DUBLIN, IRL – Just two weeks after the end of the 2017 Six Nations, European championship rugby returns this weekend for the European Rugby Champions Cup quarterfinals.
It’s safe to say that rugby gods have blessed us with an incredible amount of action over the last several weeks.
If Andy Williams were a rugby fan then It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year would be about the beauty of spring-time rugby…probably…maybe. Even Mark Twain talked about spring rugby saying, “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want more…cowbell rugby…”
Before Saturday and Sunday’s quarterfinals start, catch up with everything you need to know with our individual match previews below…
Leinster vs. Wasps
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
A sold-out crowd at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin will welcome Leinster to a home quarter-final as they take on Aviva Premiership toppers, Wasps.
Leinster returns to the knockout stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup once again after missing out of last year’s competition play-offs, largely thanks to two walloping defeats at the hands of Wasps.
Wasps absolutely dominated the pool fixtures against Leinster last season, and will have their eye out to do the same in tomorrow’s quarter-final.
Leinster easily topped Pool 4 and have been in fine form lately in domestic competition, most recently coming back from an early deficit to defeat the surging Cardiff Blues. The Dublin side currently sits atop the Guinness Pro12 and have had a good stretch of form with new players coming to the squad during the Six Nations period.
Leinster will take a psychological blow with the absence of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, both of whom will be out for the next several weeks, but the impressive work of #8 Jack Conan and backs Rory O’Laughlan and Adam Byrne should make for an easy transition.
For the visiting Wasps, they rode it to the quarterfinals was a bit more difficult considering the strength of their group alongside four-time European champions, Toulouse, reigning Pro12 Champions, Connacht, and well….Zebre is a gimme. Despite topping their pool, point differential pushed Wasps out of contention for a home quarterfinal.
Wasps last loss was all the way back on February 19 when they were downed by Sale in what was a shocking defeat. Since then, however, they have won three on the bounce and have rampage through the competition thanks to the power of forwards like Ashley Johnson and creativity of fly-half Jimmy Gopperth.
They will be no pushover on their trip to Dublin as they search for their first European championship since the early 2000’s.
Munster vs. Toulouse
Thomond Park, Limerick
French giant, Toulouse, travels to Limerick to take on two-time champions, Munster in a repeat of 2014’s European Rugby Champions Cup quarterfinal.
Munster come into Saturday’s late match with a surge of international talent returning from duty and will be exponentially encouraged by the Thomond faithful on their quest for a third championship.
The Irish province has benefited from a mixture of homegrown and foreign talent under the guidance of South African director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus. CJ Stander and Francis Saili have been mega-producers for Munster and bring needed pace to counter the French side’s explosiveness.
Donnacha Ryan also returns following a successful Six Nations campaign with Ireland. He’s announced departure for France at the end of the season put him in a limited number of games left in a red jersey and could push his performance above and beyond.
For the French side, backline supremacy will be key to their success. French internationals Gael Fickou and Yoann Huget have been beating defenders throughout this European campaign alongside their teammate Talalelei Gray who has impressed with his offloading potential.
The main worry for Toulouse is there a way to record over the past five games, losing four with only one draw to show for their efforts. They currently said out of contention for a Top 14 playoff spot, so European success is there only marker of success this season (pressure).
Saracens vs. Glasgow
Allianz Park, London
Defending European champions, Saracens, will play host to Glasgow Warriors in Sunday’s first match up at Allianz Park.
Saracens are a no nonsense, direct side who take advantage of any opportunity they get. With the boot of Owen Farrell on their side, not too many penalties are unkickable, making them dangerous from anywhere in the park.
Where Saracens really surge, though, is in their set piece. With the return of Billy Vunipola their pack will only get stronger. Considering they have the best scrum percentage in the English league and have scored the most tries from driving mauls out of any other team, they have the potential to be dominant throughout the match.
The excitement surrounding Glasgow’s very first trip to the quarterfinals cannot be underestimated. Through what was an excellent group stage performance, the Warriors beat every team in their pool from Leicester to Munster to Racing. Facing the European champions will always be a daunting task, but Glasgow’s resilience against tough sides will come into play.
The good performance of Scotland at the Six Nations Will also bolster the Warriors’ hopes. The magnificence of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland as well as the solid play of Gregg Laidlaw and Finn Russell will only help the Warriors on the quest to their first ever knock out victory.
Clermont vs. Toulon
Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont Ferrand
France’s biggest rivalry will take front and center in Sunday’s final match, a quarterfinal that acts as a replay of two of the last four European Rugby Champions Cup Play off fixtures.
Toulon, two years removed from their third straight European championship, are itching to return to the finals once again, partly to justify the big money they’ve spent on names like Ma’a Nonu and partly to pacify a growing amount of discontent among fans.
For the first time in several matches, however, the all French fixture will take place in Clermont instead of the French Riviera, giving Clermont a huge boost getting to play in front of the raucous crowd at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Most importantly for Clermont, however, will be there ability to close big matches. In the course of their recent European campaign history they have been unable to pull the trigger on big match victories, succumbing to defeats to Leinster, Toulon, Saracens, and more. This will be their opportunity to show that the hard work they put into a difficult group stage will not be wasted.
If they don’t, however, then the Clermont faithful will have to live with yet another difficult loss.
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