There will be two intriguing Champions Cup semi-finals this weekend, but what are the pointers that could decide the ties? Read on...
By Alex Shaw
The northern hemisphere season begins its final countdown towards conclusion this weekend, as the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-finals come to town.
The festivities begin on Saturday in Reading, as Saracens take on Wasps in an all-English affair at the Madejski Stadium, before Leicester Tigers make the short trip up the M1 to Nottingham on Sunday, where they will clash with Racing 92 at the City Ground.
Below we take a look at seven big talking points ahead of the two games.
Saracens vs Wasps (Saturday 23rd April, 15:00 KO)
Will Saracens’ aggressive defence hold up?
There are whispers in North London that since Paul Gustard departed for his role with England, the shine has begun to come off Saracens’ once-vaunted defence. It is still effective, but it has certainly become more fallible, particularly in open play and when the Londoners are not camped on their own try line.
The likes of Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell and Duncan Taylor will be key to stopping Wasps’ high-octane attack on Saturday. The footwork, acceleration and speed of thought of Wasps’ back line is as good as any in Europe and that matches up nicely with the pressure that Saracens’ defensive line likes to put on. Prepare for a bruising encounter.
Smith, Haskell and co to reign at the breakdown?
With George Smith, James Haskell and the rapidly-rising Thomas Young in the Wasps 23, the side from Coventry are not short of a difference-maker or two at the breakdown. They will go head-to-head with the brutal and brutal clearing out of Maro Itoje, Michael Rhodes and Jackson Wray, making for another hugely enticing battle between the two sides.
If Saracens favour themselves at the set-piece and Wasps back themselves with ball-in-hand, the breakdown could be the swing factor in this game.
Mullan versus du Plessis
Having said that Saracens may back themselves at the set-piece, Wasps’ Matt Mullan could have very different ideas. The former Worcester loosehead has had another fine season and has only been kept out of England reckoning by the well-entrenched duo of Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler.
If Mullan watched the contest between Mark Lambert and Petrus du Plessis last week at Wembley, he should be filled with confidence that he can cause the South African plenty of problems at the Madejski. With all due respect to Lambert, Mullan is a more formidable scrummager and a man that Saracens should identify as a threat prior to this game.
Leicester Tigers vs Racing 92 (Sunday 24th April, 15:15 KO)
Can Leicester turn the City Ground into Welford Road?
There’s no underestimating the advantage it is for Leicester having to travel just 40 minutes up the road for this semi-final meeting. Tigers fans have always travelled well, all over Europe, so the short trip to Nottingham shouldn’t faze them in the slightest and anything less than a home crowd atmosphere at the City Ground will be a disappointment for Leicester. Riding that swell of support could be a decisive factor in a match that looks extremely well-balanced on paper.
Time for Racing to dispel l’esprit de clocher
For so long, French rugby has been defined by its formidable nature at home and its tendency to drop its own banana skin, then proceed to slip on it, when on its travels. Thanks to the influx of foreign players into the Top 14 this has gradually begun to change, with Toulon and Montpellier in particular showing their ability to win away from home in recent times, but even they are still subject to the odd comedy of errors on the road.
Racing have developed a new-found maturity this season and, as evident in their victory over Toulon in the quarter-finals, they are now well-equipped to come out on top in the tight, tense games. Even with a much larger core of French players than Toulon or Montpellier, Racing will need to show that, as a club, it’s no longer defined by l’esprit de clocher.
Momentum versus fresh legs
Leicester kept a full-strength XV for the East Midlands derby last weekend and will now be riding the momentum that that important victory at Franklin’s Gardens gave them. Racing, however, rested most of their first choice players for their trip to Toulouse, losing 14-3 in the process.
Will those fresher legs give Racing an advantage in the final 20 minutes on Sunday or will Leicester use their momentum and coherency from consistent selections to get on top early and stay that way throughout the match? Both arguments have their merits but only time will tell which coach made the right call.
Leicester cannot overlook Dan Carter’s back line colleagues
It would be remiss not to mention the iconic Dan Carter at least once and whilst he is still a player who can turn matches in an instant, Leicester cannot afford to focus solely on the former All Black. The Racing back line is littered with game-changers, including the dangerous back three of Juan Imhoff, Brice Dulin and Joe Rokocoko, as well as the highly-effective Johan Goosen.
Given the attention on Carter in the media this week, you could be forgiven for thinking the French side’s hopes rest solely on his shoulders. If Leicester fall into the trap of thinking stopping Carter stops Racing, they will be in for a rude awakening on Sunday.
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here