European Champions Cup semi-finals – opponent’s preview

European Champions Cup semi-finals – opponent’s preview

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It’s already been a glorious year for Irish rugby, with Joe Schmidt’s Boys In Green winning the Grand Slam during the 2018 Six Nations.

One month on from that triumph, could we now be set for an all-Irish final in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup, with both Leinster and Munster in semi-final action this weekend?

Leinster will be the first looking to book a trip to Bilbao in May when they face Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium, where they have already knocked out defending European champions Saracens, on Saturday.

Then on Sunday, Munster will try to reach their first final in a decade, but they’ll be on the road, with their match against French side Racing 92 taking place at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas.

Here, we cast our eye on the two teams barring their way to Spain.

Scarlets

Leinster will want to ensure there is no repeat of last season’s league semi-final, when 14-man Scarlets stunned the RDS crowd by defeating Leo Cullen’s men 27-15 in their own back yard.

But compared to Leinster, the West Walians are European novices, as this is the first time they have reached the last four since 2007.

Scarlets lost their first two games in the pool stage before staging a brilliant recovery that was capped by a thrilling 30-27 victory against Toulon at a packed Parc y Scarlets that clinched their quarter final place.

It was similarly raucous when they then defeated La Rochelle 29-17 at the same venue, but they go into this tie at the Aviva Stadium as underdogs, given Leinster’s form in the competition.

However, under head coach Wayne Pivac, they fear no opponents with their fast-paced running rugby that destroyed Munster in last year’s PRO12 final.

That match in itself means players such as Leigh Halfpenny, Gareth Davies, Ken Owens and John Barclay already have great memories of Dublin.

Leinster have had the upper hand in the two matches in this season’s PRO14, though, winning 20-13 at the RDS in February before drawing the return fixture in Llanelli 10-10.

Racing 92

This will be the third time Munster face Racing 92 in this season’s Champions Cup, with the teams racking up one victory each during the pool stage.

Just as Scarlets’ European pedigree doesn’t quite match up to Leinster’s, the same can be said about the Parisians in relation to Munster.

That being said, they did reach the final as recently as 2016, when they were squeezed out 21-9 by Saracens at Lyon, in what was a try-less contest.

Racing are currently third in the French Top 14 and they booked their place in the semi-finals this time around by ransacking Clermont-Auvergne 28-17 at their Stade Marcel Michelin fortress.

They still have legendary All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter in their midst, but it has been their captain, scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who has been mostly pulling the strings this season.

They also have former Munster lock Donnacha Ryan to call upon, while his second row partner Leone Nakarawa is one of the world’s best in his position.

For Munster’s fans, it’s been too long since their boys last conquered Europe in 2008, but Johann van Graan’s side face a tough task in trying to break a streak of five semi-final defeats.

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