Four engrossing quarter-final clashes provide the perfect Six Nations hangover cure this weekend.
‘Provocative’ Saracens Face Familiar Foe
Saracens take on Glasgow Warriors for the third time this season in what is a repeat of the 2017 quarter final, a game in which the English club triumphed 38-3 on their way to winning the trophy that year.
This term’s previous two pool matches between the sides – both of which were also won fairly comfortably by the London based side – proved to be ‘very tasty’ affairs, according to Saracens' very own human chin, Brad Barritt.
Former Scotland skip Kelly Brown, who has played for both of these teams, says he is expecting ‘full-out war’ come kick-off such is the underlying animosity between these two sides and the added prize of a semi-final berth.
Maro Itoje troll level = ðŸ’¯— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 14, 2018
• Glasgow steal the ball
• Ref blows for penalty
• Glasgow players don't hear whistle, score try, celebrate wildly...
• Maro Itoje joins in! pic.twitter.com/ULOkgYcLga
Saracens can welcome back their England big guns Farrell, Kruis and Itoje for this one, two of whom will still be smarting from the Calcutta Cup clash two weeks ago. The Warriors may have Stuart Hogg back in their ranks, whilst the rest of their Scottish contingent will be hoping a return to London so soon after that astonishing second half Twickenham display can inspire them on to spoil another English party.
There has been some delicious nettle in the build-up to this game, with Glasgow head coach Dave Rennie accusing Saracens of deliberately provoking opponents to get penalties by ‘pushing and shoving’ them, going on to urge established whistle blower Nigel Owens not to fall for it this weekend. Some lovely agenda setting from the walking heartburn solution there, right out of the playbook of another famous Glaswegian - Sir Alex Ferguson.
Astonishingly this is Saracens’ eighth European Cup quarter-final in a row, an outstanding achievement for a team that has real pedigree in this tournament and has won two of the previous three finals. The gloves are off for this one, and I’m looking forward to a high-scoring contest with plenty of tries from both sides with Saracens running away with it at the end.
Saracens by 12
Ulster Can Upset Leinster’s Applecart
Ulster travel to the Aviva Stadium this weekend knowing that they have as good an opportunity as ever to get one over their southern rivals. That may sound strange given the class and pedigree of their opposition on Saturday evening, but the Ulster men are enjoying a fine season under Dan MacFarland’s tutelage.
The men in white are competing in the European knock-out stages for the first time since 2014 after some sterling performances in the pool campaign saw them progress as one of the best-placed runners-up, and they go to Dublin this weekend with form and confidence behind them.
The task facing them is a daunting one: Leinster are the defending European and domestic champions and have won four of the last ten finals in this tournament; their team sheet contains more Lions than Longleat Safari Park and the Dubliners scored more points and more tries than any other team in the pool stages.
They also have the world player of the year in Jonny Sexton at fly-half and one of the most consistent and explosive forward packs in European rugby. In short, they are a hard team to beat even when they have an off-day.
On the bright side for the Belfast boys, Ulster’s travelling army of around 15,000 die-hard fans will quash any talk of home advantage, whilst the return of captain Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Ian Henderson will provide some welcome ballast to their ranks. With only 5 victories in their last 16 games against Leinster, however, the odds would not seem to be in Ulster’s favour.
There’s always an upset at the quarter-final stages in this tournament, though, and I just have a sneaky suspicion Ulster are going to do something special this weekend in what should an almightily engrossing all-Ireland affair.
Ulster by 4
Upstarts Edinburgh Revel In ‘Underdog’ Role
Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh know they are 80 minutes away from reaching the last four of European rugby’s premier tournament for the first time since 2012 as they prepare to host Munster at Murrayfield.
Regardless of the outcome of this game, it has already been a remarkable European campaign for the Scottish side: they achieved Mission Impossible by qualifying from a pool that contained some of rugby’s most decorated aristocracy in three-time champions Toulon and moneybags Montpellier, and in doing so reached the knockouts for just the third time in their history.
To put that in perspective, their opponents this weekend have been here seventeen times before and have won the tournament twice outright.
The hosts come into this game on the back of a polished 28-11 win over an admittedly under-strength Leinster, but the balance of their dynamic backrow and the fluidity of their play with ball in hand are the envy of Europe at the moment.
Munster look like typical Munster this year: they boast the meanest defence in the tournament, conceded the fewest tries in the pool stages at a measly 12 points per game and their dogged pack – comprising the likes of Peter O’Mahoney, CJ Stander and Tadgh Beirne – are absolute gits at the breakdown.
That said, Edinburgh’s back row, bolstered by John Barclay’s return, is also riddled with class and the tussle for quick ball looks set to be a defining feature here. On that note, keep an eye out for ref Pascal Gaüzere, one of the harder to read whistle-tooters out there. At times fastidious, the Frenchman’s failure to locate his cards after five 2nd half Welsh infringements within their own 22 made him a frightfully unpopular bloke in Edinburgh just three weeks ago.
Frankly, this is a stinker to call. The men from Limerick have an intangible, emotional connection to this tournament that surpasses our laymen understanding. It has often brought out Munster’s most inner of steels, wrenching big performances from deep within to drive them through games they have no right to win.
The men in red thrive on hostile environments and backs-against-the-wall situations. I don’t think they will have that same emotional energy to harness on Saturday at what is normally a lively but by no means partisan Murrayfield. For that reason, I’m backing Edinburgh to overcome their more illustrious opponents and for the Cockerill revolution to keep on rolling, for a little longer at least.
Edinburgh by 7
Racing Have It All Toulouse
Sunday’s all-star French encounter at the La Defense Arena promises a pulsating end to what is a mouthwatering weekend of European Cup quarter-final ties. The Parisians fell at the final hurdle last year against Leinster in the Bilbao rain, their second runners-up trophy in the last three years and they are hell-bent on going one further this term. Racing face domestic rivals Toulouse, a superpower of European rugby of times gone by but a side that hasn’t featured in a European final since they beat Biarritz to the trophy in 2010.
Both sides head into this clash on the back of wins last time out in the Top 14, and will be playing in a stadium purposely and painstakingly built to ensure Hollywood entertainment on the field. With such talents on display as Finn Russell, Teddy Thomas, Romain Ntamack and Cheslin Kolby to name a few, expect fireworks on Sunday - this match could be an absolute try-fest.
Racing by 10
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