ST. ETIENNE, FRANCE – The eyes of rugby watchers around the world will turn to France this weekend, to focus on the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup. All four contestants are old hands. The matches are replays of a 2014 quarterfinal and a semi-final. Old wounds are slow to heal, and both of last year’s losers, Clermont and Leinster, will enter the weekend with their eyes set on revenge.
Clermont vs. Saracens
For so much of 2013-14, Clermont looked like the team to beat in the Heineken Cup. Though the team was not quite as good as the previous year’s losing finalists, the Yellow Submarine entered the semi-final at Twickenham with full expectations of setting up a rematch against old foes Toulon. Instead, Saracens turned the narrative on its head, setting records in their 46-6 victory. Jacques Burger was astonishing, chasing the ball around the stadium and putting in 27 tackles. He will be free to face Clermont after serving a one week suspension. While Burger has been unable to replicate the heights of last season’s semi-final, he remains a valuable contributor and has the potential to disrupt Clermont’s plans.
The teams were paired in the group stages, where Clermont beat Saracens at the Stade Marcel Michelin. This match will be played an hour down the road at the Stade Geoffrey Guichard, but Saracens can expect a hostile environment. England international Owen Farrell returns to the bench for Saracens, but oft-overlooked Alex Goode may be the key player for the English team. Goode’s ability to win aerial duels (and territory) will be key. Clermont’s offense is eternally dangerous, with backs like Wesley Fofana who are able to break a match open.
The forward packs have plenty of muscle. Both Billy and Mako Vunipola are healthy, giving Saracens two of the best ball-carrying forwards in the competition. Clermont have clearly made the decision to prioritize Europe in recent weeks, sending out second XV’s against Oyonnax and Stade Francais. If Saracens are to pull off another shocking upset, they will need to do so against the best that the French giants have to offer.
The panel favors the strong favorites, with only Jamie Loyd dissenting. Only two panelists made this their pick of the week, reflecting some uncertainty.
Starting XV: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Ludovic Radoslavjevic, 8 Damien Chouly (c), 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Raphael Chaume, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Aurélien Rougerie.
Starting XV: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Kelly Brown, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 David Strettle.
Toulon vs. Leinster
The two legends that defined last year’s matchup are missing. Both Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll bid farewell to rugby after last season’s competition. Wilkinson was the man with the fairy-tale ending, walking off the pitch with a shot at the championship. This year, there are no sentimental considerations, but the match will not lack for intensity. Two contrasting organizational philosophies are at play. Toulon have brought together an international all-star team, while Leinster prize continuity and their role as a pipeline to Ireland’s national side.
Leinster could do with an infusion of Toulon’s star power at the moment. They sit outside playoff position in the Pro12. Superstars like Jamie Heaslip have been indifferent on the domestic front, and the Irish province were fortunate to sneak by Bath in the quarterfinals. Toulon were similarly unconvincing, allowing Wasps to hang around for far longer than was expected. The two sides have combined for the last four European titles. There are championship pedigrees all over the park, and nobody will be unduly bothered by the big stage. The last time these clubs met, in 2014’s quarterfinal, Toulon ran away from Leinster in the last twenty minutes.
Everyone but Declan feels like Toulon will be three-time finalists after Sunday. Picks ranged from Toulon by 3 (Hall and Blaber) to a resounding double digit victory (Loyd).
Starting XV: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Delon Armitage, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Steffon Armitage, 20 Drew Mitchell, 21 Rudi Wulf, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Jocelino Suta.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Ian Madigan, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Jordi Murphy, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Ben Marshall, 20 Dominic Ryan, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Gordon D’Arcy, 23 Zane Kirchner.
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