Hawkeye Sidekick

Pregame Heineken Champions Cup semi-final talking points

English and French teams do battle

The Irish provincial interest in this competition may have ended last weekend but that does not mean that this blog is not intrigued on how this competition will finish out.

This weekend sees the semi-finals dominated by English and French sides as Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Racing 92 and Toulouse enter the last four fray. Two interesting games with pregame discussion points aplenty.

Can Saracens deliver another road trip performance?

The fixture last weekend for Saracens was six months in planning as soon as they were confirmed as relegated from the Gallagher Premiership. This competition is huge for Saracens but after that news, it became almost fanatical in their desire to do well and retain this competition.

Their performance last week particularly in the opening half was classic Saracens. Clinical game plan executed which opened a 22-3 cushion at the break. The box kicking game executed to perfection couple with an utterly dominant pack platform set the foundation for victory.

It always helps when you have players capable of keeping the scoreboard ticking over and with Goode and Daly hitting their penalty opportunities, this was how a side should perform in a playoff knockout tie.

The haters are going to hate but this club is galvanized and Racing 92 should be on high alert. I would not doubt if Saracens went and produced another road trip win this weekend.

Racing 92 creativity vs. pack platform balancing act

This question is key for Racing 92 ahead of this weekend. Do they feel that they have the pack to compete and beat Saracens? I am not sure but they will need some parity in the set piece to execute their attacking game plan.

Finn Russell will look to orchestrate at fly-half and their opening half performance last weekend was on point. However, there are questions on performance consistency. ASM Clermont fought back and exposed some defensive weak points in the second half. Twenty-seven points conceded so plenty to ponder.

Racing 92 are going to have to deliver a complete eighty minute performance. They cannot give Saracens a sniff here. Russell will be targeted by Saracens so the question is do Racing 92 have the agility to change tact and deliver another game plan which will see them over the line.

Flash rugby is parked now. It is now playoff rugby. The result is the be all end all. Racing 92 have massive weapons but the ability to open up needs to be executed when the time is right. Intriguing tactical approach beckons from the French side.

Exeter Chiefs basic fundamentals the key

Rob Baxter and Exeter Chiefs are a club I greatly admire. Their prominence from the lower leagues, their consolidation in the top tier and now the de-facto challenger for Saracens in recent years. Their fortitude to bounce back from playoff final losses to Saracens is evidence of their massive mental strength.

Exeter Chiefs have negotiated their path to the last four with the minimum of fuss. Their basic fundamentals are just so good that opposition teams have struggled to stifle the tempo and game management of the side.

The pack platform is a massive attacking weapon and if they hit the red zone, the pack will be asked to deliver in set piece and attacking mauls but if opposition look too much on this, then the likes of Hogg, Nowell will get the open space to score from quick ruck ball.

This weekend could be primed to be a marquee fixture for Exeter Chiefs and their fans but they will be the first to realize that this Toulouse side will provide threat from several areas.

Toulouse on the road, will they deliver?

Let us be honest here. Their fixture last weekend was a procession. Ulster Rugby with fragile confidence and form were quickly brushed aside. Did Toulouse even get out of second gear during the contest such was the ease at which they dismantled Ulster Rugby?

This weekend is a completely different proposition. Exeter Chiefs will bring physicality, mental fortitude and a pack who will look to boss this game. The question is will the Toulouse pack have the stomach for the fight on the road in Sandy Park?

The side is stacked with talent. The dry weather conditions should provide plenty of open play moments but this is a weekend where pack dominance will be king.

If the Toulouse pack can provide some level of platform, the half back partnership has the potential to unlock this Exeter Chiefs team defensively. Dupont and Ntamack are sensational ball players and their execution with ball in hand is superb. Their timing of the pass and running lines will provide plenty of opportunity for Kolbe to impress again like last weekend.

This side has massive potential with ball in hand but questions will be raised in the trenches on the road this weekend. We will soon find out how ready Toulouse are to take the next big step to silverware.