PREVIEW: Leinster v Scarlets
CHAMPIONS CUP SPOTLIGHT: Leinster will attempt to set up the first half of an All-Ireland European Champions Cup Final when they face Welsh regional side Scarlets in Dublin on Saturday, with Munster taking on French club Racing 92 in Sunday's second semifinal.
Irish province Leinster were the top-ranked side throughout the pool phase, coming through a strong group that included Montpellier, Glasgow and Exeter with a 100 percent record.
They followed up with a convincing 30-19 quarterfinal win over defending champions Saracens earlier this month.
That victory was costly, however, with scrumhalf Luke McGrath likely to miss out this weekend due to an ankle injury sustained against the back-to-back European champions, while British and Irish Lions flank Sean O'Brien is also likely to miss out.
McGrath's absence hurts Leinster in other ways too.
Only two players from New Zealand or Australia are allowed in any matchday 23 – meaning the selection of Jamison Gibson-Park at scrumhalf will see the omission of either James Lowe, the Kiwi wing, or Scott Fardy, the Australian forward.
Lowe is the player in line to be dropped in that scenario, with captain Isa Nacewa moving to the wing after the surprise return of Robbie Henshaw, the Ireland centre, from a shoulder injury suffered on Six Nations duty for the Grand Slam champions.
"Robbie is good to go, he has ticked all the boxes he needs to tick and he was 24th man last Saturday," said Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach.
"He trained last week so, again, another bonus," added former England coach Lancaster, who also backed Gibson-Park to make the step up.
"Jamison has been here for a year-and-a-half now, he's played in big games in Super Rugby, he's played in big games for us and if Luke's not available then this is Jamison's time, and there's no doubt in my mind that he's ready to play at this level."
Leinster are likely to have up to 11 of Ireland's Grand Slam regulars involved when the team takes the field at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, with Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney key figures for both club and country.
Their experience and ability has Leinster favourites with the bookmakers, but nobody in Dublin is taking anything for granted.
The situation was the same last year when Scarlets visited the Royal Dublin Showground on Pro12 semifinal duty, and left victorious.
"They are, without doubt, the toughest opponents we will have faced so far in Europe," Lancaster said.
"They're stronger than last year. People underestimate the quality of their defence, I think people don't really understand their defensive system and their defensive philosophy.
"You can't do what they achieved last year by beating us, beating Munster, or doing what they did in the pool against Toulon and everyone along the way, without being a top quality team.”
Scarlets lost their first two pool games, but won the following four to become only the third team to ever qualify for the knockout stages after such a bad start.
They then beat La Rochelle in the quarterfinal to set up this all-Pro14 clash.
Despite the absence of Jonathan Davies, Scarlets travel to Dublin in confident mood.
"We've played there before, we've been successful there, obviously it is Leinster's second home ground, but there is not much we can do about it now, it's nothing that we are getting hung up on," said Scarlets and Wales prop Rob Evans.
"Maybe we are underestimated, but it is something that we don’t really care about. If people want to underestimate us then happy days, but we will do our talking on the field and see the outcome afterwards."
Prediction: The clubs have met seven times previously in the European Cup with Leinster winning five of those matches (lost two), including the last four in a row. This will be Leinster's 10th semifinal appearance, only Munster (13, including 2017/8) have featured in more (Toulouse also on 10). Just one of Leinster’s previous nine semifinals have been against Welsh opposition, that was back in the first edition of the Champions Cup in 1995/96 when they were beaten by Cardiff. Scarlets have reached this stage of the Champions Cup for the first time since 2006/07 and for the fourth time overall; they have yet to progress to the Final, however. Leinster are the only side with a 100 percent winning record in this season's Champions Cup and could become just the second club after Saracens in 2015/16 to win every match in a campaign. Leinster did go unbeaten during their 2011/12 triumph (won eight, drawn one). No side has averaged more tries per game than Leinster this season (3.6, same as Saracens), whilst the province has also conceded the fewest penalties per match (7.6). The Scarlets have won 94 percent of their own line-outs in this campaign, the best rate of any side. Luke McGrath (one try, six assists) and Gareth Davies (four tries, three assists) have both been directly involved in seven tries this season, no player has had a hand in more (also Dan Evans). Ken Owens (105) is one of just two players to make 100+ tackles this season (Tom Dunn, 119). Tadhg Beirne has won five more turnovers (16) than any other player this season, nine of those have been jackals.Leinster will win by seven points.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Scarlets: 15 Rhys Patchell, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Steven Cummins, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Steff Hughes, 23 Will Boyde.
Date: Saturday, April 21
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15.30 (14.30 GMT)
Expected weather: There will be a high of 17°C and a low of 8°C. A few afternoons showers are expected with a moderate breeze.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
AFP & @ChampionsCup