Five English sides and three French sides will battle it out this weekend for a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, but who will emerge victorious? RW puts its neck on the guillotine...
By Alex Shaw
The stage is set this weekend for the return of European rugby, with the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals looming large amidst a packed sporting calendar.
The ball gets rolling on Saturday when Exeter Chiefs make the trip up to the Ricoh Arena to take on Wasps, before Saracens play host to Northampton Saints later in the day. On Sunday, Stade Français head to fortress Welford Road to play Leicester Tigers in what should be a particularly fierce Anglo-French affair, and then the weekend’s action concludes with the all-French clash of Racing 92 and Toulon at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir.
We take a look at each of the match-ups in more detail below.
Wasps vs Exeter Chiefs (Saturday 9th April, 15.15pm KO)
Both teams are in fine form, coming into the game on the back of highly impressive victories in the Aviva Premiership, with Wasps completing their first double over Northampton in over a decade and Exeter moving through the gears against Worcester, racking up eight tries in a 50-12 victory. The two sides lead the Premiership in tries scored and whilst a match of this magnitude will undoubtedly see them both tighten up a little, it still should offer plenty of ambitious moments and opportunities for expansive play.
Exeter are one of the few teams to have troubled Wasps at the Ricoh, beating them 41-27 earlier in the season in a match that saw Thomas Waldrom score a hat-trick. The number eight has been in lethal form off the base of driving mauls and if Wasps want to advance to the semi-finals, disrupting Exeter’s lineout should be at the top of their list of priorities. Enter, Joe Launchbury.
Launchbury was ousted at international level by the highly-impressive duo of Maro Itoje and George Kruis during the Six Nations and a European quarter-final is the perfect stage to begin his push for a return to England’s starting XV. The lock will need to prevent Exeter’s driving lineout getting a foothold in the game, either by disrupting the throw in the air or the maul as it is being formed.
Speaking of countering the opposition’s strengths, the ability of Jack Nowell as a counter-attacker and broken field runner will be just as key to Exeter. He scythed his way through Worcester last weekend, maintaining his strong form from the Six Nations. Wasps have no qualms about putting the ball through the hands, attempting to stretch opposition defences, and Nowell will relish that space if any poor kicks or turnover ball come his way.
Prediction – Wasps are playing some inspired rugby this season, not least so in European competition, but they do have form in struggling to stop the driving lineout, which is the basis of Exeter’s attacking game plan. As a result, the Chiefs have a fantastic chance of upsetting the odds with an away win. Exeter by 3.
Saracens vs Northampton Saints (Saturday 9th, 17.45pm KO)
Saracens were the form team in Europe heading into the Six Nations and though that momentum dropped a little with their plethora of players away on international duty, the North Londoners looked back to their very best during their recent victories over Exeter and Bath. All misconceptions of conservatism have been blown away by Mark McCall’s men this season and with their test players back in the fold, Saracens are feeding off their aggressive defensive pressure and using it as a foundation for their extremely clinical attacking play.
Northampton’s form has improved over the course of the season and they have dragged themselves up into the hunt for a playoff spot in the Premiership. Their 20-15 victory over Saracens at Allianz Park during the Six Nations will give them confidence heading into this fixture, but there’s no doubting that they will be facing a very different Saracens side this weekend. One positive for Saints is that they are one of the few teams that can go toe-to-toe with Saracens physically and the arm wrestle in the pack should be worth the admission fee alone.
Just like Saracens’ now redundant conservative tag, Owen Farrell has shaken off his critics this season, conducting the Saracens back line with grace and precision. The club doesn’t get the credit for their expansive play that clubs like Wasps do, but that’s because they spend less time doing it. Farrell has spearheaded a back line that regularly scores just a phase or two after going wide, rather than having to recycle and keep going sideline to sideline. He will need to be at his best to unlock a stubborn Northampton defence that has conceded a Premiership-low 28 tries this season.
Ben Foden can be the difference-maker for Northampton in this clash. Beyond the fact he will enjoy the firm track of the 4G pitch at Allianz Park, his role coming into the back line on attack will be key for Saints. Saracens’ defence elicits plenty of territory by rushing up on the channel between the second and third receiver, often forcing that second receiver to run back inside towards the waiting Saracens pack, lest he risk throwing the intercept. If Foden can keep his depth and provide an alternative passing target for Northampton’s second receiver, beyond the reaches of Saracens’ blitzing defender, it could unlock the home side’s defensive system.
Prediction – As well as Northampton have done to turnaround their season, Saracens are just too effective right now. The Londoners have been the team to beat in the competition so far and it’s difficult to see that changing. Saracens by 10.
Leicester Tigers vs Stade Français (Sunday 10th April, 13.45pm KO)
Anglo-French affairs are spicy at the best of times but with Stade sitting at 12th in the Top 14 and their domestic season in tatters, this trip to Welford Road offers them their only hope of salvaging something from their miserable 2015/16 campaign. The Parisian side still has its fair share of game-winners but given their spotty discipline record and efforts on the road this season, the advantage certainly seems to be with the team from the East Midlands.
The Tigers have already beaten Stade at Welford Road this season, triumphing 33-20 in Round 1 of the competition and their self-belief in their ability to attack and score tries has certainly increased since then, thanks largely to the tutelage of Aaron Mauger. Leicester have evolved into a team that can beat you with a tight game or a loose game and they are a better side for that, particularly when they effectively combine the two.
The Tigers may be evolving but they still, quite rightfully, put plenty of focus on their set-piece. If Dan Cole can subdue the Stade scrum and deny them a source of penalties and points in that area, then it should go a long way to helping secure a Leicester win. If Cole can also chime in with a turnover or two, Leicester’s prospects in this match will be even brighter.
Jonathan Danty may not have had the Six Nations that many were predicting following his stellar club form for Stade, but he is still a player capable of wrecking defensive game plans. Stade will need him to punch holes in Leicester’s defensive line for 80 minutes, as well as charging him with containing Manu Tuilagi, who is returning to form and fitness in frighteningly quick fashion.
Prediction – Stade have nothing to lose at this point in their season and they should head to Welford Road prepared to leave it all out on the pitch. A loss effectively ends their season and that’s very effective motivation, but the Tigers should have enough about them to see off their old rivals. Leicester by 7.
Racing 92 vs Toulon (Sunday 10th April, 16.15 KO UK time)
Neither team has had the best of preparations for this game. A rested Racing team were humbled, 60-7, by Montpellier a few weeks ago, before they lost the dress rehearsal to this game, 20-21, to Toulon a fortnight ago, albeit in a game that was staged in Lille rather than Paris. Toulon, meanwhile, come into the game on the back of a ‘home’ loss – the game was played in Marseille – to rivals Clermont Auvergne and comments from Mourad Boudjellal that the game is “already lost” for him. The Toulon players have likely learnt to take what their club’s owner says with a pinch of salt, but it’s still far from ideal.
The air of European invincibility around Toulon has fallen this season and in the microcosm of this competition, Racing’s performances have certainly been more impressive than Toulon’s. Along with Saracens, the Parisian side has been leading the way in Europe and, like the side from London, has developed the perfect balance of powerful, energy-sapping forward play and clinical attacking from the back line.
It’s hard to look beyond Dan Carter here. Questions were raised before his arrival as to how big a role he would play for Racing and was his signing more about shirt sales than on-field performances, but he has dispelled all doubts with a stellar first campaign in Paris. Whether he’s at 10 or 12, he’s still pulling all of Racing’s strings and hasn’t lost a step since he was lifting the Rugby World Cup with New Zealand last year. Rugby’s very own galácticos could be undone by the biggest galáctico of them all.
From one RWC-winning All Black to another, Ma’a Nonu needs to run rampant over his former teammate. No one is expecting an exhibition of free-flowing rugby in this match and when the ball gets out to Nonu, he needs to break the gain-line. If he can get the Racing defence retreating and help provide quick, front-foot ball for the likes of Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper, Toulon can confound their owner’s pessimistic prophesising.
Prediction – Put Boudjellal’s comments and l’esprit de clocher to one side and Toulon have a squad that is eminently capable of beating Racing. It is packed with world class individuals who have won all over the world. That said, Racing have become a very effective team over the past two seasons and with home advantage on their side, they end Toulon’s bid to win four European titles in a row. Racing by 5.
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