European competitions take centre-stage this weekend with quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup. The games, delayed since early April because of the coronavirus pandemic, promise to produce some thrilling encounters.
Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the talking points.
Saracens face mission improbable
It has been a season of abject misery for the Champions Cup holders, with relegation from the Gallagher Premiership and a £5.36million fine for their punishments following repeated salary cap breaches.
They will play in the Championship next season and not return to European rugby’s blue riband knockout competition until at least 2022.
Top seeds ??
Domestic champions ?
Unbeaten this season ?
Here are all their tastiest top tries ?? pic.twitter.com/TEgLex9k2k
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 15, 2020
On top of that, their fly-half talisman Owen Farrell is suspended for Saturday’s quarter-final clash against Leinster in Dublin. The odds are stacked against Saracens, but that is exactly how they like it.
Leinster look unstoppable
It is difficult to imagine Leinster not reclaiming the Champions Cup this term and securing a record fifth European crown. They are unbeaten in European and Guinness PRO14 action since losing to Saracens in last season’s final, and will play their quarter-final and possible semi-final in Dublin.
Packed with international stars and led by mercurial fly-half Johnny Sexton, they are currently setting remarkable standards of consistency and excellence.
Are Exeter ready to conquer Europe?
For a club that has featured in the last four Premiership finals at Twickenham, European success has consistently eluded Exeter. This season’s runaway league leaders and firm title favourites can reflect on just one previous quarter-final appearance, and that was in 2016 when they lost to Wasps at the Ricoh Arena.
This year, though, Rob Baxter’s men might be about to crack the code, hosting quarter-final opponents Northampton on Sunday with a semi-final against Toulouse or Ulster if they topple Saints. Potentially Leinster’s biggest threat.
French threat is a powerful one
French clubs have traditionally featured at the business end of European Cup competitions and this season is no exception with a powerful trio of Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and Racing 92 all in quarter-final action.
Clermont and Racing face each other, guaranteeing at least one French semi-finalist, while four-times European champions Toulouse are expected to overcome Ulster. Eight of the previous 24 European finals have been won by French teams.
Bristol geared for Challenge Cup success
Bristol have already achieved stated goals of a top-six Premiership finish and qualification for next season’s Champions Cup, but there is potentially more available to them.
They face a Challenge Cup quarter-final against the Dragons on Friday at Ashton Gate, then it is Bordeaux-Begles or Edinburgh in a home semi-final if they topple the Welsh outfit. With star summer arrivals like Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler making their presence felt, Challenge Cup silverware could certainly end up in the west country next month.
"I definitely believe I wouldn't be the player I am if I hadn't been told from a young age I was too small"@harry_thacker talks @BristolBears , Pat Lam, leaving Leicester Tigers & the difference it makes when someone believes in you, with @heagneyl ???https://t.co/xZh0FnE9p1
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 13, 2020
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