Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-finals: Leinster vs Saracens (3pm kick off); Clermont vs Racing 92 (5.45pm kick off)
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 15/09/20 6:25pm
We take a closer look at the talking points ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final clashes as Leinster face Saracens, and Clermont host Racing 92…
The favourites and the chasing pack…
The first mouth-watering quarter-final sees Leinster, the recently crowned PRO14 champions, face Saracens, the defending Premiership and European champions, but now disgraced outfit due to salary cap breaches and a subsequent points deduction.
The quarter-final is a replay of last season’s final, with the venue swapped from Newcastle’s St James’ Park to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, accounting for Leinster’s No 1 seeding.
Leo Cullen’s Irish province became domestic champions last week in some style, breezing past Ulster 27-5 to cap an entire campaign undefeated. An extraordinary achievement, albeit having played six league games less due to Covid-19’s impact and the PRO14’s emergency restructure. The title was their third triumph in as many years.
Leinster are seeking to appear in a third European Cup final on the spin, having beaten Racing 92 in Bilbao in 2018, before losing to Saracens last year. And like in the PRO14, Leinster are unbeaten in Europe this campaign, having sauntered past the likes of Benetton, Lyon and Northampton.
With their achievements in recent years, Leinster find themselves in a perennial cycle of success. Domestic title wins see them enter the European Cup in the top tier of seedings, facing the weakest sides to have qualified, which in turn puts them in a position to finish as one of the top pool leaders, earning a home quarter-final and then what should be home country advantage in the semi-finals.
Leinster have been in the somewhat unique position of having been allowed to play both their quarter-finals and semi-finals at the Aviva Stadium in recent years, however. An arena where they play all of their biggest games of the season, and where they very seldom lose.
Should Leinster defeat Saracens in Dublin this Saturday, then they will host either Clermont or Racing 92 in the same stadium at the semi-final stage this year too. And with the final having been moved from Marseilles’ Stade Velodrome for the climax to this 2019/20 edition, there is potential that may yet be in Dublin as well.
It’s all set up for Leinster to go on and claim what would be a historic fifth crown, therefore, but the chasing pack are hungry.
Saracens may be the defending champions, but with relegation to the Championship confirmed, this will be their final European encounter for what could be sometime. They have, literally, nothing to lose.
Clermont are perhaps the most talented club side yet to have won the European Cup, but have come close on so many occasions and will be desperate to reach the pinnacle this year, while fellow quarter-finalists Racing 92, Toulouse and Ulster all have recent history with Leinster.
Ulster have just lost the PRO14 final to their rivals; Racing – like Clermont, yet to have won a European Cup – lost a final they probably shouldn’t have to Leinster two years ago; Toulouse were dumped out at last season’s semi-final stage in Dublin.
Throw into the mix Exeter, who are finally looking to translate their outstanding domestic form into European success, and the chasing pack are ravenous.
Farrell’s costly, costly ban
The spice of Saturday’s opening occasion has been dimmed somewhat, though, by the enormously untimely suspension of Saracens’ key man Owen Farrell.
The England out-half’s ban has been a long time coming due to suspect tackle technique, and many will argue that five games is nowhere near enough for the severity of the challenge he put in on Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson, connecting with full force via a swinging arm to the Wasps man’s head.
It was a gruesome tackle, and one which has no place. But it’s consequences are likely disastrous for Saracens.
Any team in Europe would be improved by Farrell’s presence, but Mark McCall’s charges must now take on a side at the peak of their confidence away from home, without arguably their most important performer.
It’s far from ideal, and all eyes will be on Manu Vunipola, the probable replacement.
Two of Europe’s biggest in an all-French affair
The other quarter-final on Saturday sees an all Top-14 showing, as Clermont welcome Racing 92 to the Stade Marcel Michelin.
As mentioned above, both have been to the precipice of Europe, only to fall short in accomplishing the holy grail. In fact, over the last seven years, Clermont (2013, 2015, 2017) and Racing (2016, 2018) have appeared in five different finals between them without victory.
In sealing Challenge Cup final victory last season by beating La Rochelle, the men from the Auvergne arrested a run of three consecutive European final defeats, but there is perhaps no club in the world that has experienced the sort of heartbreak Clermont and their fans have.
Indeed, they have suffered an incredible 24 final losses in the club’s history (12 French Championship finals, three European Cup finals, one Challenge Cup final, six Yves du Manoir losses and two Coupe de France losses). And the appetite for this Champions Cup trophy stands above all else.
Racing are somewhat of an enigma. Capable of unstoppable play one minute, but also unfathomably poor performances the next.
In 2018, they should have beaten Leinster in the final, and that despite having lost playmakers Maxime Machenaud, Dan Carter and Pat Lambie the week before, in the warm-up, and minutes into the game respectively.
Last season, Racing cruised through the pool stages, only to lose their home quarter-final to Toulouse despite their opponents receiving a red card on just 23 minutes.
And this season, Racing would have booked a home quarter-final place if they had won at Saracens in the last round, but chose to rotate their squad, and must now travel to one of Europe’s toughest places. Though they did win a quarter-final away to Clermont two years ago. The Parisians are a contradiction in terms.
It’s a knockout tie which is impossible to call, but with some of the stars of world rugby on show including Peceli Yato, Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Damian Penaud, Alivereti Raka, Kotaro Matsushima and Tim Nanai-Williams in the Clermont ranks, and Kurtley Beale, Finn Russell, Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff on the Racing side, just about anything is possible.
Source : Sky Sports