After taking a mid-season hiatus, the European Rugby Champions Cup returns this weekend with a very intriguing quarter-final line-up.
Perhaps the most hotly contested tie will be between Leinster and Wasps, two sides who are known for playing entertaining running rugby and top the tournament’s try-scoring charts with 28 and 31 touchdowns respectively. Indeed, Leinster’s total is made all the more impressive considering they didn’t face Italian opposition in their pool.
In an interesting sub-plot, Marty Moore looks set to take on his former club. A big scrummaging performance from the bench against either of Ireland’s premier looseheads could make Joe Schmidt sit up and take note ahead of Ireland’s summer tour of North America and Japan.
Conversely for Wasps, the fixture represents an indicator of the progress they have made in recent seasons. The two-time European Champions have invested a huge amount of money so as to put themselves in a position to win in Dublin, and any such victory would be an endorsement of Derek Richardson’s ownership.
The Glasgow Warriors feature in the knock-out phase for the first time, and the task facing Gregor Townsend’s team is stark. Saracens might have suffered defeats at the hands of the Worcester Warriors, Gloucester and Leicester Tigers in recent weeks, but the return of their international players should make the holders far too strong for the Warriors.
Munster’s revival under Rassie Erasmus should continue against a Toulouse side that looks completely out of sorts. Currently lying in 10th place on the Top 14 table, the four-time champions could not only miss out on the end of season play-offs, but qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup.
Indeed, the last time the French aristocrats played Munster in Thomond Park, they suffered a massive 47-23 defeat at the same stage of the competition in 2014.
Finally, Clermont have the opportunity to rub salt into Toulon’s wounds this weekend. Despite winning their last title in 2015, Mourad Boudjellal’s team have struggled in recent seasons, and have fallen off the pace in both the Top 14 and Champions Cup. Although the gap between the sides might not be as wide as Clermont’s 30-6 win over Toulon last January suggests, Mike Ford and Richard Cockerill have not been able to turn
Although the gap between the sides might not be as wide as Clermont’s 30-6 win over Toulon last January suggests, Mike Ford and Richard Cockerill have not been able to improve the form of the three-time European champions.
Struggled through the pool stages and limped into the knock-out phase on 16 points after losing three games. The uncertainty surrounding the future of the coaching ticket, and Boudjellal’s insistence on signing players who might not fit the squad has not helped Toulon’s cause.
Although they might progress under a coach such as Fabien Galthié next season, for now Toulon look to be the weakest of this season’s quarter-finalists. They lack balance in the backrow, a presence in the second row, and don’t appear to have much control at half-back.
Despite being regarded as European rugby royalty, Toulouse have failed to make an impact on the competition since winning the then Heineken Cup in 2010.
Although Toulouse possess a monster pack, they look particularly vulnerable when playing against teams who employ a high tempo attacking strategy. Both Connacht and Wasps were able to exploit their lack of pace and poor physical conditioning during the pool phase.
Indeed, had the Irish side been a little more patient in possession during the final quarter of their defeat at the hands of Toulouse in the Stade Ernest Wallon, Connacht might well have claimed a place in the last eight of this season’s competition.
6. Glasgow Warriors
Despite having some of the most exciting ball players in the competition, the Glasgow Warriors have suffer at the hands of teams who can suffocate them upfront.
Munster, for example, kept hold of the ball against the Warriors in Scotstoun by taking it around the corner with their powerful ball carriers, denying the likes of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour the front foot ball they crave.
Consequently, while Gregor Townsend’s side maybe a dangerous side in possession, they have vulnerabilities that each of the remaining sides in the competition can benefit from.
Given the array of attacking talent at their disposal, Wasps will arrive into Dublin confident that they will be able to overcome Leinster in the Aviva Stadium. The current Premiership table-toppers have been irresistible with ball in hand this season, scoring a remarkable 73 tries in 18 games.
However, they have also conceded 49, which must be worrying for Dai Young as his side prepares for the business end of the season. Furthermore, their scrum has come under serious pressure this campaign, with Connacht in particular being able to milk penalties from the set piece.
This will certainly be a worry for Wasps fans this weekend given that Leinster will field the formidable Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong.
The progress Munster have made under Rassie Erasmus has been nothing short of spectacular. This time last year the Reds faced a struggle to even qualify for this season’s Champions Cup and looked to have fallen off Europe’s top table.
However, Erasmus has instilled a ferocious work ethic into is side, as evidenced by their defensive displays this season. Munster have also channelled all of the emotion connected with the tragic passing of Anthony Foley, using it to generate positive performances on the field.
Their set piece has improved immeasurably under the South African, with John Ryan and Niall Scannell benefiting from the coaching of Erasmus.
Few teams in Europe have the ability to deal with Clermont’s attacking threat. Despite being drawn into what looked to be a very competitive pool, the French side claimed five try bonus points in six games.
In fact, some of the rugby they played was nothing short of scintillating, with Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Remi Lamerat, Noa Nakaitaci, David Strettle and Nick Abendanon all illustrating their attacking prowess.
However, question marks remain over their defence. Despite scoring the second highest number of points in the pool phase (211), they conceded 131, the highest number recorded by any of the quarterfinalists.
Even though Clermont’s 39-32 defeat to Ulster in round three was one of the most entertaining games seen anywhere this season, it nonetheless demonstrated weaknesses in their approach.
Although he may have been shoehorned into the Leinster coaching set-up, Stuart Lancaster’s impact has been immediate.
Since joining the Irish province, Leinster have improved every aspect of their game, with a particular focus on handling skills and technique at the breakdown evident.
Furthermore, the three-time Champions have blooded some exciting young players such as Joey Carberry, Adam Byrne and Dan Leavy, who have all added to the depth available to Leo Cullen and Lancaster.
The current title holders remain the team to beat this season, Despite losing a number of Premiership fixtures in recent weeks, Sarries welcomed back their international contingent and have both Vunipola brothers at their disposal following injury.
While some have criticised Saracens for being a kick-chase team in the past, nothing can be further from the truth in 2017. Indeed, their performance away to Toulon on the opening weekend of the tournament illustrated just how skilful their players are with ball in hand and how they now look to exploit space rather than look for contact.
Backed up by a strong set-piece, only a handful of sides have the ability to trouble Saracens at the moment.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena