Aside from the festivities of the Easter holidays this weekend, much of the focus for rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere will fully be on the Heineken Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup semifinals.
Reaching the knockout stages after six rounds of intense competition. This saw challengers for the 2018/19 titles match up against sides from across European Professional Rugby Club (EPRC) leagues – from the Guinness PRO14, French Top 14 and Gallagher Premiership competitions.
This elite group has now been dwindled down to eight sides; with semifinals in both the Heineken Champions Cup, and the highly charged ERCP Challenge Cup.
🙌 IT'S SEMI-FINAL WEEK 🙌
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 15, 2019
Not long now! 🙌
Who are your finalists? Let us know 👇 pic.twitter.com/Ii48SHltdm
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) April 15, 2019
So what should fans expect? Is each side at their peak to face the other? and, which team is favoured in this knockout-type rugby?
Each question has valid answers. not predictions, as every fan can visit a sports betting site to gain that. And with the plethora of ‘previews’ out there, most will feel all has been said for all four match-ups. So Last Word on Rugby will briefly look at the strengths and weaknesses of all eight sides.
Heineken Champions Cup participants
No doubt, this club has Champions Cup pedigree. Multi-time champions, and very comfortable in this knockout rugby stage. One factor that is heavily in their favour, when they square up against Munster Rugby.
Ranked first in points scored, tries scored and lineouts won. Their attack is formidable – when on song. So at their best, they go into any fixture as the leader. However, not leading the Premiership has taken away some of their ‘invincibility’.
(2) Leinster Rugby
They are reigning champions and this Irish club is going to defend their status as title holders. That is a strength, a confidence boost and one that the collected International players will use to aim toward another Cup final appearance.
(3) Stade Toulousain
Toulouse appear to have the credentials in 2019. They head the French Top 14 league, and are an astute opponent for Leinster. They head the table in offloads, third in clean breaks. That will mean plenty when they travel Dublin this Easter weekend.
(4) Munster Rugby
This team looks good across the board. One of the better-organized defences, where they are ranked number one in the critical metric of ‘turnovers won’. This will be a constant threat to Saracens, and even while they have that solid red line to count on – against the highest points scorers…..can they hold out the most effective attack [over 80 minutes].
Note: this will be a record 14th Champions Cup semi-final appearance for Munster. Importantly though, they go in as underdogs, when they travel to the Ricoh Arena in London this holiday weekend.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) April 16, 2019
European Rugby Challenge Cup competitors
(1) ASM Clermont Auvergne
Number one ranked, unbeaten over the six regular-season rounds. Clermont may sit second in their league, but in this season’s European Rugby Challenge Cup, they are well positioned. Tries, points, defenders beaten (by over 30 from their nearest rival) so, the measures are being met from Vern Cotter and his Clermont side.
The only area of concern is a minimal number of offloads. They could be held back here, where opponents Harlequins are one of the better defending teams. Offensive-defense is a weapon in 2019, and Clermont must beware of that threat.
(2) La Rochelle
Another French club who are in a purple patch of form in Europe. They waltzed past the high-flying Bristol Bears, and now look to make another Premiership side their conquest. That focus is one where the Top 14 side can be confident.
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) April 18, 2019
(3) Sale Sharks
A team who wish to revive some good fortune in European Rugby, the Steve Diamond coached team overcame plenty over this year, to reach semifinal status. Not yet where they may hope they can reach, it is going to take (virtually) everything they have, to do so.
Not heading any of the key metrics rankings, Sale will hope that a good place in ‘tackles made’ demonstrates a strong suit. However, that needs to be backed up with some attack. Like in the Premiership, taking opportunities could be where this figure is decided.
Visiting the Clermont-Verrand district may not be where this team hoped they would be. Better positioned in their home league, some might not see the attack away from home as being a strength. ‘Quins can look toward their Jackals to turnover ball. How they transfer any ball into attack, will be their key goal.
That could be the same point made over all eight matches. Taking advantage of opportunities. Maximizing what they are doing well, reducing errors and looking at the big stage, as just one more step towards their combined goals.
And next week, LWOR will look to take a ‘Snapshot’ of many of the competitions that have benefited teams in European Professional Rugby Club competition.
Check your local sports broadcaster for all the match coverage, and read LWOR next week as we report and analyze on all the Heineken Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup results.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images