Wasps have scored the most tries (73) in the Aviva Premiership this season thanks primarily to a quality backline which contains flair players like Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly, Christain Wade and Kurtley Beale. Jimmy Gopperth claimed this week that a huge gulf in intensity exists between the Premiership and the PRO12, describing every domestic outing as having a “Leinster v Munster” feel.
In terms of hype the Premiership certainly is ‘sexier’ than the PRO12 but at the business end of the European competition, English teams have fallen short, time and again, apart from Saracens.
The Wasps’ attack is certainly dangerous and they have three quality playmakers in Gopperth, Cipriani and Beale, whereas Leinster are reliant on Johnny Sexton. However, Wasps are hugely fragile in defence and this is an area Leinster will look to exploit. Leinster will be stronger in the scrum and it will be interesting to see how they target Marty Moore who left them last summer.
Since Stuart Lancaster came in as a consultant, Leinster has shown a lot more ambition and confidence with the ball in hand and they have scored 28 more tries than they did in total last season. They are back playing the type of rugby that was their calling card during the reigns of Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt. With a sellout Aviva behind them, they have the game to beat Wasps.
Two European heavyweights head to head with very contrasting form lines this season. Toulouse lie 10th in the Top 14 and have lost five of their last six matches. They have never failed to make the top six play-offs, but that proud record looks under serious threat this season. They are facing multi-million euro losses which forced them to release some of their big earners like Census Johnson (to Racing) and Luke McAllister (Toulon) and their recruitment will be conservative in comparison to the bigger clubs in Europe. It has been a strange week for Munster with confirmation that Donnacha Ryan is set to depart for France while fears are growing that Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, may yet be lured home to South Africa.
It is vital that the Munster players show the mental strength they have displayed all season to blot out such sideshows and concentrate only on Toulouse and on this evening’s game. Munster have won an incredible seven quarter-finals (from eight contested) and I can’t see Toulouse coping with the intensity and clinical gameplan that their hosts have produced consistently this season.
Toulouse throw more offloads than any other in both the Top 14 and Champions Cup. Unfortunately for them too many of those passes are going to ground and Munster’s defence has been really aggressive and forces errors. Toulouse’s work-rate in defence (particularly off turnovers) is not a strong point in their game and I expect Munster to score points from French attacking errors. Toulouse was fortunate to be in a group with an Italian (Zebre) side and qualified in one of the best runners-up spots but they have individuals like Gael Fickou, Maxime Médard and Yoann Huget who can create moments of magic. But I expect Munster to have done their homework and advance to the last four.
Saracens struggled during the Six Nations without their international contingent but they quickly re-integrated into club mode, putting 50 points on Bath last weekend. Chris Ashton is no longer on the England team but remains an excellent finisher, with Sean Maitland on the other wing. Mark McCall goes about his business in a low-key way, but his work at Saracens is impressive. They play a reasonably low-risk type of rugby but do everything well. They have the big ball carriers up front in the Vunipola brothers and Maro Itoje, while Owen Farrell and Richard Wigglesworth are quality game managers.
This is Gregor Townsend’s last campaign in charge of the Warriors before taking over the Scottish national side in June and his squad will be desperate to send him out on a high. Scottish rugby is on the up after their improved showing in the Six Nations but I think that this Saracens side will burst that bubble tomorrow.
A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt (c), S Maitland; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, J Figallo, M Itoje, J Hamilton, M Rhodes, J Wray, B Vunipola.
S Brits, T Lamositele, V Koch, K Brown, J Conlon, B Spencer, A Lozowski, D Taylor.
S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar, P Horne, L Jones; F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid, F Brown, Z Fagerson, B Alainu’uese, J Gray (c), R Harley, R Wilson, A Ashe.
C Flynn, A Allan, S Puafisi, G Peterson, C Fusaro, A Price, N Grigg, R Hughes
Toulon announced this week that Fabien Galthie will bring Mike Ford’s short coaching reign in France to an end this summer. Mourad Boudjellal, their outspoken president, has gotten used to collecting trophies since he started investing his fortune in the club.
He wants results and quickly. Unfortunately for all concerned, there are no Johnny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman or Bakkies Botha type players to ensure such silverware. Ford was brought in to replicate the attacking flair which Bath showed last season while Richard Cockerill was hired to tighten up their set-pieces. Both have failed in their briefs and Toulon do not look like contenders for another European trophy. The go to a Clermont side that has shown some great form this season, particularly in the Stade Michelin.
Clermont’s last trophy was under Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt back in 2010 which is a poor return given their budget, set-up and player pool. Jonno Gibbes has improved their pack and he knows how to win European trophies from his time at Leinster. Impossible to look beyond the hosts.
S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, A Rougerie, R Lamerat, N Abendanon; C Lopez, M Parra; R Chaume, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, A Iturria, S Vahaamahina, D Chouly (c), P Yato, F Lee.
J Ulugia, E Falgoux, A Jarvis, F Van Der Merwe, J Cancoriet, L Radosavljevic, P Fernandez, D Penaud.
L Halfpenny; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Nonu, B Habana; F Trinh-Duc, E Escande; L Delboulbès, G Guirado, L Chilachava, J Kruger, R Taofifenua, J Smith, L Gill, D Vermeulen (c).
A Etrillard, F Fresia, M Van Der Merwe, J Fernandez Lobbe, A Belleau, J Tuisova, S Tillous-Borde, S Manoa.