The European Champions Cup Quarter Finals tale place this weekend, and when you look at the teams involved, it does not reflect the current 6 Nations. The top two countries, Wales and England only have one team between them (Saracens), while Scotland (5thin 6N) and France (4th) have two teams each and Ireland (3rd) has three teams. While it is not a surprise that Ireland have the most, it is surprising that Wales have none. It does show that club (regional) rugby does not always equate to international success. That may be down to the national team coaches, but after the 6 Nations, it is a massive conundrum.
The weekend starts at BT Murrayfield, where Edinburgh entertain two-time champions Munster. This game along with the final game in Paris, are the hardest to call. Edinburgh who have only lost once at home this season, having defeated both French powerhouses (Montpellier and Toulon) in the group stages, will fancy their chances, despite being underdogs. The outcome will come down to how Edinburgh cope with the pressure of a QF. Home advantage, I feel gives Edinburgh the edge, and combined with the positivity of the Scotland players coming back from the unbelievable game at Twickenham, should be enough for a very narrow victory. With Richard Cockerill having developed a strong mentality, I think Edinburgh will scrape, though I think the game will still be in the balance come the final play of the match.
Of the middle two matches, I expect Saracens to make easy work of defeating Glasgow. The only possible chink of light is if Saracens take Glasgow lightly, though after their indifferent performance against Harlequins, I don’t think they will. It is just unfortunate that it is a repeat of the group stage. That is the one aspect of the Champions and Challenge Cup, I feel needs changing. The QF draw should not have two teams from the same qualifying pool playing off. This can be rectified by switching the 7thand 8thseeds (or 6thand 7th) around as they are all the best runners-up.
As for the last game of the Saturday, an all-Ireland clash between Leinster and Ulster, I feel that home advantage will see Leinster through. Ulster have been very inconsistent this season, while Leinster are flying high at the top of their conference in the Pro-14. Leinster had the luxury of resting their big hitters against Edinburgh last weekend, while Ulster did not have that luxury as they are still chasing a play-off and European Champions Cup qualification. With their knock out rugby experience, couple with home advantage, I see a tight game, but a Leinster victory.
The Sunday game, sees Racing 92 entertain Toulouse. Following the 6 Nations, Racing struggled in the first half against Bordeaux, but turned on the style in the second half to comfortable bonus point win, while Toulouse continued their grip at the top of the table with an away win at La Rochelle. This is a tricky one to call, but if Finn Russell returns for Racing, I think his spark, may be the difference between the two sides. It is for that reason, I think it will be Racing….just.
So, at the end of the weekend, I expect four countries to be represented, with all four home teams progressing. I still feel that the Edinburgh v Munster game will be the closest, but I will go for a Semi-Final line up of Saracens v Edinburgh and Leinster v Racing 92.