Preview: champions cup semi-finals

Munster and Leinster will battle Saracens and Clermont in this weekend’s Champions Cup Semi-finals in a bid to be the first Irish team to reach the final of European Rugby’s most prestigious club tournament since Leinster’s last triumph in 2012.

Munster take on Saracens on Saturday the 22nd on April at the Aviva Stadium in a match that promises much, considering the stellar form of the two teams.

Munster, following the unfortunate passing of Head Coach Anthony Foley in October last year, have been in irresistible form, both in Europe and domestically, ever since.

Having won nine of their last 10 Pro 12 games as well as topping their Champions Cup Pool. With only a sole defeat away to Leicester Tigers and demolishing the aristocrats of European club rugby Toulouse 41-16 at Thomond Park in the quarter-finals, Munster are in good health.

Given the form of CJ Stander, Zebo and Earls, Munster will be hopeful of securing a first final appearance since their last triumph in 2008.

Saracens, though, are 15/8 odds on favourites for the tournament, and for good reason, too.

Having won all their games en route to their maiden European crown last year, Saracens have been similarly impressive in this campaign – their only loss coming away to Scarlets, in a pool that saw them beat heavy weights Toulon home and away.

Saracens went on to dispatch Pro-12 side Glasgow warriors 38-13 at Allianz park to set up a mouth-watering tie against two time champions Munster in Dublin.

Saracens have it all. Their defence, dubbed the ‘wolf-pack’, is a well-drilled rushed defence that puts teams under enormous pressure. They can dominate up-front with the sizable Vunipola brothers alongside the towering Aussie Will Skelton. They also like to attack with serious width, with speedster and Toulon bound Chris Ashton proving imperative to their attacking efforts.

If Conor Murray is available, Munster, with home advantage, have a chance. If not, and Saracens bring their A game, it’s difficult to fancy Munster here. The men in red tend to attack narrow channels and often snub width – things that’ll likely fall prey to Saracens rush defence.

My head says Saracens by a score – my heart says Munster.

It’s over to Leinster then as on Sunday the 23rd of April they face the daunting task of taking on Clermont Auvergne at the Stade de Garland in Lyon.

Clermont, always the bridesmaids never the bride after losing both recent finals in 2013 and 2015 to Toulon, are an imposing outfit that’ll be determined to finally fulfil their undoubted potential by securing their maiden European Champions Cup crown.

Leinster, though, much like all the other three teams left, are in imperious form. Top of the Pro 12 and by scoring 86 tries in 20 games – 27 tries more than their nearest rival – their attacking vigour is clear for all to see.

Finishing with only one pool defeat from six away to Montpellier, Leinster topped Pool 5 and having swatted English premiership leaders Wasps aside 32 – 17 in the quarter-finals at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster are a force to be reckoned with.

Leinster’s expansive brand of rugby is as eye catching as it is effective. It’s surely no surprise that Leinster’s recent level of success has come under the stewardess of Head Coach Leo Cullen and former England Rugby Head Coach, Stewart Lancaster.

Clermont, however, will be a tough ask for the province. Having finished with 26 points from their six pool games – more than anyone else, and sitting pretty in second position behind surprise package La Rochelle in the Top 14 – Clermont are an impressive outfit with plenty of ace-cards.

Like Leinster, Clermont operate an attack first strategy. By scoring a remarkable 747 points across just 24 games – more than any other side in the Top 14 – Clermont, domestically, are averaging some 31 points per game.

In Europe, Clermont average over 35 points per game and when you couple that with Leinster’s attacking prowess, we’re surely in for a high-octane game of attacking rugby.

However, with it being in France, and with Clermont finally hoping to get over the line, it’s hard to see anything but a Clermont victory, in a tight, entertaining affair.

Image from RugbyLAD.