European Champions and Challenge Cups Head Towards Business End

With the Six Nations having come to its conclusion, the club game is picking right back up and the last weekend of the month sees three out of the four Irish provinces take to the field of play once again in the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

All three have guaranteed themselves home advantage for the quarter finals, which plays such a huge factor in rugby as there is only one leg in the knockout ties. The road to finals weekend in Bilbao in the middle of May continues and expectations around the country are quietly optimistic.

The first Irish province to kick off on this crazy weekend of rugby action is Connacht. The 2015/16 Pro 12 champions host Gloucester in Galway on March 31 at 1pm. Having blitzed through their pool, taking five wins from a possible six, Connacht have definitely got the potential to progress. In fact, the only game of the six that they didn’t win was a draw against the Warriors in Round five.

Their most recent European outing was their bonus point victory over whipping boys Oyonnax, although it can’t be dismissed as such because it was still a necessary win and performance to guarantee that home quarter final.

What Connacht may lack in European experience they do make up for with a dynamic attack and robust defence. Those keeping an eye on Ireland for the last month will need no reminding of the importance of in-form centre Bundee Aki while Tiernan O’ Halloran, Niki Adeolokun and Matt Healy form an exciting back three.

They will have to watch their discipline though, opposing kicker Billy Twelvetrees will put away most chances he gets. Having said that one would still expect Connacht to progress.

Later that afternoon it’s the turn of Munster as they welcome Toulon to Thomond Park for a kick off time of 3:15pm.

Somewhat enigmatic at times, Munster have shown this season that they can mix it with the best and can play some scintillating rugby while also doing the necessary dirty work, but often it can be a case of which Munster side shows up.

On paper, it’s one of the strongest teams around with a stacked bench too. The trouble is getting them to play to their potential. They, like Connacht, showed in their last European game (a 48-3 thumping of Castres in Limerick) that when the pressure is on they do have the goods to deliver. It will be interesting to see what kind of performance the exiled Simon Zebo will show, as he may want to send a message to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt that he’s still one of the best backs we have.

The seemingly invincible Conor Murray will also have a major role to play as he may well see himself on kicking duty, depending on the form of Ian Keatley who has not set the world alight from the tee so far.

Toulon come to town knowing they’re going to need to dig deep to pull off what would be a huge win for them. Boasting immense star quality, they can be found wanting in tough away outings with their backs against the wall. The last nine words of that sentence can be used to describe most teams’ experiences of Thomond Park. Verdict – Munster.

Last up of the Irish contingent is the boys in blue as Leinster host Saracens at the Aviva on April 1 at 3:30. Leo Cullen’s men were the standout side of the pool stages as they’re the only team to make it through with a record of six from six.

They also hold the best points difference in the entire competition so they go in with serious European form. That said, one must look at the competitiveness of their group and wonder if they’ve faced a challenge like this one just yet.
Saracens are the only English team to make it through the pools and are currently looking for their third European title in a row, a feat that’s only been achieved once before, by Munster’s opponents Toulon.

With the pressure of being champions for the last two years, they’re lucky they can count on reigning European Player of the Year Owen Farrell to keep everything ticking over. That includes the attacking play and the scoreboard as Farrell has an almost robotic approach to goal kicking that will punish Leinster whenever given the opportunity.

In front of him he has a pack that contains incredible power, with the likes of Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Schalk Burger, while behind him he has a backline capable of doing damage with Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch and Liam Wiliams.

This will be the toughest of all the games involving Irish provinces with a mouth-watering clash of two of the world’s best no.10’s in the aforementioned Farrell and Johnny Sexton. Farrell might just swing this. Saracens to go through.

As we all know, rugby doesn’t just revolve around Ireland and the other quarter finals in the Challenge Cup include Falcons against Brive, Pau up against Stade Francais and Edinburgh versus the Cardiff Blues. The semi-final draw has already been made so Connacht will face either Pau or Stade Francais, with Pau the favourites to emerge there.

In the Champions Cup, Munster and Leinster are on opposite sides of the semi-final draw meaning the dream all-Irish final in Bilbao is still on the cards. Should they go through, Munster will play one of Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92 while Leinster are in line to face Scarlets or La Rochelle.

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