Increasingly the European Champions Cup semi-finals have become one of the most anticipated weekends of the year for us here at the Lineout. It may not be Test rugby but in name only. This weekend’s action sees the cream of Ireland, England and France go head to head. Although Wales, current Six Nations champions, are not represented this weekend, it still has an almost Test like feel to it. Ireland’s two best teams face off against the best England has to offer in the shape of Saracens along with France’s Toulouse who have become the epitome of great French sides of the past. We look to be in for a roller coaster ride, so strap yourselves in!
Munster travel to Coventry to take on English premiership giants Saracens. While Munster are missing some key players, most notably winger Keith Earls and fly half Joey Carberry who have played such a big part in getting the Irish province to this point, there is no denying that it is a quality match day Munster squad that is making the trip across the Irish sea. Saracens meanwhile boast many of the names that made life so unpleasant for Ireland in their clash with England earlier this year in the Six Nations, and with home advantage they will be hard to beat.
In the second semi-final current title holders Leinster play host to French side Toulouse in Dublin. The French side are playing some truly glorious rugby at the moment, and as the two most successful sides in the tournament’s history, Sunday’s clash looks set to be the stuff of legends. Leinster much like Ireland, have looked good this year, but not quite the side that swept all before them last year. With the World Cup just around the corner, the Irish and French internationals in both sides will really be looking to lay down some markers in this match, over and above the burning desire to become the first side in the competition’s history to win five titles. A mouth-watering prospect? We’d say so!
So here’s what got us talking over some pints heading into what should be an epic weekend of top quality rugby!
Saracens vs Munster – Saturday, April 20th – Coventry
Both these teams have lifted the trophy twice since the inaugural tournament final back in 1996. Saracens have the better run of form recently in the tournament, having been back to back champions in 2016 and 2017. For Munster it’s been 11 years since they last hoisted the Cup.
As would be expected, both sides come into the tournament in stellar form. Saracens sit second in the English Premiership and are undefeated in their Champions Cup campaign so far this year. On form Munster do not look as polished, sitting third overall in the PRO 14, and having suffered one loss and a draw on their road to the Champions Cup semi-final. However, known as a traditionally gritty team capable of upsetting the odds and with a travelling fan base probably second to none, Munster are more than capable of punching well above their weight and more than comfortable with the underdog tag.
A World Cup Irish front row in the making?
Ireland as we saw in the Six Nations, struggled at times in the front row and some new blood is likely to figure in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. For that look no further than Munster’s offering on Saturday. Niall Scannell has impressed both for Munster and Ireland at Hooker and looks the more likely replacement for outgoing Irish Hooker and Captain Rory Best after the World Cup, while props John Ryan, Steven Archer and Dave Kilcoyne have all put in solid performances in the red of Munster and green of Ireland. In short, we think Munster have the more powerful platform here on Saturday. Saracens boast some top names in the shape of England hooker Jamie George and prop Mako Vunipola, although the latter has been plagued with injury problems of late. However, of interest to those speculating about the World Cup will be the performance of the Munster quintet tomorrow and how they may stake their claim to a first choice ticket to Japan.
The King of the turnover meets an established England partnership
Munster’s Tadgh Beirne’s turnover statistics this year make for impressive reading, 31 compared to 28 for Saracens Maro Itoje and only 6 for George Kruis. Beirne will be up against it when dealing with Itoje, but overall the Munster and Ireland second rower just seems to go from strength to strength. Both the Englishman and Irishman have a disciplinary Achilles Heel with Itoje seeming to manage it slightly better this year. The battle of the second rows should be one of the highlights of the afternoon and the effectiveness of Beirne will clearly dictate who gets the upper hand. It won’t be a question of who makes the most turnovers, but more one of Saracens’ ability to stop Beirne making them in the first place.
It’s that Munster second row that perhaps sends shivers down the spine of the Saracens coaching staff the most
Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander need no introduction whatsoever, with the South African born Stander back to his barnstorming best in the red jersey of Munster. Billy Vunipola is also back with a vengeance for England and Saracens after a long run with injury, and despite some of the off field attention being given to his religious views, he will be keen to deflect attention away from the sidelines and onto his devastating abilities at number eight. The battle between him and Stander will be worth the price of admission alone. Jack O’Donaghue is also one to watch for in terms of a role in Ireland’s World Cup preparations. Saracens pack some weight here and some golden international experience in the shape of South African international Schalk Burger, but our money is on the Munster crew to quietly grab more of the headlines on Saturday.
Once you get beyond the forward pack it looks like a Saracens afternoon provided their suspect defence can hold
Munster may look slightly more menacing up front, but from the half backs on we feel that Saracens may have the edge in attacking prowess. Furthermore Munster are without one of their key defensive weapons in the back line – winger Keith Earls. Saracens have outscored Munster in the try department by 30 to 16 in this year’s Championship, scoring twice the number of tries per match. However when it comes to their defensive record, though Saracens are no slouches, Munster have the more solid platform. It remains to be seen how much of a defensive loss Earls absence will be on Saturday, but as a tackling machine Munster are going to take some beating.
Talking of half backs this surely must be another opportunity for Ben Spencer to make his claim for a ticket on England’s plane to Japan
There is no denying that England desperately need some depth at scrum half, with this year’s Six Nations doing little if anything to promote that. Eddie Jones in his desperation to redeem England’s dismal record in 2018, refused to experiment in the position. Saracens’ Ben Spencer has caught the eye all season and a big performance from the youngster must surely give him the recognition from Jones he deserves, especially if he can hold one of the world’s best, Munster and Irish scrum half Conor Murray, to task. Saracens do look like they have the upper hand here as Owen Farrell completes the half back partnership for the English side, and provided he can address his costly tackling technique, Saracens should feel comfortable about dictating proceedings here.
If you’re looking at form alone, then it should be Saracens day on Saturday. Munster send an impressive unit to Coventry but without the likes of Keith Earls and Joey Carberry, they will be up against it as Saracens field a team that looks like it has the edge in terms of experience and form. Still it’s Munster and to write them off would be a folly of epic proportions. However, it’s Saracens all out attacking prowess expertly guided by Owen Farrell that should see the English side grabbing more of the five pointers on Saturday, providing question marks around their defensive structures are resolved. If Munster’s forward panzer division don’t suffocate Saracens into submission and get under the skin of Owen Farrell causing him to lose both his cool and technique, Saracens should be on their way to the final in Newcastle by 8 points!
Leinster vs Toulouse – Sunday, April 21st – Dublin
Who will be on their road to add a fifth European star to the jersey and arguably the most succesful record in the competition on Sunday? In short impossible to say. Toulouse have looked simply breath-taking in Europe this year and in France’s Top 14 competition. Perhaps most heartening for French supporters is that the majority of backs making the headlines for Toulouse are French. While South African winger Cheslin Kolbe may be leading his teammates in terms of creating memorable moments, there is no doubt that he is playing within the nucleus of a very exciting set of French backs. Fly halves Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and fullback Thomas Ramos are all names likely to play a big part in France’s World Cup plans. There is speed and flair here out wide that will test defences to the full.
Leinster will be painfully aware of the threat Toulouse poses as the French team were the cause of Leinster’s only defeat in an otherwise flawless journey to the semi-finals. However, that defeat early on in the competition was away from home, and in the repeat fixture in Dublin Leinster made it absolutely clear who was boss. With home advantage again on Sunday it will be a tall order for Toulouse to upset Leinster at the Aviva in Dublin. However, Toulouse have simply looked better and better all season and currently sit in first place in the French Top 14. Leinster currently sit second overall in the PRO 14, and field a squad that on Sunday is almost a mirror image of a starting Irish XV. Toulouse will have to bring their X-factor to the fore to realistically stand a chance.
A surprising statistic but one that should concern Toulouse
With Ulster now out of the competition it may come as a surprise that the tournament’s leading try scorer is not a back. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact it’s a hooker. That honor goes to Leinster’s Sean Cronin. If we can all look past his disastrous game in an Irish jersey in the Six Nations against Italy, Cronin is a proven threat and we simply need to put his Six Nations performance down to an off day. His ability to score tries is almost unique and within 5 metres of the try line almost guaranteed. In short a lethal weapon that Toulouse will need to be at their sharpest to contain.
Even though they may not have been at their best in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland this season, Leinster’s prop contingent should have the edge.
Cian Healy has less to apologise for here than fellow prop Tadgh Furlong, and even the latter has performed. However, in Furlong’s case he has been effective this season rather than the devastating force of nature he was last year. With the World Cup only months away, a player so key to Ireland’s fortunes really needs to get back to being the unstoppable engine he was last season. However, in both cases the Leinster unit really needs to lay down a marker that this is not only Champions Cup material but also the type of grit and determination Ireland needs if they are serious about lifting the World Cup in Japan later this year.
Once more it could be a last chance for Ireland and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien
We almost feel like traitors in saying it, but we have a horrible feeling that O’Brien’s ship has sailed. He simply hasn’t been the same player he was since coming back from a series of debilitating injuries, and one almost senses he knows it. With Scott Fardy having to come to his rescue from the bench this season on several occasions, and a fairly lacklustre performance from the Irish flanker in the Six Nations, another anonymous performance on Sunday could well see the Irish legend get overlooked in Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. With Leinster number eight Jack Conan playing out of his skin at the moment, O’Brien’s spot in Ireland’s flanks is under threat from the likes of CJ Stander amongst others – although with fellow teammate at Leinster Dan Leavy out of contention for the World Cup due to injury, O’Brien may be safe for another year.
Johnny Sexton is another Irish player who really needs to be back to his best
Sexton just hasn’t had it this year, and his understudy at Leinster Ross Byrne has looked much better for the most part. Sexton’s importance to Leinster and Ireland is without question but with only a few games to go before the summer break, the Irish fly half and last year’s World Player of the Year really needs to get back to his best. After a disappointing Six Nations which saw Sexton well off form for the majority of the tournament, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will want to see one of Test rugby’s best players really find his groove on Sunday. If not this could be the biggest opportunity of Ross Byrne’s career to date. There is going to be a battle royale going on amongst the half backs on Sunday with Toulouse and France fly half Antoine Dupont likely to provide Sexton and Leinster scrum half Luke McGrath all kinds of headaches if they fail to read and control the game properly.
Cheslin Kolbe vs Jordan Lamour – one of THE most fascinating contests of the weekend
We have a hunch that these two will be dominating your video highlights reel of this match. However in defenders beaten Kolbe’s statistics are truly frightening. The South African has beaten 115 compared to the Irishman’s 65 this season and made over 1500 metres compared to his rival’s 1200. Add to that the fact that the pint-sized South African has made three times the number of tackles that Larmour has made and one has to wonder who will get the upper hand on Sunday. However, although Kolbe outdoes his Irish counterpart on the tackle count, the Irishman is much more successful at making his tackles stick when he does make them. Furthermore, despite Kolbe’s abilities Larmour is outscoring him in the try department. Both players have X-factor written all over them and a pair of feet that would be the envy of most salsa dancers. Expect fireworks aplenty from these two and without a doubt one of the most entertaining contests of the weekend.
Leinster had a field day with Toulouse in this same fixture in January in Dublin with almost an identical match day 23 that takes to the pitch this Sunday. Toulouse are possessing some truly dazzling form at the moment and have some very capable internationals amongst their ranks in addition to some mesmerizing home-grown French talent. However, it’s Leinster at home in front of what is likely to be a rapturous and fervent crowd. It’s hard to see the French getting past a composed Leinster side that is not all that familiar with losing. In a battle of X-factor versus form, we lean on the side of form and thus feel that in what should be a thrilling encounter, Leinster will book their spot in the final by 7 points!