As Saracens and Leinster travel to France this weekend, they know that they need a bit of divine intervention to pull off what can only be described as upsets if they are to emerge the victors. Marseille will be an exceptionally challenging place for Leinster to pull off a win against a daunting Toulon, and so far this season Leinster have not really shown they have the flair and composure to make this happen. Despite Saracens being strong contenders for the Premiership in England, they certainly didn’t look like the side to be able to offer any kind of answer to Clermont’s blistering speed and try scoring ability. Leinster and Saracens scored no tries in the quarter-finals that got them their tickets to this weekend’s showdowns in France, whereas Toulon and Clermont scored them by the bucketload. I can’t help feeling that this inability to cross the white line will be what determines who will be going to the final, and right now the betting would favour the French!
Clermont-Ferrand vs Saracens
Saturday, April 18th
If there is going to be an upset, ie the French being knocked out of the competition then for me this is the match it will happen in. Of Leinster and Saracens, I can’t help feeling that Saracens are better equipped to make this a reality. In an interesting rematch of last year’s semi-final, Saracens will be fielding an exceptionally strong side that given space and freedom should easily be the match of their French counterparts. Saracens come into this match on the back of some very solid form that made the desperate win a fortnight ago in Paris seem more than a little odd.
Therefore expect Saracens to come charging hard at Clermont right from the first whistle and in terms of spectacle this will likely be the game to watch this weekend. Both sides have superb try scoring potential, and I would argue are on a level playing field here. If Saracens can hold their ground and not be daunted by the noise the Yellow Army of supporters will no doubt provide, there is little question that they will be able to challenge and match everything handed out to them for the full 80 minutes by Clermont.
If Saracens fire and can hold their nerve, I can’t help feeling that they could win this match. Clermont are a very good side but can be beaten as their season has shown especially domestically. Saracens are unlikely to implode the way Northampton did. In the battle of the flyhalves I can’t help feeling that Saracens will have the edge and Clermont will be less effective at shutting down the English team’s danger men. Furthermore, I think that Saracens scrumming and forward play will be slightly better disciplined than that of their French counterparts. As a result I am sticking my neck out and saying that in the best game of the weekend, Saracens will just eke out a narrow victory. It will be tense and should be superb entertainment!
Toulon vs Leinster
Sunday, April 19th
As an Irish supporter and as much as I want Leinster to win on Sunday, I really can’t see it happening. Toulon quite simply are just too strong, and Leinster’s performance both in the PRO 12 and in the Champions Cup have just not been convincing or really shown any kind of killer instinct. Toulon are looking to make history and although Leinster has a superb European pedigree they haven’t shown us much of it this year.
What it should provide Irish coach Joe Schmidt with though is a key insight into the big game mentality of some key members of his Irish squad in a World Cup year. Leinster will no doubt raise their game to a level we have rarely seen this year so far. Toulon however in France will just simply be too strong. They have the finishing that Leinster lacked so often in their quarter-final performance against Bath. In terms of the forward battle I think that the teams are evenly matched but when it comes to kicking duties, the match up of Welsh superstar Leigh Halfpenny against Leinster and Ireland’s Ian Madigan is not quite balanced. However in terms of halfback battles Madigan is more than a match for Toulon’s Michalak despite his eye-opening return to form in the quarter-final. This is not to detract from Madigan’s abilities, he is showing himself to be to both reliable and increasingly accurate, but with a team that has struggled in the try scoring department he will have to push his team to the performance of their season on Sunday – a rather daunting responsibility especially without the Aviva faithful.
Leinster is a quality side through and through that has a proud and successful tradition in this competition and one which has often surprised and confounded the betmakers. So it would be with a degree of nervousness that I am putting out my prediction that despite a gritty forward battle, Toulon’s finishing will ultimately get them the points gap that will close out Leinster, especially in the last quarter as Leinster start to tire and Toulon start to rack up some much-needed tries. Expect a game not as free-flowing as the Saracens/Clermont match up, but one in which Toulon will eventually unlock the Leinster defence and score the tries they need to get them to the final for the third consecutive year!