Preview: Champions Cup, quarterfinals
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Reigning European club kings Saracens will hope home advantage holds good when they welcome Glasgow to north London for a Champions Cup quarterfinal this weekend.
In the past three seasons, all but two of the 12 quarterfinals have gone the way of the home side, with only Saracens themselves providing the exceptions.
Saracens, also the current English title-holders, are bidding for a 'double-double'.
Last week, with Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Billy and Mako Vunipola and Jamie George were back in the side after they all helped England win the Six Nations, Saracens thrashed Bath 53-10.
But Glasgow produced one of the all-time great European shocks in hammering Leicester 43-0 at the former European champions' home ground in the pool phase.
Glasgow are also less likely to be worried by the artificial surface at Saracens' Allianz Park ground given they too play their home games on a 'plastic' pitch.
"They have got a lot of threats, they are exciting and have backs that can punish you," said England centre Farrell of Glasgow.
"With [Finn] Russell, [Stuart] Hogg and [Ali] Price pulling the strings for the team, they can make something out of nothing."
The Scottish side will, however, be without Tim Swinson after the lock's red card for a swinging arm tackle in a Pro12 match against Connacht was upheld.
Even before Swinson's ban, Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend was well aware of just how tough it would be to defeat Saracens.
"We know how good they are because they haven't lost a game in Europe for two years," Townsend told the Guardian.
"This will be the ultimate challenge," added Townsend, who will take over as Scotland coach at the end of the season.
Plenty of international talent will also be on display when the quarterfinals start Saturday with Irish province Leinster up against England's Wasps.
Both clubs top their respective domestic leagues - the Pro12 and the Premiership.
In Ireland flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, Leinster have the likely No.10 for the British and Irish Lions in their upcoming tour of New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Leinster's Garry Ringrose, Sean O'Brien and Devin Toner will be looking to press their case, with Wasps also having Lions hopefuls in Elliot Daly, Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Joe Launchbury.
No wonder former England head coach Stuart Lancaster, now a member of Leinster's backroom staff, said: "If you are a Lions coach you would certainly be looking at games like these where you have a Daly and a Ringrose, Joe Launchbury and Toner."
Saturday's second quarterfinal sees another Irish province, Munster, up against French giants Toulouse.
Between them, the two sides have won six European titles.
For Munster, the continued desire to honour former coach Anthony Foley, who died suddenly before a Champions Cup pool match in October, will doubtless help fuel an emotional atmosphere at Thomond Park.
"It had a galvanising effect that changed everything," former Munster and Ireland flyhalf Tony Ward told AFP this week of the impact of Foley's death on the current side.
Toulouse are set to be without several players through injury, including France duo Yann David and Christopher Tolofua.
The quarterfinals conclude with an all-French clash between Clermont and Toulon, the three-times European champions, on Sunday.
If any side can buck the trend of home wins in European knockout rugby, it could be Toulon.
Yet when they last visited Clermont in January, Toulon lost 6-30 and this weekend they are set to be without injured Australian playmaker Matt Giteau.
Saturday, April 1:
Leinster v Wasps:
(Aviva Stadium - Kick-off: 15.15; 14.15 GMT)
Leinster host Wasps at a sold-out Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday in what looks set to be a European Rugby Champions Cup quarterfinal classic.
The two teams - who met in the pool stages of last year's competition - clash at the home of Irish rugby in a game which will see two attack-minded teams go head-to-head.
Wasps sit top of the Premiership, while Leinster lead the way in the Pro12, summing up both side's impressive form so far this term. Leo Cullen's men will be without two of their key Irish internationals, but are in confident mood ahead of playing in front of a partisan home crowd.
"Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip are definitely out for the next few weeks, but other than that we're in pretty good shape," said Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
"Jamie has had an operation on his back, but Johnny Sexton is fit and available.
"Johnny has had some big games for Leinster, even though he's not had a great run of matches this season. When he has played, he has been excellent and I thought one of his best games for us was against Montpellier at the RDS.
"Defensively Wasps are a tough team to play against and in attack they're a real threat. I think we've scored around 79 tries this season and they're very close to that. It's two attack minded teams going head-to-head.
"Both teams have dangerous players, but we need to concede four tries or less to win the game.
"With the Irish players coming back into our side it will add an extra edge to us. To have sold 48 000 tickets for a club match at the Aviva Stadium is incredible really. It's going to be a great occasion, but Leinster have been in this position before. You can see the big players stepping up this week.
"Wasps have a pretty unique way of playing. If we let them have the ball for long periods or turn it over, they will punish you on the counterattack."
Wasps thrashed Leinster twice last season, scoring more than 50 points in the game in Coventry.
This is likely to be a different story, with things expected to be much tighter between two teams boasting a host of international stars.
Lancaster added: "It's important to learn from what happened last year and the mistakes we made to allow those kind of scores. But we are a different team to last year and a lot has happened since then.
"The Aviva is right up there with the most intimidating stadiums in world rugby. We're looking forward to playing there in the first European quarterfinal of the weekend.
"Hopefully we can set the benchmark for the other teams to follow."
Dai Young's Wasps head to Dublin in fine fettle and intent on making another semifinal.
Last year's competition saw the Ricoh Arena outfit lose to eventual winners Saracens in the last four, but this season they have a host of star players in excellent form.
England pair Joe Launchbury and Elliot Day are just two of those.
Wasps captain Launchbury said: "We've got a squad who have worked extremely hard to get into this position. We've got ourselves out of a very tough pool, there were times when we weren't favourites to get out of it, so we want to do ourselves justice now.
"Leinster have obviously got some key players in their team. They have quality throughout. You look at a player like Johnny Sexton and the influence he has on a team. For us as a team it's more exciting than anything else. It's a chance for us to go out there on a big stage and show what we can do.
"We've worked hard to get ourselves here, we've had a few big games over the last couple of years that we can draw on as experience and we want to keep having these big games.
"To go to the Aviva and get a win would be huge for us."
Prediction: This will be the eighth meeting between the clubs in the European Cup. Wasps hold the head-to-head advantage having won four of the previous seven. Wasps won both pool stage matches against Leinster last season, and their 51-10 victory at the Ricoh Arena remains Leinster's heaviest European defeat. Leinster won their three home games in the pool stage by an average margin of 40 points, while Wasps won just one of their three away games. Saturday will be Wasps' 100th fixture in the European Cup. The 2004 and '07 winners are the 12th club to reach a century of matches. Leinster scored the most tries and points in the pool stage with 31 and 227 respectively, and their captain, Isa Nacewa, is the leading try scorer with six. This is the seventh time Wasps have reached the knockout stage. Leinster have qualified for the knockout stage for the 12th time and have won five of their last six quarterfinal matches. The three-time champions won all 35 scrums on their own feed in the pool stage, and were the only side with 100 percent success rate. Wasps, by contrast, had the lowest scrum success rate. Of the 72 players to make 40+ carries in the pool stage only Montpellier's Nemani Nadolo (9.6) had a better average gain per carry than Wasps' Josh Bassett (8.8 metres). Wasps will edge it by it five points or less.
Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (captain), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Seán O’Brien, 6 Dan Leavy, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Fergus McFadden, 23 Zane Kirchner.
Wasps: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Jimmy Gopperth, 11 Willie Le Roux, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Thomas Young, 6 James Haskell, 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Joe Launchbury (captain), 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Matt Mullan.
Replacements: 16 Ashley Johnson, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Alex Rieder, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Alapati Leiua, 23 Josh Bassett.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Munster v Toulouse
(Thomond Park - Kick-off: 17.45; 16.45 GMT; 18.45 France Time)
A pair of European Rugby Champions Cup heavyweights are set to reignite an age-old rivalry when they collide at Thomond Park on Saturday.
Munster, who have won more European Cup games than any other side, welcome the most decorated side in the competition, Toulouse, for a mouthwatering quarterfinal clash. The old foes last met in the quarterfinals three years ago, and the hosts will be hoping for a repeat result.
Keith Earls, Christiaan Stander and Simon Zebo all crossed for tries in a thumping 47-23 triumph to seal a place in the last four of the European Cup. Munster also claimed their second continental title against the four-time champions in 2008 when they ground out a 16-13 triumph at Principality Stadium. And Munster captain Peter O'Mahony is relishing the opportunity to write a new chapter in their European history.
He said: "We have a massive challenge this weekend, but it's great to be back at Thomond Park for the quarterfinal of Europe - not to have to drag our supporters all over Europe. Both teams have a huge amount of experience and are successful and proud in Europe. Toulouse, with their history, will want to be back winning trophies, as do we.
"They are a big, big pack, possibly the most physical in Europe and we can't let ourselves be thrown about. We are a very proud team who will front up and get stuck in but we'll do plenty thinking on top of that.
They have a world class backline as well with a huge amount of internationals and one thing's for certain, they won't lack guys who have experienced rugby at the highest level, be that in Europe or in Test matches."
Toulouse will be hoping to leave their Top 14 woes behind them when they make the trip to Ireland this weekend. Ugo Mola's side currently sit ninth in the league with only one victory in their last five matches.
In contrast, Munster are flying high into this mouthwatering contest. Rassie Erasmus's men have won 10 of their last 11 fixtures, and a win here would earn them a trip to Murrayfield to take on Glasgow Warriors, or an Aviva Stadium clash with European champions Saracens.
Toulouse centre Florian Fritz cannot wait to get back on Irish soil for a special European occasion.
He said: "It is the Irish public in general, but it is true that in Munster, they build a really special atmosphere and keep that up throughout the game, even for the opponents.
"I remember, when you get back on the pitch, that you start the warm-up laps, the fans applaud you. There is not a sound when the kicker is preparing his kicks. It is true that it is not far from being the best rugby public in the world in my opinion."
Prediction: This will be the sixth match between the two former champions with the last four encounters all coming in the knockout stage (three Munster wins, one for Toulouse). Munster have won 31 of their last 34 home games in the European Cup and have won seven of eight home quarterfinal ties. Ulster in 2012 are the only club to win a quarterfinal at Thomond Park. Toulouse have lost their last two quarterfinal matches (including a 23-47 defeat at Thomond Park in 2014) and the last time they reached the semifinals in 2011, they lost to Leinster. Munster and Toulouse have the tournament record number of appearances in the knockout stage with 16 apiece. This will be the 157th match for both clubs in the competition. Munster conceded four tries in the pool stage, fewer than any other side with all four scores coming in the second half. Toulouse have lost six of their last seven away games in the Champions Cup, with their one win in this period coming against Zebre in Parma. CJ Stander made exactly 100 carries in the pool stage, 22 more than any other player. He and Jamie Heaslip (who misses Leinster's quarterfinal against Wasps) are the only two players to have played every minute of the competition to date. Toulouse averaged more offloads per game than any other side in the pool stage (23.7), while Joe Tekori made 21, six more than any other player. Munster will be playing with a lot of emotion and passion for their former coach and they should win it by at least 15 points.
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Darren Sweetnam, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 John Ryan, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 James Cronin, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave O’Callaghan, 20 Jack O’Donoghue, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Andrew Conway.
Toulouse: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Paul Perez, 10 Jean-Marc Doussain, 9 Sebastien Bezy, 8 Francois Cros, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, Richie Gray, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Gurthro Steenkamp, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Tala Gray, 20 Piula Faasalele, 21 Joe Tekori, 22 Luke McAlister, 23 Arthur Bonneval.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant referees: Greg Garner (England), Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)
TMO: David Grashoff (England)
Sunday, April 2:
Saracens v Glasgow Warriors
(Allianz Park - Kick-off: 13.00; 12.00 GMT)
European champions Saracens are determined to take a giant step towards defending their Champions Cup crown.
But they know just how dangerous new kids on the block Glasgow Warriors will be.
Mark McCall's Sarries are unbeaten in their last 15 European outings with 14 wins and a draw at the Scarlets during this season's pool stages. Glasgow broke new ground by advancing from Pool One into their first Champions Cup quarterfinal.
But they will have to do what no other side has done in the competition and beat Saracens at Allianz Park. Around 15 000 fans will be packed into the North London Stadium to watch Owen Farrell and co. take on the former Pro12 champions. And head coach McCall is wary of the Warriors' threats.
"We're playing against a really good opponent this week," he said. "I think Glasgow Warriors were probably the best team in the pool stages of the competition. They put together some really credible wins, they showed they are well coached and they've got players who are very confident at the moment.
"We've just got to keep our feet on the ground and have the same sort of preparation we just had. Hopefully, if we can replicate what we showed in the last half an hour of Sunday's match we'll be tough to beat."
Saracens will have Billy and Mako Vunipola available after they came through the thumping 53-10 Premiership triumph over Bath last weekend. But with the likes of Six Nations Player of the Year Stuart Hogg in their ranks, Glasgow will be confident of upsetting the odds.
Jonny Gray also starred for Scotland as they enjoyed a successful Six Nations championship. And head coach Gregor Townsend has warned his charges they face the ultimate challenge this weekend.
He said: "Saracens have become our role model - in the way they've built a winning rugby culture with such consistency. We've been looking closely to find ways we can beat them. But we know how good they are because they haven't lost a game in Europe for two years.
"They've got a real clarity about their play and the Vunipola brothers are back and maybe George Kruis too. But we play outstanding teams like Munster and Leinster in the Pro12 and in Europe this season we've beaten Racing and Leicester home and away. This will be the ultimate challenge but we go there with confidence and could take 6 000 fans."
Prediction: The clubs have met twice before in the European Cup with Saracens winning both pool stage matches in 2007/08. They also met in the 2007 Challenge Cup quarterfinal with the Premiership side winning again on that occasion. Saracens have won their last 12 home games in the tournament, with their last four defeats at home all coming against Top 14 opposition. Glasgow have lost 16 of their 18 away games against Premiership opposition. However, their two victories in that time have come in their last four trips, including Round Six this season when they inflicted a record 43-0 defeat on Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. This is the seventh time Saracens have reached the quarterfinals and the sixth season in a row. Glasgow have reached the knockout stage for the first time in their history, and they are the 34th club to achieve the feat. Saracens were one of just three sides to manage success rates of 90 percent plus at both line-out (93 percent) and scrum (90 percent) during the pool stage (also Toulon and Leinster). Last season's EPCR European Player of the Year, Maro Itoje, didn't miss a tackle in the pool stage, completing all 47 he attempted. Only Tom Palmer (53) of Bordeaux-Bègles attempted more without missing at least one. The two players to make the most tackles during the pool stage were Glasgow's Jonny Gray (76/80) and Ryan Wilson (70/81). Chris Ashton's try in Saracens' win over Toulon moved him past Brian O'Driscoll's total on the all-time list to 34, and he is now just two behind Vincent Clerc on 36. Owen Farrell, who made his 50th tournament appearance for Saracens against Toulon, was the pool stage top points scorer with 79 and his overall total of 549 points puts him sixth on the all-time list. Saracens will have too much class for the Warriors and they should bag a 10-point victory at least.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt(captain), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola , 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Kelly Brown, 20 Joel Conlon, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Peter Horne, 11 Lee Jones, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Henry Pyrgos(co-captain), 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Ryan Wilson, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray(co-captain), 4 Brian Alainu’uese, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Gordon Reid.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Alex Allan, 18 Sila Puafisi, 19 Greg Peterson, 20 Chris Fusaro, 21 Ali Price, 22 Nick Grigg, 23 Rory Hughes.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France) Thomas Charabas (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Clermont Auvergne v Toulon
(Stade Marcel-Michelin - Kick-off: 16.15; 14.15 GMT)
ASM Clermont Auvergne skipper Damien Chouly is out for revenge against Toulon in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Chouly has played in two of the last four Champions Cup finals where Clermont have narrowly lost to their rivals from France's Top14.
Clermont host Mike Ford's superstars in the quarterfinals of the tournament at the Stade Marcel-Michelin on Sunday in an all-French encounter which has all the makings of a potential classic.
"This competition is special, and it's very much there in the history and DNA of the club," said Chouly. "All of us have experienced some great European campaigns but, unfortunately, it has twice ended up with defeat in the final.
"But we're back in the competition and we want to bring the trophy back to the club and to our supporters. Our pool campaign went really well, we finished top, and we're playing at home in this quarterfinal.
"Quarterfinal matches are different because the game is different - it's a knock-out game. If you lose then it's all over, the whole campaign is over.
"So there's a lot of excitement. The atmosphere is different, as well. Everyone works harder because they know they have to raise their level for these games."
While Clermont dream of Champions Cup glory, Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal says his team are not prioritising the competition this year.
Boudjellal is targeting a top-six finish in the Top 14 to ensure Toulon play Champions Cup rugby next season. Toulon currently sit fourth in the table, but are just three points ahead of sixth-placed Pau.
"The Clermont game is not a priority. For us, the championship is of paramount importance," said Boudjellal. "This season has been difficult for us and now we must finish in the top six because it's imperative to play in the European Cup.
"When we see Clermont play, we see their strength and the players they have."
Clermont comfortably reached the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup after topping Pool Five, while Toulon finished runners-up to last year's winners Saracens.
It should be a tight encounter between two physical sets of forwards, but Clermont's home record makes them favourites ahead of kick-off.
Prediction: This will be the third meeting between the clubs in the European Cup. Both previous matches were finals (2013 and 2015) with Toulon emerging victorious on each occasion. Clermont have won their last four tournament quarterfinals with the last three coming at Stade Marcel-Michelin. They had lost their previous three matches at this stage (all away from home). This will be Toulon's sixth quarterfinal appearance; their previous five games at this stage have all been won by the home side on the day. Toulon have averaged 17 points per game in their 20 away fixtures in the tournament, losing three of their last four games on the road. No.1 seeds, Clermont, were the most disciplined side in the pool stage, conceding a competition low average of 7.8 penalties per game. Of the clubs in the quarterfinals, only Clermont, beaten finalists in 2013 and 2015, and Glasgow Warriors, who have reached the last eight for the first time, have not yet won European club rugby's most prestigious prize. Toulon were one of just three sides to manage success rates of 90 percent plus at both lineout (94 percent) and scrum (97 percent) in the pool stage (also Saracens and Leinster). Leigh Halfpenny missed more shots at goal (nine) than any other player in the pool stage. His success rate of 72 percent was the lowest of any of the nine players to land 15+ kicks at goal. Only Zebre's Derick Minnie (12) won more turnovers than Duane Vermeulen in the pool stage (11). Camille Lopez provided six try assists in the pool stage, the joint most of any player along with Munster's Conor Murray. Toulon are not the same beast from previous seasons and Clermont should win by 10 points.
Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Rémi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphaël Chaume.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Judicaël Cancoriet, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic , 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damien Penaud.
Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Éric Escande, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Romain Taofifénua, 4 Juandré Kruger, 3 Levan Chilachava, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Laurent Delboulbès.
Replacements: 16 Anthony Etrillard, 17 Florian Fresia, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 20 Anthony Belleau, 21 Josua Tuisova, 22 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 23 Samu Manoa.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Tom Foley (England), Paul Dix (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Agence France-Presse & @ChampionsCup