Europe! Faceless bureaucrats stealing all our money and our rights from their ivory towers and our jobs to boot. But it also has some good things to offer too, like beer and rugby, and cheap holidays. The 6 Nations is next on the agenda, but the European Champions Cup has just ended and now is a fine time for some IMF-style power rankings.
1. Munster (2)
Route: Quarter Final 3: v (7) Toulouse
Semi-Final 1: Are set to travel to winner of QF3 (Saracens v Glasgow Warriors) but will have home advantage if Saracens and themselves were to win
Main Strength: Pack power, led by spine of Ireland team; Conor Murray’s game management
Main Weakness: Hard to think of any, although no obvious replacement to Conor Murray.
It’s hard to think of a side that has shown upto more big occasions this year than Munster, nor a side that has leapt so far in the reckoning for the title. The Irishmen lost a giant in Axel Foley but have done nothing but honor him since with a series of stunning performances and look to be lethal threats.
Spurred on not only by those events but also the continued improvement of a resurgent Ireland core, Munster look to have finally found the balance between the hard hitting pack performances that have been made famous over the years and the more expansive style that seems to be ruling Europe.
Conor Murray is the conducti between both styles, outstanding in his complete domination of Ben Youngs when Munster trashed Leicester 38-0 here and perhaps even better when he came off the better of a physical battering from Glasgow at Stormond.
Tyler Bleyendaal is the perfect flyhalf, able to add pace and passing to release the likes of Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell, centres more mobile than in seasons past, and record trysorer Simon Zebo.
In the pack, anyone from Peter O’Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Dave Kilcoyne, Tommy O’Donnell, James Cronin, Niall Scannell and John Ryan can be trusted to bring their A-Game with a terrifying intensity and it’s impossible to imagine any side getting on top of them for a full 80 minutes.
A run of seven wins and one loss from their last eight games needs applauding, but when one looks at the quality of the opposition faced then it is clear that there’s no game too big.
Glasgow (a) W
Leicester (h) W
Leicester (a) L
Leinster (h) W
Connacht (a) W
Racing 92 (a) W
Glasgow (a) W
Racing 92 (h) ?
Toulouse are not a side to be underestimated, looking a more cohesive outfit this year who have been impressively dominant in the pack over the past few rounds, especially when they should have come away with victory from Wasps. However a side that relies so much on forward power is probably an absolutely ideal match for Munster from all the options, especially considering that they take them on at Thomond.
Anything but a home quarter-final would have been a shock but the betting suggests they will host Saracens in a sensational clash in April which could be one of the matches of the year. If still in this form, they will be favourites.
2. Saracens (3)
Route: Quarter Final 3: Home v Glasgow Warriors (6)
Semi-Final 2: Likely home country advantage v winner QF4 (Munster Rugby v Toulouse)
Main Strength: Strength in depth of back division
Main Weakness: Relative weakness in forwards? England reliance?
The defending champions and worthy favourites for a number of reasons, even if they didn’t manage to light up the last two weekends with the same vigour that they did during the first four weeks of the campaign. However, they have ridden key injuries to the Vunipola brothers, Brad Barritt, George Kruis and Alex Goode during this time and it is said that winning ugly is the mark of champions, in every sport. The flood of success that has final come in the last two seasons has instilled arguably Europe’s best winning mentality which will be vitally important and the signing of Alex Lozowski from Wasps looks to be an absolute masterstroke with a rapid yet supremely skilled passer able to play fullback or flyhalf.
The potential slip up, if there are any, is injury, with a number of key figures still being on the treatment table, and they were always within the reach of Toulon on Saturday when the two engaged in an arm wrestle, although the French side is built for bulk and was playing with the motivation.
A resurgent Glasgow, and a side who have mastered the artificial surface at that, is no easy task – especially coming after the end of a 6 Nations campaign but facing them at home is a huge advantage. The hardest task they might face is a potential visit to Ireland to face Munster, should both sides win their quarter finals, but if any side can do it then Saracens would appear capable.
3. Clermont (1)
Route: Quarter Final 3: v (8) RC Toulon
Semi-Final 1: Home country advantage v QF2 (Leinster Rugby v Wasps)
Main Strength: Incredible backplay and combinations
Main Weakness: Weak second half finishes against top opposition; Injury to Wesley Fofana; Handling the pressure?
The silky skills of Clermont embody the very best of French rugby that many Les Bleus fans often feel is gone, so it’s a blight on their record that 10 years of rugby have dned up in one Top 14 title. However the Jaunards never stop trying and a change at the top with Frank Azema and this current outfit has been playing rugby as good as anything seen during the past decade.
Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra are at their best right now, feeding a backline which has the size to cope with modern rugby but the handling skill to boot. Wesley Fofana will be sadly missed but Remi Lamerat brings creativity to the centres and Nick Abendanon and Noa Nakataci have made the tryline their own at times to boot.
Their form on the road this season has been improved on recent evidence, with a trashing of Exeter and a tight win at Bordeaux, but the biggest boost to their prospects is the potential of home advantage for both the quarter and semi-finals if things go their way.
This is ominous for Toulon, Leinster and Wasps when considering that they have scored 49, 38 and 48 points in home wins respectively this season, scoring at roughly a point a minute in the first half of those three successes. Their victory against Exeter reads extremely well considering their place in the current Premiership, and as usual, their biggest enemy may be getting over the line – if they make the final.
4. Leinster (4)
Route: Quarter Final 4: v (5) Wasps
Semi-Final 1: Visit to the winner of QF1 (Clermont v Toulon)
Main Strength: Huge experience, and International core remains; Also the promising youth talent to back things up too.
Main Weakness: Not the same force they were on the road, especially in France?
Leinster once used to make this tournament their own. The three time winners took all of those titles in an incredible four year period at the same period when Ireland also took a grand slam in 2009, earmarking themselves as one of the great sides of the professional era. This side may not be as good, but they have not lost all of that old talent and there’s been a boon of young talent that has made things interesting on both the domestic and European fronts.
A shake up in coaching over the past two years The arrival of Stuart Lancaster has added much needed experience to Leo Cullen’s tenure, and this has also coincided with the arrival of new talent. Flyhalf Joey Carberry – who has already starred for Ireland against New Zealand – centre Garry Ringrose, and young wing Adam Bryne lit up the turf at the RDS twice and also in Dublin when Northampton came to visit.
The return of Johnny Sexton to Leinster colours also provides them with an asset not many can match in pressure situations whilst backrow dynamism a plenty is also always evident.
However, for all their promise, there is a feeling that this Leinster side has a fallibility that hasn’t been fully tested yet. They drew at Castres from a fine position on the last weekend and lost at Montpellier, not a shameful result although a pairing that does not bode well for a certain trip to France for their semi-final. That is if they should beat Wasps, a side who they will feel they can attack upfront but one with the pace to tear through the best laid defensive plans as they showed when doping the double over them two years ago.
Nobody is writing off the three time Champions, but there is a target on their back too.
5. Wasps (5)
Route: Quarter Final 4: Away at v (4) Leinster
Semi-Final 1: Hosting the winner of QF1 (Clermont v Toulon)
Strengths: The deepest back division in the competition and the fastest back division
Weaknesses: The pack can be outmaneuvered in show of force
Wasps went to the semi-finals last season before beating beaten by Saracens in Reading but this year’s outfit if anything has looked even better at times and they have realistic aims in Europe again.
Their route through was no easy one despite the presence of Zebre in their pool, given that they had to fight off a resurgent Toulouse and Pro 12 Champions Connacht.
In the end it was home wins – and they’ve got 19 straight at the Ricoh – that got them through to the quarter finals, so ‘failing’ to get a home quarter final is a blow, although they did beat Wasps twice just last season, including a 33-6 trashing dished out in Dublin. Both teams are different now, but Wasps will not fear any side.
If there is to be a weakness, it is that the Wasps pack, as a unit, can be commanded. Toulouse, who arguably should have won at the Ricoh two weeks ago, had the better in the set-piece and also at the breakdown from start to finish, something that does not bode well in the knockout stages with Leinster having plenty of muscle to move around.
Connacht were lucky to get the chance they did to steal victory at the Sportsground before then but they also managed to get plenty of penalties to keep themselves in the game and those will be the two areas of weaknesses.
However, no side has managed to full stop the insitncts of Christian Wade, Jimmy Gopperth, Josh Bassett, Kurtley Beale, Elliot Daly, Rob Miller, Dan Robson and Joe Simpson whilst the incredible athleticism of Ashely Johnson, Joe Launcbury, and Thomas Young means they will always manufacture opportunities.
It remains to be seen however, if the brawn matches the brain.
Route: Quarter Final 4: Away at v (3) Saracens
Semi-Final 1: Hosting the winner of QF4 (Munster Rugby v Toulouse)
Strengths: A side with a test match spine
Weaknesses: Potential injuries from 6 Nations campaign leaves them vulnerable; strength in depth?
It feels strange to have a Glasgow side that is able to call upon so many internationals (and ones in evidently fine form at that) so low in the rankings, but such is the strength and skill of Saracens that travelling to them is a huge task.
It is not one that is beyond Gregor Townsend’s side, making their debut in the quarter finals after many a campaign where they had failed to transfer excellent domestic form onto the European stage.
Their trashing of Leicester was a remarkable performance to seal their entry to this stage, for all t
Names familiar to Scotland fans include flyhalf Finn Russell – who controlled much of the game during their extremely tight defeat to Munster last week and who steamrollered Leicester twice and then the electric Stuart Hogg, able to take the game to the opposition from anywhere. The bulk of Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar is aptly supplemented by Tommy Seymour to make a fine back division too.
Zander Ferguson is set for big things in the front row whilst Fraser Brown already is and the domination that Johnny Gray, Ryan Harley and Josh Strauss had of Munster at the breakdown during parts of that epic encounter is a warning to Saracens.
Their mastery of the artificial pitch at Stormond is another, significant string to their bow given how much of an asset the pitch is to Saracens, and whilst this is their first appearance in the quarter finals, this is a side that has plenty of high stakes experience as double winners of the Pro 12.
They will have to be more clinical with their possession than they were against Munster when they lost out narrowly, and just how much they will be able to secure is open to question, but they can go head to head either through the forwards or have a shootout with the backs; Home country advantage also likely awaits in the semi-finals.
Route: Quarter Final 4: Away at v (2) Munster
Semi-Final 1: Hosting Saracens (3), if both win their quarter finals, but travelling to Glasgow Warriors (6)
Strengths: A huge pack; Strong away performances through the past few months
Weaknesses: Conversation rate of Jean-Marc Doussain, along with general play, does not match that of others
The sickened expression on the face of Thierry Dustaoir in Coventry said it all. Toulouse are in the quarter finals still, although had Jean-Marc Doussain managed to slot either of the two easy penalties offered in Coventry a fortnight ago, they may well have avoided a trip to Munster, or indeed a trip anywhere at all.
A game they dominated for the overwhelming majority of the contest was lost within 10 seconds when Dan Robson quick tapped to score and take the win, ill reward considering how convincing they had been through the afternoon.
It was a campaign which was a marked improvement on recent efforts – especially for the tournament’s most successful club – and the fact that they lie fourth in the Top 14 is testament to an improved season.
Toulouse do move the ball, and efficiently too, with Gael Fickou set to deputise for Wesley Fofana in the 6 Nations and the evergreen Yohann Huget cannot be stopped in even the tightest of games based on his performances during the pool stages.
However, the real source of their power comes from a giant pack. Cyril Baille, Christoper Tolofua and Census Johnston shoved the Connacht and Wasps front rows at will on their own patch and will present the Munster front row with the strongest test of their season so far.
The lock pairing of Richie Gray and Yoann Maestri has also subdued more athletic pairings this year to boot and if Theirry Dusatoir makes it to Thomond Park then there should be an epic clash.
Visiting Munster is a task like no other in Europe at the moment, but the away record of Toulouse’s shows they’re not far away and that here is not a lot for them to fear; They should have won at Wasps, had the better of the pack at Connacht, and in the Top 14 they pushed Clermont as hard as any side have at the Marcel Michelin this season.
However, going against a side with arguably Europe’s best pack on their own turf could be the difference maker; Don’t count them out.
Route: Quarter Final 4: Away at v (1) Clermont
Semi-Final 1: Likely home country advantage v winner of QF2 (Leinster Rugby v Wasps), but would be travelling to Wasps
Strengths: A huge pack; Masses of experience; Leigh Halfpenny
Weaknesses: Inability to convert, and sometimes create chances; Not as speedy as others
The side that made the trophy their own after Leinster is still packing a punch. Toulon scraped through by the skin of their teeth, going through second behind Saracens, and they have landed themselves an extraordinarily difficult task in travelling to Clermont.
Mike Ford’s men have been in transition during the early part of this season and their chances are very much reliant on which Toulon turns up. The giant side that warm wrestled Saracens to the very last minutes on Saturday would concern any side, especially given that they were unlucky not to draw given Joshua Tusiova’s remarkable ball drop in the first half.
However, if the same Toulon that was trashed at Clermont in December happen to turn up – unlikely with so much on the line – then they will be given short shrift.
The return of Matt Giteau and Bryan Habana to proceedings has been a shot in the arm for their creative prospects although at times they have struggled to create the clear openings that other quarter finalists, their hosts namely, seem to do so with ease. The skill and power of Ma’a Nonu is a gamebreaking asset whilst the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, assuming he makes it through the 6 Nations, can keep them in touch.
However, going through the forwards solely has rarely proven good enough to beat Clermont, especially at the Marcel-Michelin, where Clermont have lost just nine times in the history of the tournament, and only twice since 2012, and a new gameplan may have to be found. Beat Clermont and a home semi is still not guaranteed with Wasps and Leinster surely to be close in Dublin, making the road to Scotland arduous.
Any thoughts? Disagreements? Something missed?
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