Apr 7, 2023 8:20 am
Europe is heading towards its crunch stage, with eight sides battling it out for a place in the semi-finals at the weekend. The last sixteen provided a healthy slice of drama, but ultimately the eight home sides prevailed. Will home advantage prove key again? A week’s recovery offers little time for tired legs to recover and even less time for travelling fans to make adequate and cost-effective plans. You have to feel for fans of the South African sides, the Sharks and the Stormers, who face likely astronomical airfares. Scheduling grumbles aside, four tasty encounters lie in wait with Europe and South Africa’s finest ready to do battle.
Leinster v Leicester, Friday, 20:00
Leinster have been Europe’s premier side this season, and there appeared to be no sign of a Grand Slam hangover in their comfortable victory over Ulster. In truth, it was a professional display, partly dictated by the weather, and given their dominance of possession and territory, they perhaps should have won by a larger margin. Interestingly, they actually carried for fewer meters than Ulster despite their dominance, but crucially they held their patience in attack. Jack Conan produced a monstrous display, and the potential battle between him and Jasper Weise is a titanic prospect. Leinster’s defence and discipline were typically good, and they’ll be hoping for drier conditions in which they can stretch Leicester’s defence.
Leicester travel to Dublin as underdogs, but they shouldn’t be underestimated. The Tigers are in excellent form, and their defence was miserly in a gritty win over Edinburgh in foul conditions. Leicester will need to be more ruthless in attack to defeat Leinster; they spurned several chances against Edinburgh, something they can’t afford to do on Friday. Equally, their line out was a mess on Friday, and they’ll have to be accurate against the aerial threat of James Ryan. Crucially, Leicester’s kicking game was excellent, and in Handre Pollard, they have arguably the form fly half in Europe, able to dazzle and control in equal measure. Tommy Reffell was a nuisance at the breakdown against Edinburgh, and if he can produce a similar performance against Caelan Doris, the Tigers will have more than a sniff of victory. Home advantage points to Leinster, but Leicester will relish spoiling the Irish side’s party.
Toulouse v Sharks, Saturday, 15:00
Toulouse host the free-flowing Sharks in what could be an entertaining, high-scoring clash. The French side sealed their place in the quarter-finals with a professional victory over the Bulls, pulling clear in the second half. In Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they possess the most devastating half-back combination in the tournament, and the Sharks will need to apply pressure on the pair to have a chance of victory. Toulouse turned over a lot of ball against the Bulls, something they need to be wary of, considering how the Sharks carved Munster open in the second half. However, they defended the Bull’s maul well, an area where the Sharks caused Munster numerous problems.
The Sharks produced some scintillating rugby against Munster, blowing them away emphatically in a twenty-minute period after halftime. Similarly to Toulouse, the Sharks have the flair to match their power, though the potential absence of Eben Etzebeth is a huge blow. The Sharks have provided entertainment throughout the tournament, but they will need to tighten up defensively, though admittedly, most of Munster’s tries came when the game was dead. Toulouse boasts one of the best defences in the tournament, and Jack Willis’s battle against Siya Kolisi promises to be memorable. The Sharks conceded just three penalties against Munster, and if they can replicate that discipline, they stand a chance of causing an upset. They’ll have to, as Toulouse have Europe’s finest marksman in Thomas Ramos.
Exeter v Stormers, Saturday, 17:30
Exeter required a hundred minutes of rugby to finally see off Montpellier, winning on a try countback in a European classic. It was a victory that epitomised the spirit of the Chiefs, but with a six-day turnaround, it begs the question of whether fatigue will be a factor. The Chiefs started sluggishly against Montpellier, while the Stormers flew out the block in the victory over Quins, and Rob Baxter’s men will need a fast start as playing catch up will be difficult against a strong Stormers defence. Discipline has been an issue for both sides recently, and the penalty count will go a long way towards deciding the game.
The Stormers will be confident after a comfortable victory against Quins, where they played some entertaining rugby alongside the traditional South African power game. The scoreline was flattered somewhat by Quins’s three late tries, and the Stormers showed a clinical edge. However, they have struggled at times on their travels, and the Chiefs boast an impressive home record. Exeter’s key men in the pack, Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds, produced tireless performances last week, and they’ll need to do the same again on Saturday. If Exeter can handle the Stormers’ physicality and gain parity at the set piece, they stand a good chance of getting through to the semis.
La Rochelle v Saracens, Sunday, 15:00
La Rochelle were given an almighty scare by Gloucester last weekend, Teddy Thomas’s late try sparing their blushes and keeping their hopes of defending their title alive. But similarly to their pool stage victory over Ulster, they showed the mettle of champions to come through at the end. They will need to perform better against Saracens, who hardly produced a vintage display in beating the Ospreys. The English side only extinguished the Welsh side’s hopes in the last twenty minutes and lacked their usual clinical edge. Both sides sparkled at times, and Sunday’s match promises to be an entertaining affair, especially considering the enterprising rugby Saracens have been playing of late.
But it will be set-piece battle that will be crucial, an area of strength for both sides, and Uiwi Atonio’s tussle against Mako Vunipola will be particularly vital. For all their running rugby, the French side’s nuts and bolts are especially tight, and Saracens will need to get to grips with their maul, which has proven a potent weapon this season in Europe. There is little to choose between the sides, but Saracen’s greater accuracy around the breakdown might give them an edge. La Rochelle have some almighty ball carriers in Will Skelton, Levani Botia, and Gregory Alldritt, but Saracens might fancy their fitness levels against a hulking pack. An area of concern for Saracens is their midfield defence, which Ospreys punctured fairly easily at times, and in Jonathan Danty, La Rochelle have a centre capable of punching some holes. Impossibly tight to call.