deal with it."
If they win, Racing will travel to either Leicester Tigers or face city rivals Stade Francais in Le Mans. Toulon will host either of those sides at the Allianz Arena in Nice as a reward for winning an away quarterfinal.
These two teams have never met in the Champions Cup.
Prediction: Racing 92 have won six of their last seven home games in the competition, however, the solitary defeat in that run came in their only knockout appearance in the competition against Saracens in last season's quarterfinal. Three-time winners RC Toulon have won all of their last nine knockout matches in the Champions Cup; their only loss came in their first quarterfinal against Perpignan in 2011. This will be Toulon's first away quarterfinal since that defeat against Perpignan in Barcelona, with their last three appearances at this stage all coming at home. Toulon have won their last two away fixtures in the Champions Cup; a third consecutive win would equal their best streak away from home in the competition. The holders have played five matches against Top 14 opposition in the Champions Cup with three wins. Racing conceded the fewest tries (six) of any team in the pool stage, and Toulon the second fewest (seven). Racing were the only team not to concede a single try in the opening half of a game during the pool stage. At 87 percent, Racing were the most accurate goal kickers in the pool stage with only two other teams managing to kick more than 80 percent of their goals (Clermont and Ulster). Racing (9.7) and RC Toulon (8.5) won more turnovers per game than any other teams in the campaign to date. Racing have been phenomenal all season, however, Toulon are starting to find form at the right time and should squeak it by five points or less.
Racing 92: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Johan Goosen, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (captain), 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Khatchik Vartanov, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Yannick Nyanga, 20 Manuel Carizza, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Marc Andreu.
Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 James O’Connor, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Jonathan Pélissié, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Charles Ollivlon, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Mamuka Gorgodze, 3 Manasa Paulo, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Florian Fresia.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Steffon Armitage, 20 Mathieu Bastareaud, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Éric Escande, 23 Thibault Lassale.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
AFP & @ChampionsCup