It’s nothing but blockbuster battles in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
And then there were eight – four French clubs, two Irish giants, and two English outfits.
In the first of three showdowns on Saturday, defending champions Toulouse have a mountain to climb against Munster in Dublin.
The leading teams in the Gallagher Premiership and United Rugby Championship collide in Leicester, where the Tigers take on Leinster, while La Rochelle meet Montpellier in an all-French affair at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
Then, on Sunday, Racing 92 will look to turn back the Sale Sharks in Paris.
Munster v Toulouse
Saturday, 7 May – 16:00
The reigning kings of the north showed their championship spirit and class to eke out the narrowest of aggregate wins (50-49) over Ulster in the two-legged Round of 16.
Captain Antoine Dupont was the talisman as he scored a last-gasp try with Thomas Ramos adding the crucial conversion to seal a 30-23 win in the do-or-die second meeting in Belfast to sneak into the quarters.
Like Toulouse, Munster dropped their first-leg tie against the Exeter Chiefs but came back strong in the second to score a 26-10 win and advance 34-23 on aggregate.
Johann van Graan’s men have been lethal on attack in recent weeks, registering wins over Ulster (24-17) and Cardiff (41-21) to move into second place in the URC, but leaking three tries against the lowly Welsh club at the weekend is a worry.
Toulouse’s 23-16 triumph over La Rochelle in the TOP 14 this past weekend highlighted the pedigree that’s earned them a record five European titles and indicated that they’re a bit more balanced on both sides of the ball than their Irish opponents.
Therefore, I’m tipping Dupont and company to edge a cliffhanger.
Leicester Tigers v Leinster
Saturday, 7 May – 18:30
A low-key dream match considering their respective domestic dominance. It’s the irresistible force against the immovable object, the Gallagher Premiership pacesetters – with a record of 18-4 – against the top dogs in the URC, who’ve won 12 of 17.
Both teams underlined their championship credentials by despatching their Round of 16 opponents with comprehensive aggregate scores, Leicester crushing Clermont 56-27 and Leinster lashing Connacht 82-41.
Putting a premium on this crunch clash, Leo Cullen took a young, second-string side to South Africa and that they gave the Sharks and Stormers all they could handle highlighted what sets them apart from any other club in the world – their superb structures.
With that unrivalled foundation and a murderer’s row of internationals who are fresh and as tactically prepared as possible, look to Leinster to tame the Tigers in a hard-fought humdinger.
La Rochelle v Montpellier
Saturday, 7 May – 18:30
Last year’s finalists La Rochelle are heavy favourites to eliminate their countrymen, as they did to Bordeaux, whom they banished 62-36 on aggregate.
Montpellier have exceeded expectations back in the big league, converting their 2021 European Challenge Cup triumph into a final-eight encounter by stunning high-flying Harlequins in the Round of 16.
There’s an element of luck, or rather good fortune, to their qualification, as Marcus Smith missed a conversion in the dying stages of the second-leg tie that would’ve sent Quins through. Instead, Montpellier scraped through 60-59 on aggregate.
You could look at their 40-26 first-leg upset of the English club as evidence that they could pull off another shock win here if they fire on all cylinders but the subsequent 33-20 loss and back-to-back TOP 14 defeats emphasise why La Rochelle should win comfortably.
Racing 92 v Sale Sharks
Sunday, 8 May – 16:00
Racing 92 had little difficulty doing the double over Paris rivals Stade Francais to progress 55-31 on aggregate. It was anything but plain sailing for Sale, who after being pipped 10-9, showed what scrappers they are to best Bristol 44-39 on aggregate courtesy of a 35-29 second-leg win, which they achieved despite Arron Reed seeing red in the first half.
This comes down to which team dictate the pace of the game. The Springbok-laden visitors, who are decided underdogs, can give themselves a shot of securing a first-ever semi-final berth if they effectively flood the breakdown and turn it into an arm-wrestle.
Racing 92 should still be solid and savvy enough to overcome such a tactic, but that’s the Sharks’ best bet for success. With decorated and mercurial game drivers in Finn Russell and Kurtley Beale and predators like Gael Fickou and Teddy Thomas, they’ll have too much firepower for Sale.
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