Ahead of a mouth-watering pair of Champions Cup semi-finals this weekend – with 12 European titles between the four sides – we take a look at what to watch out for…
Europe’s two most successful ever sides Leinster and Toulouse (four titles each) face each other for a place in the final on Easter Sunday, while before that, Saracens and Munster (two titles each) clash on Saturday, with all four looking to book a place at St James’ Park in Newcastle for the final on May 11.
It’s arguably the greatest semi-final lineup in the competition’s history. Here’s what to keep an eye on…
Munster’s history-making semi-final tilt
For a record 14th time in history, Munster will step out as one of the best four remaining sides in Europe on their quest to experience the Holy Grail of European club rugby again.
No other side has made the semi-finals as often, with Munster having appeared there consistently since the 1999/2000 season – 14 times in 19 years en route to two European crowns, two final defeats and 10 semi-final losses (now six in a row) – invariably away from Ireland.
On Saturday, Munster will once again be on their travels as they head to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena to face reigning Premiership champions Saracens, with the latest crop of players in red seeking to emulate the feats of the victorious sides of 2006 and 2008.
Munster and Saracens met at this same stage two years ago in Dublin, with the English outfit too strong that year, winning 26-10 as they went on to clinch the cup with victory over Clermont at Murrayfield.
Have Munster improved enough to challenge Sarries more on this occasion?
Spotlight on Billy?
One of the major stories in the rugby world for the past fortnight has been the social media conduct of Australia full-back Israel Folau – and Rugby Australia’s forthcoming response to give notice of their intention to terminate his contract.
Folau posted anti-LGBT material on Twitter and Instagram, expressing his belief that homosexuals will ‘go to hell unless they repent’.
Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola ‘liked’ the post, refused to ‘unlike it’ and then sent out a post on Instagram expressing sympathy for Folau’s views.
Vunipola’s importance to both Saracens and England is considerable, with both sides vastly different propositions when he is on the pitch. But could this situation impact his display? The spotlight will be on him for sure.
Munster without Carbery
The last time Munster faced Saracens at this stage, their most influential player by a considerable margin at that point, Conor Murray, missed the game due to a neck concern.
Now, two years on, Munster’s top performer in Europe this season, Joey Carbery, will miss the game due to a hamstring complaint.
The Irish province must wonder what they have to do to arrive at the semi-final stage with their first-choice XV in tact – last season, they were missing new signings Chris Farrell and Chris Cloete for their semi-final clash with Racing 92 in France – one they lost 27-22.
Carbery’s absence is a monumental blow for Munster, and with Tyler Bleyendaal starting and JJ Hanrahan on the bench, they will be under massive pressure to fill the void and perform. Can they deliver?
Leinster in Dublin…again
Like Munster, Leinster have a superb semi-final record in Europe too, with the men in blue having appeared in 11 – and 10 since 2003.
While Munster have very often been on their travels though (10 away from 14), Leinster have remained within Dublin for a hefty amount of their semi-finals: seven from 11 have been in the Irish capital.
And the Irish province have often profited from changes to the EPCR’s rules and draws. Were last season’s semi-final qualification regulations in affect this year for example, where away quarter-final victories were rewarded, Leinster would be facing Toulouse in France.
But with the rules having changed to reward competition seedings, Leinster will play in the Aviva Stadium once again – the venue for their shaky quarter-final win over Ulster this year, and the venue for their quarter-final and semi-final wins over Saracens and Scarlets last year.
An undoubted advantage, will it see Leinster to another final? The province have never lost one of those once they’ve got there.
Toulouse’s sparkling backs
Standing in Leinster’s way is a revitalised and youthful Toulouse.
For so long the kings of Europe (three titles by 2005 and another in 2010) and the bedrock of French rugby, Stade Toulousain have not competed in the final four of the European Cup since 2011 – a year when Leinster knocked them out in Dublin.
Absent from the top table of Europe for so long, Ugo Mola and Regis Sonnes’ Toulouse charges exploded back onto the scene this season with a series of stunning displays of attacking rugby.
Springbok back Cheslin Kolbe is one of the most in-form players in world rugby at present, while Romain Ntamack, Maxime Medard, Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune, Lucas Tauzin, Yoann Huget and outstanding scrum-half Antoine Dupont have each lit up the European Cup at points this season from October to now.