After a frantic weekend of Champions Cup action which saw the calculators dusted off to predict who would be facing who in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, we finally have our eight teams who will be going toe-to-toe for a place in the semi-finals.
It’s been one of the most exciting editions of the tournament thus far in recent memory, with defending champions Saracens, just about making it into the last eight. Leinster, who are undefeated, look to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy in Bilbao in May while Munster secured yet another quarter-final thanks to a rampant victory against Castres on Sunday.
Here we take a look at the remaining sides in the competition and their likelihood of lifting silverware in May. Before we do that, here’s a reminder of the quarter-final matchups.
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92
Leinster v Saracens
Munster v Toulon
Scarlets v La Rochelle
Toulon finished second in Pool 5 after they suffered two away losses to Bath at the Rec and to Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets. Although their squad is littered with international talent, they are not the same dominant force of old and they will have to travel to Limerick to take on Munster at their fortress Thomond Park.
They are capable of beating most sides on their day but we think a trip to Limerick to face the two-time European champions will be a step too far for the southern French side and they will likely have to refocus their attention on the Top 14 after the quarter-finals take place.
7. Racing 92
The Parisian outfit seems to have a more steely edge to them this season which is reflected by their promising league position and their back-to-back wins in the final two rounds of the Champions Cup against Munster and the Leicester Tigers. Donnacha Ryan’s fitness to Racing will be paramount to whether they progress in this competition or not with the former Munster man having a huge influence at the U-Arena and Welford Road over the last two weekends.
Laurent Labit’s side face a trip to old rivals Clermont Auvergne and although the Parisian outfit have had the better of their southern rivals domestically this season, a 58-6 win at the U-Arena in the Top 14 in January, Clermont have been starved of their best players throughout the campaign thanks to an awful run of injuries.
Clermont always seem to get to the business end of the competition and if they have their top players back, as expected, we think they will have the better of Racing at home in a competition which almost always favours the home side in the quarter-finals.
What is there to say about Mark McCall’s side? Some worrying form both domestically and in Europe seemed to be derailing their season but with the return of their top players from injury, they halted that slide by putting in some dominating performances in recent weeks.
Their clinching of a quarter-final spot means they will have to travel to Dublin to face Leinster at the Aviva Stadium and although Saracens will have no fear of that ground, beating Munster in the semi-final last season, we think Leinster are on another level and should be able to take apart a Saracens team who don’t look as good defensively as they did last year.
5. La Rochelle
The surprise package both in the Top 14 and in Europe, the west-coast based side seem to have sprung up from nowhere to provide a serious shake-up to the European elite. In doing so, they have produced a scintillating brand of rugby which has seen them score the most points in France’s top-flight.
Unfortunately for them, they face a trip to Wales to take on the PRO12 champions and Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets have proven their credentials by storming to the top of their Pool and their conference in the PRO14.
La Rochelle’s loss to Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium two weeks ago revealed some weaknesses which we think the Scarlets can exploit so we don’t think the French side will come out of Wales with a victory.
4. Clermont Auvergne
Clermont, this competition’s bridesmaid. They have been so close to clinching European honours in recent seasons but have come up short agonisingly on more than one occasion.
Like we said before, they should have many of their top players back when they welcome Racing 92 to their fortress that is the Stade Marcel Michelin and in front of a passionate and boisterous crowd, we think they will have the better of their Parisian rivals, albeit by a close margin.
Munster, despite hitting the headlines in recent weeks for off-the-field issues, not to mention the departure of Simon Zebo and a coaching upheaval which saw Johann van Graan and JP Ferriera come in for the departing Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber mid-season, they still secured a home quarter-final for the umpteenth time.
The southern province just loves this competition and with a new expansive attacking game plan coming together due to the arrival of Van Graan and the excellent Felix Jones, the Red Army should have enough to dispatch of French heavyweights, Toulon, at their fortress, Thomond Park.
Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable sides to watch over the past two seasons, Wayne Pivac has done absolute wonders with the Welsh region. We saw last season how they blitzed both Leinster and Munster on route to a PRO14 championship but this season we have seen them dig deep to grind out some impressive results, no more than their victory against Toulon at the weekend.
Pivac’s men face La Rochelle at home in a game which promises to be a try-fest but after seeing how La Rochelle performed up in Belfast two weeks ago, we think home advantage will be crucial here and the Scarlets can look forward to a semi-final.
Despite sending a make-shift side to southern France to take on Montpellier, Leo Cullen’s men were still a class above against a bruising outfit. Leinster are flying in the PRO14 and are the only side to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup with a 100% win record.
Considering their pool, which included the Premiership champions, Leinster made light-work over their opponents and are undoubtedly favourites to lift the Champions Cup in Bilbao come May.
Ironically, their top seeding resulted in a home clash against Saracens which could well be the standout match of the quarter-finals. Although Leinster may curse their luck that they have to welcome the reigning European champions we have seen this team win well in a variety of fashions this season and we expect they will have too much for Mark McCall’s outfit.
Leinster v Scarlets
Clermont Auvergne v Munster