Ahead of this weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-finals, we point out the players to keep an eye on across Europe’s premier competition…
Edinburgh vs Munster (Saturday, 12.45pm)
John Barclay (Edinburgh)
Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill has called on his players to go into a “full blown battle”, and if the are to spring an upset, they will have to front up and match the physical aspects of Munster’s game.
They fell short against the same opponents in last year’s Guinness PRO14 Final Series Qualifier while a depleted side were beaten at Musgrave Park in November, but John Barclay was absent that evening, with the back-rower still on his way back from Achilles surgery.
The 32-year-old came through 58 minutes unscathed and with a man of the match award in Edinburgh’s 28-11 win over Leinster last Friday – his comeback match and belated club debut – and with so many of these knockout occasions decided at the breakdown, Barclay – along with Hamish Watson and Viliame Mata – has a vital role to play.
Joey Carbery (Munster)
Munster’s route to a record 18th Champions Cup quarter-final has seen them successfully progress from a ‘Pool of Death’, comprised of Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester and Castres Olympique.
Joey Carbery starred in the opening win of their European campaign, scoring a try in the 36-22 bonus-point triumph over Gloucester at Thomond Park.
And the fly-half, who extended his Munster stay this week until 2022, scored two tries and landed all five conversions along with two penalties in January’s stunning 41-15 win over Gloucester at a sold-out Kingsholm.
The 23-year-old will need to produce another immaculate kicking display to silence the Murrayfield crowd.
Saracens vs Glasgow Warriors (Saturday, 3.15pm)
Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
The English champions will require ice-cool heads after Warriors head coach Dave Rennie’s claims of gamesmanship following two heated pool stage matches, but experienced referee Nigel Owens will be acutely aware of any skulduggery.
Billy Vunipola broke his arm playing against Glasgow in October, one of six Saracens player to sustain injuries that day, but he was back in the role of destroyer when the sides met in January, scoring a try in their 38-19 win at Allianz Park.
The England No 8 made a winning return to the Saracens side in the 27-20 win over Harlequins, and was only denied a try to cap a fine display due to obstruction from the referee.
The 26-year-old has been in the news in recent weeks after his off-field antics with Ben Te’o following England’s collapse to draw with Scotland, as well being at the centre of a salary-cap investigation from Premiership Rugby.
But having looked back to his powerful best at the London Stadium, Vunipola will be glad for his rugby to take centre stage.
Callum Gibbins (Glasgow)
Glasgow have the chance to create history on Saturday when they look to reach the semi-finals of the Champions Cup for the very first time, and coach Rennie has outlined that defence will hold the key.
If Glasgow are to defend well, they are going to need a strong performance from their captain Callum Gibbins, who was forced to miss the last encounter due to an ankle injury.
The Kiwi flanker has called on his team-mates to retain possession whilst remaining disciplined in what is expected to be another hostile environment.
Gibbins said: “The key is holding onto the ball and looking after it. You’ve got to do things well and be accurate, across the whole team. The last time out in the PRO14, our handling errors were up around 10 or 12. We need to bring them down below 10.”
If Gibbins’ words are put into actions, Glasgow could land their historic moment.
Leinster vs Ulster (Saturday, 5.45pm)
James Ryan (Leinster)
It was a little under a year ago when James Ryan could consider himself a European Champions Cup winner as well as a Six National Grand Slam hero, and his stock has only continued to soar this season.
The Blackrock-born lock is just 22-years-old, but such has been his importance for both Ireland and Leinster, he has been wrapped in cotton wool before big games for both club and country in recent times, with Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt mindful of the player’s workload.
Ryan was rested for the Six Nations win over Italy last month, while he has also previously sat out a Test against the US, which is a nod to the huge shift he puts in when he is on the pitch.
Cullen will welcome back his Ireland internationals this weekend following the 28-11 defeat to Edinburgh in the PRO14, and Ryan will be expected to play all 80 minutes.
Should he produce his usual high, accurate tackle counts as well as carries, Ulster should suffer beyond just the breakdown.
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
Leinster may be overwhelming favourites to reach the semi-finals, but in Jacob Stockdale, Ulster arrive at the Aviva Stadium with one of the game’s most devastating finishers.
Jordan Larmour has warned his Leinster team-mates of Stockdale’s “world-class” pedigree after being in close proximity with his direct opponent at Carton House during the Six Nations with Ireland.
He said: “I suppose whenever he’s on the starting team I’m on the bibs. Training against him, he’s a quality player, he’s world class and some of the tries he scores are a bit of a joke.”
Stockdale’s rugby intelligence means he is equally adept at chipping over defences as well as going through them. In short, he is capable of scoring from anywhere.
His six tries in six Champions Cup games this campaign helped Dan McFarland’s men out of a pool that included Racing 92, Leicester and Scarlets, and Leinster will be on red alert in Dublin.
Racing 92 vs Toulouse (Sunday, 3.25pm)
Simon Zebo (Racing 92)
When Simon Zebo left Munster to head for the bright lights of Paris last summer, Racing 92 handed him a fairly hefty pay rise, but the move now looks good value for money with the Ireland back having been in electric form for his club.
Last weekend, Racing were labouring in the opening 25 minutes at home to Bordeaux Belges when it was Zebo who kick-started their revival, breaking through the French defence to set up Donnacha Ryan to score out on the wing.
Having shown his trademark tidy footwork, the 29-year-old landed a try of his own with seven minutes remaining as Bordeaux were eventually beaten by 18 points in the Top 14 on Sunday.
While a return to the international fold is unlikely, his stellar performances in this year’s Champions Cup for the 2018 finalists – including five tries in the pool stage – make him a vital cog in this Racing side.
Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)
Racing will have to come up with a game plan to nullify the threat of Cheslin Kolbe this weekend, with the Toulouse winger’s quick feet and acceleration resulting in tries that have deservedly placed him among the nominees for European Player of the Year.
Leinster were the last team to beat Toulouse back in early January, and despite this being an all-French affair, the increased atmosphere, speed and emotion of the occasion will turn a spotlight on game-changers such as Kolbe.