The European Rugby Champions Cup has arrived at the quarter-final stage, and it has given us some very interesting ties to look forward to. England, France and Ireland are the only countries still represented, with all the Welsh, Italian and Scottish teams having been eliminated. In this analysis, we will preview all the action, looking at the key points of each sides’ performances, picking out the key players to watch, and giving a short prediction for who will be victorious after 80 minutes is up.
La Rochelle v Sale Sharks
La Rochelle are a tricky team to go up against, because they attack well and anticipate play, moving the ball around the pitch and into spaces. Admittedly, they were playing a Gloucester side who have been struggling this season, and who gave them gaps to run through and score, but they are not a side who can be underestimated. This is shown by the fact that they are currently second in the French Top 14 domestic league, having not lost any of their 20 games this season. They are also strong defensively, and are difficult to break down at the best of times.
Sale Sharks’s biggest asset is the power they have in the forward line, particularly from hooker Akker van der Merwe, who loves to run into spaces when he has the ball, and Sale as a team are very hard to stop once they get going. Their biggest threat is in the midfield, with South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk, arguably the best nine on the planet at the moment, joined by USA international AJ MacGinty for their victory in the previous round over Scarlets, with both running the show for the team. They are strong in defence, too, but do have some areas of weakness which can be exploited by opposing attackers.
Ones to Watch:
Former Saracens lock Will Skelton is one of the driving forces in the La Rochelle team, always finding gaps and pushing his way through them, whilst number 8 Gregory Alldritt, who we know from the France team is a dangerous player, can never be given space to attack through, or he will cause plenty of problems for opposing defenders.
Sale have many weapons in their side, but the key ones are the aforementioned de Klerk, centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who is always a passing option in attack and is strong in defence, and winger Marland Yarde, who is a speedy winger with a natural try threat.
This is a tight one to call, with both sides having plenty of threat going forwards. It might well come down to which full-back is more effective in both defensive and attacking phases of play, as well as whether La Rochelle can keep de Klerk under control. However, Sale always find a way to win at the moment, even when not at their best, so we will go for them to take this tie.
Exeter Chiefs v Leinster
Exeter Chiefs might be playing rugby below their usually high standards, but still have plenty for opponents to be concerned about. They always carry a threat in and around the try area, playing quick balls as often as possible, which ensures that their opponents can’t get across to block spaces off. Their driving game is also a key feature in their tactics, and will likely be present in this tie too. They did show a few defensive frailties against Lyon in the last round, as they have in most games this season, but they will still be difficult to beat.
Leinster, currently comfortably leading their Pro14 group, gained a bye in the last round, with Toulon reporting a positive Covid-19 test in their camp, and the match being cancelled as a result. However, they have plenty of talent in their squad, and the key thing to watch with them is the set-pieces, particularly scrums, as they have experienced Ireland props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong in the front row, and both are capable of causing issues for their opponents at all times. The other things to watch are the breakdowns, with Leinster’s players always looking to get to the ball before opponents do, making it hard for opposing players to jackal it on the ground.
Ones to Watch:
Exeter have quality throughout their team, but the ones to keep an eye on will be flanker Dave Ewers, who is one of the best tacklers in the English Premiership at the moment, as well as fellow back row forward Sam Simmonds, who is currently the Premiership’s top try-scorer. Scotland captain Stuart Hogg will also be driving the team forward from the back, with the full-back likely to get involved in a lot of their attacking play.
Leinster and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton will likely control the game from fly-half, and we all know the experience and knowhow he will bring to the pitch. Meanwhile, centre Robbie Henshaw will be leading from the front in midfield, aiming to offer himself as a passing option at every opportunity and take advantage of gaps whenever they appear.
This is a difficult one to call, because it pits the defending champions against arguably the strongest team in Ireland. However, with Leinster missing several key and influential players, such as centre Garry Ringrose and flanker James Ryan, it is possible that Exeter might just have enough to get past them, but it will be an interesting game to watch nonetheless.
Bordeaux-Begles v Racing 92
Bordeaux-Begles are another team who like to punish opponents who leave gaps open, and are also capable of creating spaces if none are available, making them a very dangerous side to play against. They are strong defensively as well, being hard to break down, and opponents need to be on top form to get past them.
Racing 92 are arguably one of the strongest teams in France at the moment, and are another who have not lost any of their 20 games in the Top 14. They have plenty of quality all around the pitch, such as France centre Virimi Vakatawa, who is able to move through defences at will, such is his natural power on the field. They didn’t have to do too much defensively in the last round against Edinburgh, because they dominated the game and kept the ball mainly in the Scottish side’s half, but they have the players necessary to defend effectively if they have to.
Ones to Watch:
Bordeaux have some good players to keep an eye on, but the standouts are Argentina winger Santiago Cordero, formerly of Exeter Chiefs and Buenos Aires-based Jaguares, who is a quick winger with a proven track record of scoring tries, as well as fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, who proved an able understudy to Romain Ntamack for France during this year’s Six Nations, and possesses a good kicking game.
Racing, meanwhile, have plenty of good players to watch. Winger Teddy Thomas is almost unplayable when in form, but he does blow hot and cold a lot of the time. The half-backs are likely to be crucial to their game, with Maxime Machenaud and Scotland’s Finn Russell at scrum-half and fly-half respectively, and both are likely to dictate the majority of their play.
This French derby is a difficult one to call confidently, because Racing have the players to win the game, but Bordeaux took the English Premiership’s top side Bristol Bears apart in the last round, so both sides are capable of playing good attacking rugby and winning the game. Bordeaux are the home side, but Racing might just come through in the end regardless. It will be tight though, either way.
ASM Clermont-Auvergne v Toulouse
Clermont-Auvergne have plenty of threat, and are always up there as one of the stronger sides in European rugby. They like to find space and punish defenders as much as possible, with the attacking power to be able to do that competently and consistently. Even when the spaces available are very small and hard to break through, they find a way through. They aren’t the best side defensively, though, as they tend to crumble a little bit when teams run at them with pace and momentum, so this is an area opponents can target to break them down.
Toulouse, currently leading the Top 14, have plenty of creativity in attack, especially now that star France fly-half Romain Ntamack is back after a long time out with injury. They also move the ball with pace, making them difficult to stop and a big threat to opposing defences. Their own defence generally doesn’t do much wrong, as the tries they conceded against Munster in the last round were because of Munster’s good play rather than mistakes being made, so we can expect them to be strong at the back in this tie.
Ones to Watch:
Winger Damian Penaud is the danger player for Clermont, constantly finding spaces and scoring tries, and the France international is likely to play a big role in this game too. Japan international Kotaro Matsushima is also a name most will have heard of, with the versatile back attracting international attention after his hat-trick of tries in the opening 2019 Rugby World Cup game against Russia. He has continued that form in French rugby, and brings a lot to Clermont’s attacking game.
Aside from the aforementioned Ntamack, scrum-half Antoine Dupont is another name everyone will be familiar with, and their partnership is likely to be the driving force in Toulouse’s performance in this tie. Wingers Yoann Huget and Cheslin Kolbe (of France and South Africa respectively) are also key threats, and we can expect that both will play a part in the game at some point.
This is another difficult one to call, with both teams having wingers who can score tries, and it may well be the influential partnership of Dupont and Ntamack that secures the tie for Toulouse, especially if they charge at Clermont with pace and break them down, as mentioned earlier. It will be an interesting game to watch, because both are capable of playing well and winning, but Toulouse are more likely to advance to the next round on balance.