After time away due to domestic and international commitments, the European Champions Cup returns this weekend with four potentially thrilling quarter-finals on offer.
The goal for all four of the sides is a place in the final at Bilbao’s wonderful San Mames Stadium on May 12 and we will start with the clash between two of the surprise packages of the competition.
Friday’s match between the Scarlets and La Rochelle features two teams who appear on the rise. Both topped their respective pools, with Wayne Pivac’s team overcoming Toulon in January to book their place in the knockout stage, while tournament debutants Stade got the better of both Wasps and Ulster to progress.
Scarlets have reached this stage of the tournament twice in their history, with their best result a semi-final defeat to Leicester back in 2007. After winning the Pro12 for the first time since 2004 last season, they have again progressed and have the craft and guile behind the scrum to harm their opponents, and are 39/4 to win the tournament outright.
As already mentioned, this is new territory for La Rochelle but that is not to say they do not have plenty of experience. Coaches Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa both enjoyed success in the competition as players at Toulouse, while they can also call on World Cup winners Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
These two will look to guide their team around the field and it could be a tight game in Carmarthenshire, with the breakdown set to be crucial.
However, home advantage is often the key and, having beaten Toulon at Parc y Scarlets, Pivac’s men could just about sneak through. With the home win a short price, that outcome with a -4.5 handicap appeals at 10/13, as does the 6/5 for the Llanelli side to be leading at both half time and full time.
Saturday’s game comes from Limerick where Munster, who have won the event on two occasions, welcome three-time champions Toulon.
The Irish outfit overcame some overwhelmingly emotional circumstances to reach the semi-finals last term. After topping Pool 3, there is a feeling we could be on the verge of another golden period for the famous club, with 29/4 a good price for them to win a third title.
Toulon are arguably on the other side of the curve as, having won the tournament in 2013, ’14 and ’15, they have fallen at this stage in each of the last two seasons. Local boys Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray embody the determination of this famous province and, having been part of the recent Grand Slam-winning Ireland team, they will be raring to go.
Mourad Boudjellal continues to pour money into the club but there is more of a French feel to the current squad, although they still possess international stars such as JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana. A 49-0 win over Clermont last time out showed their form but they perhaps still have something to prove on the road.
There is also the Thomond Park factor. Munster have been practically invincible on the ground over the years, with the All Blacks amongst those to fall short in Limerick over the years. Twelve months ago it was Toulouse who were the victims and it could be a similar story for Toulon.
There is something special about Munster in Europe and an incredible 13th semi-final appearance beckons at 10/13 with a -3.5 handicap.
Of the two Sunday’s fixtures, the early one is an all-French affair between two of the competition’s nearly sides. Both Clermont and Racing 92 have been to the final in the past, only to fall short.
Clermont’s most recent trip to the showpiece was last year and it was again a case of disappointment. Three times they have been to the final and three times they have lost – a record that adds to the feeling of a soft centre at the heart of Les Jaunards. However, they did get revenge over Sarries by beating them home and away to top Pool 2 and will feel this could be their year (33/10) despite the fact they sit ninth in the Top 14.
Racing are newer to the European stage and, like Toulon, have a glorious past and after a spell in the doldrums are back in the big time thanks to the millions of charismatic owner Jacky Lorenzetti. A defeat to Saracens in the 2016 showdown is their best performance in this competition but they are strong having been runners-up to Munster in Pool 4.
Any team that can rest Dan Carter for the big games has to be considered dangerous and they are going well at home, sitting second to Montpellier. One of the results that contributed to that was January’s 58-6 win over Clermont but Franck Azema’s men are a different animal at home.
Much like Thomond Park, the Stade Marcel-Michelin is a fortress and the crowd can often be the 16th man. Clermont won 23-21 when these two met back in September in Auvergne, with another tight one is expected, and if there is to be an upset, Racing could just cause it at 19/10.
Finally to arguably the game of the round as Leinster welcome Saracens to the Aviva on Sunday. The Irish outfit have reached the semi-finals in each of the last two seasons without adding to their three titles, while Sarries are the double reigning champions after success in both 2016 and 2017.
Like Munster, Leinster contributed heavily to Ireland’s Grand Slam success and are sat top of their Pro14 conference. Few of these stars played in the weekend’s defeat to the Ospreys and Jonathan Sexton and Tadgh Furlong are just two of those set to return, and it is perhaps unsurprising they lead the tournament betting at 23/20.
Saracens had a strange autumn which cost them a chance of top seeding but seem to be getting themselves together. Last weekend’s win over Harlequins at the London Stadium was achieved without Owen Farrell, and a leg injury may again keep him sidelined. The cool-headed Alex Lozowski is an able deputy but perhaps lacks the big-game experience of his colleague.
After its reopening in 2010, the old Lansdowne Road has quickly become one of the continent’s premier sports grounds and that atmosphere is sure to be electric. Home advantage could be the defining factor and 4/5 in the half time/full time market looks good, as does them to win with a -6.5 handicap at 10/13.
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