DUBLIN, IRL – I’m not going to sugarcoat it, last year’s European Rugby Champions Cup semifinals were horribly mediocre, about as run-of-the-mill as an IHOP steak or a fancy dinner at Applebee’s. Attendance figures were down and we unfortunately weren’t treated to the fireworks of a typical European semifinal.
Hopefully this weekend’s semi finals between Munster, Saracens, Clermont, and Leinster re-create the glamour typical of European rugby’s knockout stages.
Saturday’s match between Munster and Saracens will have Dublin teeming with Munster’s Red Army and Sunday’s fixture between Clermont and Leinster stands to make Lyon one of Europe’s top weekend destinations.
Before this weekend’s matches kick off, catch up on the ins and outs of each clash with our individual match previews below…
Munster vs. Saracens
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Munster will take the field in Dublin Saturday afternoon (3:15 PM Irish time) for a record 12th European semifinal to take on Aviva Premiership visitors, Saracens. It will also be the Irish province’s 158th European championship appearance, the most of any club in the competition’s long history.
Saracens, the tournament’s defending champions, have torn through Europe over the last two seasons accumulating 15 wins and one draw over the last 16 matches, a record only one win short of Leinster’s tournament record of 16 wins and one draw (2010-2012).
Munster will be without talisman Conor Murray at scrum-half because of a calf strain and will hope that replacement Duncan Williams can repeat his quarter-final success against Toulouse.
Despite the loss of their world-class scrum-half, the men in red will take light in the return of CJ Stander, a momentous return at loose forward. The Munstermen have benefited from Stander’s brilliant individual performances all season long and can only hope that he finds a new gear come match time. He will line up along side Peter O’Mahony on the flanks to create an intimidating pair.
In Munster’s backs Tyler Bleyendaal has been an absolute godsend at fly-half. His positional kicking has created an easy outlet for pressure relief in stress situations and his match acuity has provided Munster with a backline dynamic not seen since the mid to late 2000’s.
Along with emerging leader, Simon Zebo, the men in red have found new creativity and pace, two characteristics Munster has lacked since 2010.
On the other side of the ball, Saracens have delivered powerful performances all season long in both domestic and European campaigns. With one of the best lineups in world rugby at the moment head coach Mark McCall has been able to shape his team into dominators, most recently flexing their might against Glasgow in the European quarterfinals. Saracens were by and large in command of that match, barely letting Glasgow out of their own half for large stages of the match.
There’s no question as to why there are six British and Irish Lions in Saracens’ ranks. Richard Wigglesworth (not a Lion) reforms his partnership with Owen Farrell in the half backs, while the Vunipola Brothers once again start in the forwards alongside fellow Lions selectees Jamie George, Maro Itoje, and George Kruis.
To say that Munster have a momentous challenge ahead of them would be a grave understatement. Saracens have only improved following last season’s European championship, and have no signs of slowing down anytime soon. With a spot in the finals on the line, both sides will be anxious to get the match started.
Clermont vs. Leinster
Stade Gerland, Lyon
For the first time since 2012, three time champions Leinster travels to central France to take on French giant, Clermont, in a knockout stage match. The 2012 edition proved to be one of the most breathtaking semi-finals in European championship
history (Leinster won 15-19 after defending on their own tryline for the last five minutes of the match).
Plus, with the form of both teams lately, Sunday’s match looks as though it will go down to the wire.
Clermont have been the most dominating French team domestically and continentally this season, accumulating the most points in the Top 14 and the second-most points in the European Rugby Champions Cup behind Leinster.
Although Clermont will make the short journey to Lyon instead of playing at their usual digs, Stade Marcel Michelin, they will no doubt be followed by hordes of boisterous and passionate yellow-and-blue-clad fans. Clermont enjoy is one of the most passionate fan bases in Europe, posing in intimidating challenge for visiting Leinster.
The French club have named yet another star-started squad for Sunday’s clash, headlined by a deadly backline led by French fly-half, Camille Lopez. Despite a shaky start to the season Lopez has finally come into his own after France’s disappointing Six Nations. He’ll have a familiar pairing with fellow Frenchmen Morgan Parra and Aurelian Rougerie at #9 and is #13, respectively. Stalwarts Scott Spedding and David Strettle also make their return to the backs.In the forwards, Clermont have opted for experience and will be led by loose forward, and Captain, Damien Chouley. Sebastien Vahaamahina and Arthur Iturria find themselves at the locks once again, while hooker Benjamin Kayser leads the front three. The entire squad has been in sync this season, and they will be the toughest unit in Europe to crack, especially in the semi-finals.
Leinster’s squad remains very similar to the one that defeated Wasps in the European quarterfinals three weeks ago. Lions selectees Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong join Ricardt Strauss to create one of Europe’s strongest front row groupings while Devin Toner and Hayden Triggs lead what is otherwise a young group of forwards.
In the backs, Johnny Sexton once again takes his role at fly-half and is joined by fellow Lion selectee, Robbie Henshaw, outside him. Garry Ringrose continues to grow into outside-Center while Joey Carbery also continues his growth as a fullback. Isa Nacewa, Leinster’s top try score in Europe this season, has been sublime since returning to the Irish province and returns on the wing opposite Fergus McFadden who will provide defensive support against Clermont’s power winger, Nick Abendenon.
With both squads looking extremely strong on the pitch and on paper, Sunday’s match looks more and more like it will be a grudge match.