The French sides are dominant in Europe this season but the fact that Sale are having to cross the Channel on a six-day turnaround is absolutely criminal.
Six-day turnarounds logistically are going to happen from time to time in domestic leagues because of TV deals and the number of games to be played but they just shouldn’t be happening in a knockout competition.
Add to that the fact that La Rochelle have had two extra days’ rest and recovery because they played on the Friday night, and were able to rest a few of their big hitters, and the Sharks are really up against it.
The La Rochelle pack is monstrous and the back row battle is going to be key. Gregory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon and Victor Vito are a hell of a trio but if Tom Curry and Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez can get the better of them, Sale could be in with a chance.
That battle up front will be the starting point as always but I think Alex Sanderson will be targeting Ihaia West as the weak link in this La Rochelle side and sending some big units down his channel.
West has that Kiwi mentality where he sometimes runs it from places he shouldn’t and if Sale can get their line speed right and put him under pressure, his decision-making might just open the door for them to strike.
Levani Botia would get in every team on the planet at centre and we know he’ll be looking to get the offloading game going so Rohan Janse van Rensburg will have a job on his hands trying to keep him quiet.
I think it’ll take a Saracens-esque performance from Sanderson’s men to make it through to the semi-final and they do have the physicality and the control from Faf de Klerk and AJ MacGinty to do it but I just think it’ll be too much for them.
As well as losing a day of recuperation and preparation, they’ll lose even more time with travel and Covid protocols and the physicality in the game nowadays means it’s a huge ask. It’d be a hell of an achievement if they can do it but I think La Rochelle will go through.
That means that three of the four semi-finalists this year will be Top 14 sides and I can’t see past Racing and Toulouse in the all-French quarter-finals because of the European pedigree they have.
Racing have lost in the final in three of the last five seasons, to Saracens, Leinster and Exeter, and this might just be their year. Missing Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa will weaken any team but I still think they’ll have enough to win away at Bordeaux.
If there were fans at the Stade Chaban-Delmas and at the Stade Marcel Michelin as Clermont host Toulouse as well, things might be different but there aren’t and I think there’ll be two away wins in those all-French encounters.
Clermont are perennial European bridesmaids, they’ve lost so many big knockout games over the years and I think it’ll be the case again this weekend.
Toulouse are missing a few players but they’re top of the Top 14 and the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Cheslin Kolbe and co are in the form of their lives and the stage is set for them to shine with Clermont conceding quite a few tries this season.
I do think there’ll be one English representative in the semi-finals, though, with the reigning champions making it through. Exeter’s clash with Leinster at Sandy Park is befitting of the final and I think they’ll just have the edge over the men from Dublin.
I don’t think the fact that Leinster’s game against Toulon was cancelled last week will count against them as all these players have been in action either for Ireland or in the PRO14 final in the last few weeks so they’ll be primed and ready.
Exeter haven’t been in top form recently but I just think they got a lot of the errors out of their system against Lyon last week and they know how to win these big games now and manage the momentum swings.
It’ll obviously be a game of small margins and, despite the absence of fans, I think being at home will help them and they’ll just have too much for Leinster with Sam Simmonds scoring the winning try!
So, I expect the Chiefs to make it through and join a French trio in the semi-finals but I hope Sale’s is the last six-day turnaround we have to see in European knockout rugby, the organisers have to ensure there aren’t any next season.
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