It’s shaping up to be an epic weekend of Champions Cup rugby with two titanic clashes between four previous winning heavyweights in Saracens, Munster, Toulouse and current holders Leinster. PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy has run the rule over the two Semi Final encounters to see who he feels will make the Champions Cup Final in Newcastle on Saturday 11 May. Read his preview below.
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Rugby fans, young and old, have a real treat in store this weekend when two classic Champions Cup Semi Final match ups do battle in the spring sunshine in Coventry and Dublin.
Munster face might of Saracens
First up my old club Munster face the daunting trip to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena to face an ominously strong looking Saracens in a rematch of their one sided 2017 Semi Final clash in Dublin (Heineken Champions Cup Semi Final Saracens v Munster, Ricoh Arena, KO 3pm, BT Sport). Munster are on a bit of a roll at moment, with a four game winning streak including their gutsy away win against Edinburgh in the Champions Cup Quarter Finals. Their most recent win, away to Treviso in the Guinness Pro 14 can’t be underestimated – people might be surprised how much a squad takes out of that type of result in terms of confidence and momentum. It took no little grit to come from behind to capture a massive 5 points away from home, keeping everyone in the group on their toes. That form and the competition for starting places that it creates, could be crucial now that some big names have been ruled out of Saturday’s game.
It goes without saying that the loss of probably the most in-form back in Irish rugby, Keith Earls, is a big blow. Add in the absence of Joey Carbery at 10, after he failed a fitness test to get back in time, and that’s two talented game breakers out of the mix. Their replacements, Darren Sweetnam and Tyler Bleyendaal, are top rate players but there’s a gap in big game experience that is hard to substitute. On a more positive note, Jean Kleyn and Jack O’Donoghue have shaken off knocks to make it into what is still a very strong starting XV. Saracens, for their part, are pretty much at full strength, with their English stars in Messers Farrell, Itoje, George, Kruis (making his 50th Champions Cup appearance) and the Vunipola brothers starting for this one.
Needless to say, as recent past Champions and Semi Finalists in 6 of the last 7 years, Saracens are proper contenders and anyone taking any comfort from their shock loss away to Bristol Bears in the Premiership might be better to look at their dismantling of Glasgow in the Quarter Finals to see what they are capable of. After a dip last year, they are right back at their best this year and their big game quality is without question. The key to their ongoing success is an absolutely peerless defensive game, something Munster had simply no answer for at this stage 2 years ago. There’s no doubt that Johann Van Gran and Felix Jones will have been working overtime to figure ways to better tackle this awesome challenge. Sarries also have attacking threats all over the park (they’ve score more points and tries per game in the Champions Cup this season than any other side), with probably one of the most dangerous runners in the world in Welsh wizard Liam Williams on the wing. But for me, Alex Goode is the unsung hero in their ranks, a consummate footballer at 15. How Eddie Jones continues to ignore him is ‘answers on a postcard’ mind boggling!
In terms of the likely game dynamics, I’m expecting Munster to fully utilize their kicking game to try to unsettle the Saracens back three. This is going to require absolutely clinical execution by the half backs Bleyendaal and Murray, plus some smart kicking options by Rory Scannell and Mike Halley. The likeliest target will be Sean Maitland on the Saracens wing with Darren Sweetnam’s footballing abilities and pace being the edge that Munster hope they can play on here. However, they can’t rely on aerial bombardment alone to win this one. They are going to have to mix some territorial kicking with laser like handling and ball retention if they’re going get the result. Away from home in great conditions for rugby, Munster are going to need to be super accurate in possession and hugely combative without the ball. They will need to suffocate the space, apply massive line pressure and really compete for the ball on the ground. Needless to say the back row battle will be monstrous and they need to deny big Billy Vuniopla the gain line if they want to really rattle the Sarries machine. Munster’s Tadhg Beirne and his turnover pressure (he has the most Champions Cup turnovers this season at 14) could be the real joker in the pack here.
As long as Munster start with the expected intensity, I’d see this being a real battle for 80 minutes, with a few moments, whether enforced errors or genius, being the difference between the teams. With their team, bench, form and experience, it’s hard to see Saracens falling short if playing to their best but in a Semi Final against the men in Red, it’s never too wise to write off the upset and another wonderful chapter in Munster’s love affair with this great competition, their record 14th Semi Final appearance. My head prediction is Saracens to win by 10 but my heart perdiction is Munster to just edge it like they did when beating Saracens 18-16 on the way to winning it in 2008.
Leinster hoping for Aviva glory
Sunday’s second Semi Final (Heineken Champions Cup Semi Final Leinster v Stade Toulousain, Ricoh Arena, KO 3.15pm, BT Sport) in front of a packed Aviva Stadium could be a game for the ages. For me, Leinster are still the best team in Europe and despite some patchy Pro 14 form, with no win since beating Ulster in that epic Quarter Final, they are still the team to beat. There’s been much said about the possible advantage in the Aviva Stadium serving as the ‘neutral’ venue for this one but both teams will raise their game and intensity for the occasion so I think that’s over egged.
Looking at the sides, Leinster have added back in some serious heavy metal since their Quarter Final win. Being able to bring in Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw is massive, with the only minor doubt around match fitness being balanced out by how well these guys have played when fresh in the past. The other major boost is the addition of older statesman Rob Kearney between the two electric performers Jordan Larmour (has started all their Champions Cup games this season) and James Lowe. The pack is pretty much at full strength, in the absence of injured Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy, with some great additions like Scott Fardy and Max Deegan to be sprung from the bench when the legs start to empty in the spring heat. The powerhouse of James Ryan and Devin Toner is crucial, with Ryan’s incredible workrate (one of just two players to have made 100+ tackles and 100+ carries in the Champions Cup this season) so important to the Leinster gameplan. The absence of Andrew Porter and Jamison Gibson-Park in the 23 is big but that just shows the strength in depth that Leinster have to call on.
Toulouse are in serious form in the Top 14 this season, sitting top 8 points clear of Clermont and with the second best points difference in the League. The general opinion was that they’d get edged by Racing 92 in the Quarter Final but they showed their pedigree and bottle that day to nick the game 21-22 away from home. They may have been beaten in early January when they traveled to the RDS for the group stage clash but they’ve really grown into the season and will be a different proposition on a warm dry spring day. Leinster won’t need much reminding of the defeat they suffered Stade Ernest Wallon back in October and they’ll be on their guard big style after Toulouse made some really big selection calls in their starting XV.
It’s a really big shout to go for Antoine Dupont at out half and ex-Connacht centre Pita Akhi instead of rising French national star Romain Ntamack in centre. Dupont is a smart and capable footballer but Leinster will see targeting him as a golden opportunity to disrupt the Toulouse game. Having said that, the French side have star quality throughout their squad, with game breakers in Cheslin Kolbe and Yoann Huget in particular. Their pack also has some serious big guns, none more so than ex-All Black Jerome Kaino, who will relish his likely last ever big match clash with the departing Sean O’Brien. Their bench is unbelievably strong, with Selevasio Tolofua, Romain Ntamack and Maxime Médard all likely to add significant danger when they get brought on 55-60 minutes into proceedings.
There’s only one way that Toulouse really want to play and that makes them the jokers in the last four of the competition. Their willingness to have a go, playing without apparent fear, is a throwback to the club’s European heyday and it’s made them firm favourites with neutrals. They have the ideal balance of youth and experience. A lot around this game will depend on how much intensity and accuracy both teams bring to the opening 15-20 minutes of the game, with Toulouse’s attitude and reaction to that atmosphere key. They simply didn’t show up for the first half of the RDS group stage game, meaning Leinster were able to strangle them with their controlled possession game and strike plays. It’s hard not to see this game being a few levels higher in terms of it’s speed and intensity.
I’m expecting the ball to stay in play for significant periods of time, with both sides believing they can hurt the other if getting quick ball and key offloads to hand. Leinster have been here and got the medals, so with Johnny returning, they’ll be looking to pull Toulouse out of shape with clever tactical kicking, smart running lines and quick ball. There will be opportunities presented to them by Toulouse risk taking – Sofiane Guitoune (16 offloads), Joe Tekori (16) and Thomas Ramos (12) top the Champions Cup offloads charts this season. If the French discipline isn’t 100% around ruck time, it’s very easy to see ref Wayne Barnes pinging them, allowing Leinster to build a lead that won’t be easy to claw back.
Given all the variables involved and with a sold out Aviva behind them, I’m plumping for a Leinster win by 12 and the mouth watering prospect of another Champions Cup Final appearance for Irish Rugby fans to look forward to in May.