GRAEME PEACOCK looks ahead to this weekend’s European Champions Cup semi-finals in Dublin and Bordeaux.
LEINSTER vs SCARLETS (Dublin, Saturday, 16:30)
The Champions Cup has been a thrilling tournament thus far, however, on paper the first of the semi-finals has the potential to be a one-sided affair.
Leinster have been the pick of the northern hemisphere sides this season and they have been in outstanding form in the Champions Cup. Leo Cullen’s side is the only one with a 100% win record. They finished top of Pool 3, sweeping aside the Exeter Chiefs, Montpellier and Glasgow Warriors to qualify for the knockout stage.
The Dublin-based side is littered with Irish internationals as well as the odd sprinkle of foreign influence. The well-drilled forward pack has continually dominated up front and contains quality players in the form of Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Scott Fardy, Devin Toner and Sean O’Brien, to name a few. It is therefore not surprising that they have swept all before them.
There is no let-up for the opposition behind the scrum either, with the likes of the strong-running Robbie Henshaw, captain Isa Nacewa and the reliable Rob Kearney in the backline. Johnny Sexton, who is among the top No 10s in the game, brings dangerous players like young Irish superstar Jordan Larmour in to play. Leinster are a well-rounded team and it is no surprise the bookies have them as favourites to lift the Champions Cup.
The Scarlets are the last remaining Welsh representative in the tournament and have gone about their business under the radar. While they have never previously reached a final in the premier European event, there is a quiet confidence within this set of players.
The Scarlets managed to top Pool 5, which contained Bath, Benetton and the extremely dangerous Toulon. In a closely contested pool, the Scarlets lost 21-20 at the Stade Mayol before beating Toulon 30-27 at Parc y Scarlets, showing that this is a side you underestimate at your peril.
The Scarlets’ workman-like pack is a constant menace at the breakdown, with the likes of Scotland captain John Barclay and Aaron Shingler leading the charge. They have a solid front row, including British & Irish Lion Ken Owens as well as Samson Lee at tighthead prop. Former Bulls prop Werner Kruger regularly appears from the bench.
The backline is packed full of quality internationals and the halfback pairing of Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell were in impressive form during the pool stage (Patchell will be at fullback for this semi-final with Dan Jones at flyhalf). The industrious centre pairing of former Kings player Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams are as reliable as they come. The points machine, Leigh Halfpenny, has had a great season and brings an all-round stability and sense of calm to this outfit.
Leinster and the Scarlets are currently positioned one and two respectively in Conference B of the Pro14. The side from Ireland is being heavily tipped to win this semi-final clash but the Scarlets will be hoping they have something to say about that.
Leinster – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
Scarlets – 15 Rhys Patchell, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Steve Cummins, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Steff Hughes, 23 Will Boyde.
RACING 92 vs MUNSTER (Bordeaux, Sunday, 16:15)
These sides were in the same pool, with Munster finishing top, followed closely by Racing. Munster won the first pool game between the teams at Thomond Park 14-7 with tries by Conor Murray and Andrew Conway. The second was a more open affair as Racing won 34-30 at the U Arena to qualify for the knockout stage.
The French club didn’t have it all their own way in the pool stage and will be hoping that their impressive quarter-final away win against Clermont Auvergne will be a catalyst for Champions Cup success.
Their forward pack has a certain steel about it and the second-row duo of Leone Nakarawa and former Munster legend Donnacha Ryan have been leading the charge with some strong displays in the loose. Evergreen No 2 Dimitri Szarzewski has been passed fit for this encounter and will no doubt come off the bench at some stage. The 35-year-old, who has 83 caps for France, still has the potential to turn a game with some blistering loose play.
However, it is the back division where the danger lies and with Maxime Machenaud and Pat Lambie at No 9 and 10 – and Dan Carter set to make an impact off the bench – it is clear to see why they will be a difficult side to beat come Sunday.
From a Springbok point of view, there is no doubt that Rassie Erasmus will be looking at Lambie after a series of superb displays for the French side, while Carter will be hoping to add a Champions Cup medal to his long list of honours.
Racing’s wings are electric when they get their hands on the ball, with crowd favourite Teddy Thomas and Marc Andreu set to start on Sunday, and former All Blacks flyer Joe Rokocoko on the bench.
There is a South African feel to this Munster side, through coach Johann van Graan and his coaching team as well as players like CJ Stander, Jean Kleyn and Gerbrandt Grobler. Chris Cloete was in unbelievable form before his injury setback.
Dave Kilcoyne has been playing well in the front row and never takes a step backwards at both scrum time and in the loose. Kleyn’s stocks are increasing up north and it is clear to see why he is so highly rated in Europe with some fantastic displays in the second row.
There is no shortage of quality loose forwards, and in CJ Stander and captain Peter O’Mahony, you have two of the best. O’Mahony is the heartbeat of this side and like former British & Irish Lions legend Paul O’Connell, he truly leads from the front. Stander has an engine second to none, and his ball-carrying is an important aspect of Munster’s play.
In the back division, Conor Murray is arguably the best No 9 in the world and it remains to be seen if flyhalf Ian Keatley can step up to the plate and control the game against Lambie.
Simon Zebo is an enigma and his running play from fullback is a joy to watch, but he will start this match on the bench.
The player who can do no wrong at the moment is wing Keith Earls. The 30-year-old is in the form of his life and don’t be surprised to see his name on the score sheet.
Racing 92 – 15 Louis Dupichot, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Yannick Nyanga, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Subs: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vasil Kakovin, 18 Viliamu Afatia, 19 Antonie Claassen, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Teddy Iribaren, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Joe Rokocoko.
Munster – 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Sammy Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Gerbrandt Grobler, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 James Hart, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Simon Zebo.
Photo: Brendan Moran/Getty Images