Champions Cup Semis Preview: Bilbao Awaits Potential All-Pro14 European Decider

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Cover photo by Getty Images

DUBLIN, IRL — This weekend’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-finals are bound to be explosive. Scarlets, making their first attempt at a European semi-final in many years, have been fantastic to watch and want to prove their readiness for the big stage. Racing 92, finalists only three years ago, covet European glory more than most having been so close several times already. Munster want to make a European decider for the first time in 10 years and become one of the few sides to have three stars on their jersey. Leinster are looking to join Toulouse in the hallowed halls of European fame and earn their record fourth European championship.

It’s safe to say each team knows the stakes and will come out hard and fast. Get caught up on this weekend’s matchups with our previous below!

Leinster vs. Scarlets

Kickoff: 10:30 AM EST

TV: Nope, because BT Sport doesn’t let ESPN have a stream.

Reigning Pro14 champions, Scarlets, make the short journey to Dublin on Saturday for what could arguably be the biggest match in the club’s recent history. Their storming 2016-17 season success has snowballed into 2017-18, propelling them through an incredibly competitive group containing three-times champion, Toulon, and former champion, Bath, after losing their first two pool matches. Scarlets rattled off four consecutive victories in Pool 5 to secure first place and a secure spot in the quarterfinals where they doused the red-hot French newcomers, La Rochelle, in brilliant fashion.

Leinster’s journey to the final four didn’t have the initial hiccups suffered by Scarlets but has been impressive nonetheless. Remaining unbeaten in Pool 2 alongside Montpellier, Exeter, and disappointing Glasgow, the Irish province waltzed into the quarterfinals where they made efficient, clinical work of two-time reigning champions, Saracens (arguably one of the best championship-winning teams in European history). Leinster currently sit first in Pro14 Conference B just five points above Scarlets, making this match even more exciting considering it’s continental and league-focused implications.

Leinster have a similar line up to that which came out against Saracens two weeks ago, the only change coming with Jamison Gibson-Park starting at scrum-half in the absence of Luke McGrath who failed to recover from an ankle injury. Sexton will, of course, take the reigns from #10 with Henshaw and Ringrose lining up in the center. Kearney, Nacewa, and McFadden round out Leinster’s back three.

Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, and Tadhg Furlong form the formidably strong front row, with Toner and Ryan there to lock them in. Dan Leavy and Scott Fardy have been huge for Leinster i’ll season and take up their positions on the flank once again. Jordi Murphy rounds out the province‘s starting squad. They will have their hands full with a Scarlets lineup chocked full of talent.

The deadly attacking trio of Stef Evans, Rhys Patchell, and Leigh Halfpenny will give their Irish counterparts plenty to run after, while Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes combine brute force and fitness in the center. Dan Jones will command the team from #10 with Gareth Davies giving him the ball from scrum-half. This is arguably one of the best backline units Europe has seen, so they will be applying pressure from the get-go.

In the forwards, Rob Evans, Ken Owens, and Samson Lee take up their usual positions in the front row and will be locked in by Irishman Tadhg Beirne and South African David Bulbring. Aaron Shingler, James Davies, and John Barclay round out the starting squad.

While Racing v. Munster may be a clash of heavy weights, Saturday’s match between Leinster and Scarlets will be clash of titans. With a raucous crowd expected in Dublin, this match could arguably be the best Europe has seen in a while.

Racing 92 vs. Munster

Kickoff: 11:15 AM EST

TV: ESPN+ (Subscription Only)

European Professional Rugby’s badly construed idea for “neutrality” in the semi-finals will see Parisian side, Racing, travel to the southern stretches of Bordeaux to take on Irish juggernaut and European rival, Munster, for a spot in the European championship match. Playing in the same pool for the third time in the last four years, the two sides split their pool stage encounters, Munster taking a 14-7 victory in Limerick before Racing edged out a 34-30 victory in Paris.

Racing, who sit third in the French Top 14, finished second in their Champions Cup pool behind Munster after a poor performance against Castres in Round 3 negated their chances of winning the pool. Racing definitely deserve their place in the semi-finals, however, having stormed into Clermont’s Stade Marcel-Michelin and lit the place ablaze. Clermont found themselves pounded on defense for most of the match and, when they had the opportunity to attack, it was for too late. Racing have had an impressive run a form in the weird beast that is the Top 14 as well and have made the best of their beautiful new indoor arena to create a Parisian stronghold.

Munster’s march to their record 13th overall European semi-final has showcased a one-loss record (to Racing) and a come back for the ages in there quarterfinal against Toulon. At Fortress Thomond Park, Munster overcame a sizable late deficit to squeak a one-point victory over the perennial French contenders in Simon Zebo’s last European match in Limerick. The southern Irish province currently sits second in Pro14 Conference A with the hopes that success in Europe can spur success in the league knockouts.

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Irish-American Ronan Nelson is from California, is a new UCLA Bruin and is a rugby lifer. Plus he's got two passports. But that's just scratching the surface. He's got more courage and resolve in his thumbnail than most of us combined. Le Wolf of Wheelchairs is a man amongst men. Check him out in this video: https://www.facebook.com/PrayForRonanNelson/videos/vb.377373885627475/995548307143360/?type=2&theater and follow him on Twitter: @ronan_nelson

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