An exciting weekend of European rugby awaits as the last four teams face one last hurdle before reaching the longed-for sun of a Bilbao Final. Leinster will have to overcome the in-form Scarlets, while Munster will have to slay the French giants, Racing 92. Seeing as both Saracens and Toulon have been knocked out, the tournament is set to have a new winner for the first time in 5 years. At this point it certainly seems hard to pick a champion, but after this weekend there will only be eighty minutes of rugby before the answer is provided.
The first clash between Leinster and Scarlets on Saturday afternoon is a battle between two sides both riding a wave of excellent form. Leinster are yet to be beaten in this competition and have been labelled as the favourites for this year. In their quarter-final, they had to overcome Saracens, who have dominated the competition in recent years. Leinster not only beat the English powerhouse but scored thirty points past one of the tightest defences in the Aviva Premiership. This game was dubbed as “England vs Ireland round two” and for justifiable reasons as Saracens paraded eight English internationals in their starting team, while Leinster had an impressive twelve players capped by Ireland, freshly returning from a Grand Slam.
Among these was the talisman Johnny Sexton, one of the best fly-halves in the game. One can certainly expect Sexton to have an impact on the upcoming fixture and, having dominated the quarter-final, he will no doubt be a worry for the Welsh team due to his game management abilities. Sexton recently stated that “small moments win big games”, causing one to immediately think back to the small moment of a final-play drop goal to win Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France. The rugby world knows that Sexton is a big game player and is more than used to the accompanying pressures of knockout rugby, thus it is hard to see past Sexton dominating this tie.
As for the opposition, Scarlets are sat in second place to Leinster in their Pro14 conference and have enjoyed major success so far in the competition, beating the likes of Bath, Toulon and, most recently, La Rochelle in their quarter-final. It is their first semi-final appearance in eleven years and they are certainly gathering momentum. With Leigh Halfpenny at the helm, armed with his punishing boot, any penalties conceded by Leinster within fifty metres will be a concern for Leinster. In their most recent game back in March, it finished in a 10-10 draw so this will be a closely fought contest, but I expect Leinster will put an end to the Scarlets’ cup success.
On Sunday, Racing 92 shall welcome Munster to Bordeaux. Racing 92 are the last of the French teams still standing after Munster edged past three time winners, Toulon, thanks to a seventy-fifth minute wonder-try from Andrew Conway. Munster were perhaps also slightly fortunate that referee Nigel Owens judged covering full-back, Simon Zebo, not to have deliberately knocked the ball dead earlier in the game; this most definitely was not the opinion of would-be try scorer Chris Ashton. Although, this type of fortune is required for success in big competitions and this would be Munster’s first win in the elite competition for ten years. One man to watch in their ranks is Conor Murray, recently nominated for European Player of the Year, as his precise kicking game and sniping at the breakdown will keep the French side on their toes. With a strong pack ahead of him Murray will be looking to utilise his outer backs.
Racing 92, while sitting third in the Top 14, boast the likes of All Blacks legend, Dan Carter and French flyer, Teddy Thomas. Perhaps most interestingly however is Fijian giant, Leone Nakarawa, who has completed the most offloads in the competition with nineteen, and thus points towards how Racing aim to play with speed, especially when they are in behind the Munster defence. It should also be noted that twenty-eight of the forty-four European Cup semi-finals to date have been won by the club with home country advantage. This game promises to be a true European contest, and with such a vast number of quality players on show I doubt it will disappoint.
If I had to predict the results, my money would be on an all Irish final. However, one should not rule out the attacking flare that Scarlets and Racing 92 will bring to their respective ties, making these semi-finals an intriguing prospect, bound to excite.