WESTWOOD, CA – 20 team started, only 4 remain. French hopes of continued European success rest solely in the hands of Parisian side Racing 92, although something tells me fans of any other Top 14 side won’t be rooting for Les Ciel et Blanc. The other three remaining semifinalists all sit within the top four spots of the Aviva Premiership table, no doubt a sign of the current power of English domestic club rugby. With both semifinals set to take place a little more than 100 miles apart, in Nottingham and Reading to be exact, there is sure to be some fireworks on English soil this weekend. Get ready for what are bound to be to scintillating matches and see who our Expert Panellists chose as RugbyWrapUp previews the European Rugby Champions Cup semifinals…
Expert Picks Panel:
Saracens vs. Wasps
Madejski Stadium, Reading
Saturday, April 23 @ 10 AM EST
In the first match of the weekend, Aviva Premiership sides Saracens and Wasps will square off in an all English fixture to decide who earns a spot at the final in Lyon in three weeks time. Saracens, who sit first in the Premiership table, have players with experience in Champions Cup semifinals while Wasps, currently third in the Premiership table, only have one player remaining from their last semi-final appearance in 2007, James Haskell.
For Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall, his side’s position at this stage of the competition is eerily familiar from last year as they will once again enter a semifinal as slight favourites against a team who has done superb in Europe but has yet to break through to the top spot domestically.
In fact, McCall’s starting XV has only three changes to the one that lost to Clermont Auvergne in the semifinals of last season’s competition.
The North London side has named only one replacement from the side that edged Northampton a fortnight ago; Michael Rhodes moves into the second row to replace Jackson Wray who falls to the bench.
On the other side of the ball, Coventry-based Wasps reached their first semi-final since the 2007 knockout rounds where they beat Northampton in a semi-final before steamrolling on to the championship. Their last semi-final before that? A 2004 appearance that’s all them left of the Heineken Cup trophy for the first time. In fact, the Wasps have won your’s highest prize every time they reach the semifinals of the competition.
Head coach Dai Young praised his side’s performance against surging Exeter two weeks ago, highlighting the composure of his squad in the face of a large point deficit before turning the match around and eventually winning on a fantastic touchline conversion from fly half Jimmy Gopperth.
Wasps have made two changes sends their close encounter with Exitor as Lorenzo Cittadini replaces Jake Cooper-Woolley at loose head while Bradley Davies replaces Kyrnan Myall in the second row.
I predict this will be a high-scoring thriller in Reading tomorrow.
Leicester vs. Racing 92
The City Ground, Nottingham
Sunday, April 24 @ 10:15 AM EST
Leicester have long been one of Europe’s powerhouse clubs, becoming the first team to ever win back to back European titles and reaching five finals in total. Racing 92, on the other hand, are Europe’s new and up-and-coming team filled with explosive talent both foreign and domestic.
Leicester where absolutely dominance over their quarter-final arrival Stade Francais, and upstaging performance that saw Leicester score 41 points in front of Welford Road’s packed house. Tigers’ Wingers Telusa Veina and Vereniki Goneva accounted for three of Leicester’s six tries and word absolutely delightful to watch.
Racing, on the other hand, relied on the boots of Dan Carter and Maxime Machenaud to send them into a semifinal spot as they edged raining champions Toulon 16–13 in a thriller in Paris. Racing’s attack exploded for 10 points within five minutes during their quarter final performance and they will certainly hope to regain that form as they travel to take on Leicester.
Leicester head coach Richard Cockrell has been forced to make a change in his line up after flanker Brendan O’Connor was ruled out to injury. Lachlan McCaffrey will move to flanker from his normal position at #8 while Opeti Fonua replaces McCaffrey at #8.
Grassing head coaches Laurent Tabit and Laurent Travers have also been forced into substitution due to injury as Virgele Lacombe moves in for Dimitri Szarzewski at cooker and Ben Tameifuna regained his spot at Lou said after losing out to Luc Ducalcon in the quarter-final two weeks ago.
I think this will be the more interesting of the two match ups when broken down into offensive and defensive units. Leicester are explosively deadly from anywhere on the pitch, but sometimes are quite worrying on defence when they are stretched too thin. Racing on the other hand sometimes seem as though they lose their attacking ambition, succumbing to a lack of ideas However, when they click they are seemingly unstoppable.
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