Coming into the 2018/19 season, Leinster were widely regarded to be strong favourites to retain their Heineken Champions Cup title, such was the emphatic nature of how they had played the previous season.
If a real threat were going to come to their position at the summit of European rugby, it was largely expected to come from Saracens, who had held that same position for the two seasons prior to Leinster’s rise.
Both sides reinforced those claims during the pool stage, with Saracens winning all six of their ties and locking up the top overall seeding going into the quarter-finals, and although Leinster slipped up away in Toulouse, they were still imperious enough in their other five matches to post a tally of 25 points and secure the third overall seed. The two sides sandwiched Racing 92 in the seedings, with the Parisian outfit having looked equally ruthless in the pool stage.
That was just over two months ago, however, and a fair amount has changed since then.
Leinster were pushed hard immediately before the Guinness Six Nations by the Scarlets, as well as falling to defeat last weekend away to Edinburgh. They were relatively comfortable during the international window, however, seeing off the challenges of Zebre, Southern Kings and Cheetahs. Four wins from five since the end of the pool stage is not a bad return, albeit with the Dubliners looking a little short of their best since the beginning of 2019.
As for Saracens, their record of three wins from five Gallagher Premiership matches is not the most enthusing of returns, with losses away at Gloucester and Bath blighting them during the Six Nations. There was a hard-fought win at the Olympic Stadium against Harlequins in the mix there, as well as more comfortable home victories over Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints.
Admittedly, both Leinster and Saracens were shorn of internationals during the Six Nations, with the two sides contributing the cores of the Ireland and England teams respectively, but the dips in form have been noticeable and because of the Six Nations, they have not had too much continuity of selection heading into the quarter-finals this weekend.
Racing have also faced their fair share of bumps in the road following the pool stage, as they proceeded to lose three straight in the Top 14, facing defeat at the hands of Lyon, Toulouse and Castres. Their form has picked up since but they, like Leinster and Saracens, do not look as impervious as they did earlier in the season.
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Working in the favour of these three teams is the fact they have all booked home quarter-finals. Leinster host Ulster in a much-anticipated local derby, Saracens welcome Glasgow Warriors to Allianz Park in a match that is likely to feature plenty of niggle, whilst Racing take on high-flying Toulouse in Paris.
Further good news for Leinster and Saracens comes in the form of both sides being undefeated so far this season at home in the Champions Cup and Premiership or Guinness PRO14 competitions. Whilst they have both had their mishaps on the road, their home form has been flawless. It’s not quite as encouraging a story for Racing, who actually lost to Toulouse in the Top 14 on home soil – or home turf – just last month.
Against Edinburgh last week, Leinster’s Irish contingent were all rested, whilst the Scottish side went to the likes of Darcy Graham, WP Nel, Ben Toolis and Hamish Watson. Leinster’s players will be fresh this week against Ulster, but there’s also the risk they will struggle for cohesion and chemistry in such an important game. Ulster were without their Irish contingent in their win over the Southern Kings on Friday, too, but by comparison, it is a smaller number of players to reintegrate.
For Saracens, they opted to give Owen Farrell, George Kruis and Maro Itoje the week off against Harlequins on Saturday, with the former two recuperating from the Six Nations and the latter not rushed back after the injury he suffered in February. They did, however, immediately bring Jamie George and Billy Vunipola back into the starting XV.
There was a rush and a frenzy to criticise Ireland during and after the Six Nations, with some outlets going as far as to write off Ireland’s chances at the upcoming Rugby World Cup, and this game will be a measure of whether or not the players have been affected by that or if there is any truth to it. Leinster will welcome back a much larger selection of players from that group who had a flat, to be kind, Six Nations, whereas Ulster will lean more heavily upon players from outside of the group that lost to England and Wales.
As for Saracens taking on Glasgow, if there are any flashbacks to the game that took place about 15 miles south of Allianz Park at the culmination of the Six Nations, Saracens could be in trouble against the Scottish club. That second half in the Calcutta Cup will be one of the major low points of the Saracens’ England players’ international careers, especially with success having come more often than not since the 2015 RWC.
That all said, both Leinster and Saracens have quality squads, plenty of leaders on and off the field and are boasting home advantage. The safe money is on both of them advancing to the semi-finals this weekend, although the gap between them and the rest of the field has definitely seemed to diminish since the turn of the year.
Ulster have not lost since their last trip to Dublin, Glasgow, similarly, haven’t lost since they last played Saracens earlier in the Champions Cup, whilst Toulouse are in rapid ascension in terms of European rugby and more than capable of upsetting the odds against Racing on Sunday.
We’ve focused on those three quarter-finals because of the form of Leinster, Saracens and Racing back in the pool stage, but the match between Edinburgh and Munster shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
Edinburgh boast home advantage, whilst Munster have a pedigree in this tournament which in match previews, head-to-heads and debate sounds simply like a hollow cliché, and yet, unerringly, always seems to be emphatically reinforced in big European games. Thankfully for Edinburgh, they’ve taken away the Thomond Park crowd and advantage, but no one is writing Munster off in this contest, even as the away team.
Could one of those two sides go all the way and challenge the early front-runners that formed a European “big three” for the title this season?
It wouldn’t be surprising, that’s for sure, but it still feels as if there is a bit of a gap there. It may feel like it’s diminishing, but it still exists.
Solid wins this weekend for Leinster and Saracens will reaffirm their status at the top of the European pile, as it would for Racing, although Toulouse will head to Paris La Défense Arena full of the confidence that their international counterparts France rarely, if ever, exhibited during the Six Nations. That game has the customary “there’s always one away team who upsets the apple cart” feel to it.
Should they win, Saracens will book home advantage for the semi-finals as the number one seed, meaning that they would host either Edinburgh or Munster at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, whilst Leinster will be hoping for a Toulouse win, in which case they’d take on les rouges et noirs at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, rather than having to travel to Paris to take on Racing.
The permutations could fall in a number of different ways, but if you were one of the people hoping early in the tournament for a blockbuster match-up between Leinster and Saracens in the final at St James’ Park in May, you may very well still get your wish.
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