Easter weekend has finally arrived. The European Rugby Champions Cup quarter final action kicks off in Wales where Scarlets and La Rochelle will do battle. Easter Saturday has an intriguing battle with injury ravaged Munster Rugby facing the squad depth of Toulon. Easter Sunday has the potential to be epic with ASM Clermont hoping that home advantage will get them over the line against a rejuvenated Racing 92 while Leinster and Saracens battle it out in a heavyweight tussle at the Aviva Stadium. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict some winners from these tantalizing fixtures.
This on paper has offloading central written all over the fixture but given the inclement weather conditions forecast, the dynamics of this fixture have changed. Scarlets front five need to set the platform early; huge onus on the likes of Lee, Owens, Evans, Beirne to achieve this so as to provide quality possession for their half backs to unleash their exciting back field.
Scott Williams for me plays such a crucial role for this side. His pace and line break ability provides the nous to unlock any defense. Along with Hadleigh Parkes, the three quarter partnership is an excellent unit. Parkes provides superb defensive awareness and a good open field kicking game. Steff Evans is a try scoring machine. Potency aplenty.
La Rochelle have had a mixed couple of months; their form has dipped since the start of the year and struggled over the line to advance to the last eight of this competition after quite an assured, exciting start. Massive injury blows with La Rochelle with All Blacks flanker Victor Vito (calf) and France centre Geoffrey Doumayrou (knee) both ruled out. Another All Black, second row Jason Eaton, is also sidelined.
Scarlets are quite strong favorites to advance here given that team news but La Rochelle’s game plan may switch from expansive to hitting the trenches with the pack. The weather conditions have prompted Wayne Pivac to go for a six (forwards) / two (backs) split on the bench.
Kicking game needs to be on point from the hosts as La Rochelle do have exciting back field options themselves. Aguillon and Botia will relish open field to run into provided if Scarlets kick chase is not at the standard required.
Hopefully the weather does not play its part as this fixture has excitement written all over it. Scarlets after an even first quarter to express themselves in the second half to win by seven points. La Rochelle are a danger but the injuries to Vito and Doumayrou look fatal to their hopes.
Thomond Park sold out signs appeared on Monday; no ticket in sight for this eagerly anticipated encounter. Munster Rugby have injury concerns aplenty but the expectation is that Zebo, Conway and Rory Scannell will be fit to line out for this contest. The injuries to Keith Earls and Chris Farrell in the back field are a blow but it is an opportunity for the likes of Arnold and Wooton to take and they will not let the side down.
Toulon come into this contest high with confidence. Their 49-0 home win to ASM Clermont provided ample evidence of their capabilities. The front five never let their opposition to settle or create any platform. They mauled effectively and with the battering ram Basteraud a prominent ball carrier, tries quickly ensued. Fekitoa was immense with his ball carries.
How do Munster Rugby win this contest? Effective game management and kicking game particularly in exit strategy. Munster cannot let Toulon camp in their twenty-two for long periods so the onus is on Murray and Keatley to take charge and kick well.
The back row contest intrigues me. Will Munster Rugby throw a curve ball and name Conor Oliver as the seven? A superb grappler in the breakdown, Oliver’s mobility could be decisive. O’Donoghue, Copeland and O’Callaghan obviously come into the reckoning as well.
Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. I suspect that they will try to run the ball through Munster Rugby at the weekend but I think Munster Rugby’s defensive line speed, conditioning and mobility across the park may be the difference here. Toulon on the road have being a pale shadow of the team at home this season. Toulon to lose composure and the penalty battle ultimately.
The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday. Nigel Owens officiating the game adds to the occasion. Munster Rugby know their backs are against the wall and if they can expose Toulon’s back three defensively in the kicking game, there is no question that Munster Rugby can win. It is with this hope that Munster Rugby emerge victorious after a titanic struggle. Munster by three points.
ASM Clermont look vulnerable here. A home fixture for ASM Clermont should be a nailed on win but this season has seen ASM Clermont really struggle for form and consistency. The side last weekend were an embarrassment, shut down, out fought, out thought. The tackle completion rate of 67% speaks volumes; the side were not at it last weekend.
Soul searching week in Clermont which Racing 92 will enter the game in relatively good spirits. Racing 92 have the pack to win this battle and with an exciting back field containing Teddy Thomas, all is primed for a superb performance on the road.
Clermont will surely bounce back and have a reaction from last weekend’s road trip mauling but this side are a pale shadow of the side which trounced Saracens at the back end of last year. Injuries have certainly taken their toll and has created cohesion issues in various units.
Racing 92 have the fortitude and leadership required here to absorb the home side’s early promise to win this tie going away. The half back battle will be interesting. Lopez and Parra need to dominate game management but with Machenaud and Carter potentially in opposition, cannot see that happening.
The Racing 92 pack looks abrasive and with Donnacha Ryan continuing to produce consistently high performances, there is a road trip win here for Racing 92. The prize is motivation enough; a home semi-final berth. Racing 92 to upset ASM Clermont who will need to wait yet another year for European Cup triumph. Racing 92 to win in a cagey affair; penalty kicking contest and win by six points.
This is the fixture of the weekend. The key question for me is how much do Leinster Rugby have in the tank? After a tasking international fixture window, the fringe squad players looked flat against Ospreys last weekend. It makes team selection easy for Cullen and Lancaster (not ideal) this weekend as they have to bring back all the Irish internationals. No fringe players put the hand up for selection which was disappointing.
Was the Ospreys performance last weekend a case of an off day or does it suggest fatigue in the squad? If fatigue is creeping in, it is coming at the business end of the season when you do not want it to happen. There is no better side to exploit fatigue and weakness in conditioning than Saracens.
Saracens bring a formidable side to the Aviva Stadium. Solid, abrasive pack but has the finesse out wide to finish off teams with excellent tries. Aviva Stadium is a happy hunting ground for Saracens. Last season, they did a professional job on Munster Rugby. They quietened the crowd, nullified Munster Rugby’s game plan and won with a bit to spare. The venue has good memories.
Leinster Rugby are an excellent side too. Their pack will be abrasive with the front row of Furlong, Cronin and Healy looking to probe at set piece. The second row and back options are excellent. Toner, Ryan and Fardy will provide solid line out options. The back row options of Leavy, Conan and Murphy are on point. Expect massive collisions!
The half back battle will be intriguing. McGrath / Sexton vs. Wigglesworth / Farrell. The kicking game is going to be superb viewing. Both units possess excellent kicking games and will decide which team emerges victorious. Saracens will look for Leinster indiscipline; look to work the scoreboard. 3,6,9.,12 and if that happens, Leinster Rugby are chasing the game, the perfect setup for Saracens.
The back lines possess serious threats as well. Liam Williams provides added values with ball in hand for the Saracens outfit. Garry Ringrose at thirteen is coming into this side relatively fresh, expect some serious line breaks from the player but it will be tough when facing the likes of Barritt.
50/50 game here. Leinster Rugby to summon the energy to get over the line in an epic tussle. However, if Leinster Rugby’s Irish players do not get to the pitch of the game early, this is a game that could conceivably get away from Leo Cullen’s men pretty quickly. Edge of the seat viewing. I cannot wait!