If Munster are European rugby’s aging rockers, slightly past their prime but with a pedigree that proves they know their way around a decent guitar solo then their opponents this weekend reigning Champions Toulouse are very much the stadium rock gods at the peak of their powers. But much like rock and roll knockout rugby is a fickle beast who can rear it’s ugly head at any time, so a Quarter Final is never a forgone conclusion. Munster have only lost once at home so far this season but this “home” game is 128 miles away from Thomond Park and that might be a problem, in fact a direct flight from Toulouse to Dublin arrives 20 minutes before a car driving from Limerick to Lansdowne Road and that’s without any serious traffic. It’s not all bad news for the home team though, Luke Pearce will be on the whistle for this game and he’s never one to upset home fans so if the Munster Roar is in full effect Toulouse will have to be on their best behaviour to get any favourable decisions. Toulouse’s away form has been a bit patchy this season, they lost away to Toulon two weeks ago and despite winning in Ravenhill they conceded 6 tries against Ulster over two legs whilst only scoring five of their own. It would be a surprise if this isn’t one of the most intense games of the weekend and I would be surprised if either team ran away with it but I would also be surprised if Toulouse didn’t find some individual flair to decide this game.
Leicester have redefined the word “resurgent” this season after a few seasons struggling for stability off the field and searching for their true identity they are now top of the Premiership and they’re yet to lose at home. For their part Leinster are also top of their domestic league and while they have lost 3 games away in the United Rugby Championship two of those were on their South African tour after they’d all but guaranteed a play off spot, the other was in Cardiff when a lot of their squad were preparing for Ireland’s 6 Nations campaign. The intrigue in this match-up comes in the forwards, Leicester have found a lot of joy this season through their hooker Julian Montoya and the lineout has been particularly important to their attacking play on the other hand Leinster’s second row has attracted some concerns as they’re very athletic but lack a bit of bulk. Leicester also have more athletic forwards than bulky forwards too though so it would be slightly surprising if they chose to try attack the heart of Leinster’s pack directly, technique and physical strength has been key for them this season. I’ve been convinced that Leicester’s point of difference this season has been the recruitment of Aled Walters as their Head of Strength and conditioning, he previously worked with the Springboks and lead their S&C program when they won the RWC in Japan and one of the most memorable parts of this Tigers season has been how many games they have won at the death. Leinster undoubtedly have the deeper squad and their stars like Jonny Sexton won’t have played as many games as their opposite numbers this weekend but the Tigers have the best conditioning coach in the business so if Leinster haven’t put them away early on then I think there’s a very good chance the home team perform even more heroics after the clock has turned red.
There’s no fun way to travel 410 miles and that’s exactly what Montpellier have to do for their game against La Rochelle and the weather looks like it’ll be perfect for running rugby on France’s West coast tomorrow which could turn this game into something resembling a game of basketball. At the end of January Montpellier won in La Rochelle having already beaten Ronan O’Gara’s charges when they hosted them back in October on the back of seven Garbisi penalties. Over the course of both games Montpellier have scored 50 points and four tries compared to La Rochelle’s 34 points and three tries so this promises to be a close affair, recently though La Rochelle have really tightened up their defence so I would expect them to move on to the semi-finals.
Racing 92 host Sale Sharks in the final Quarter final of the weekend and there is absolutely no reason the boys from the North West should win, but then there was absolutely no reason that Sale should even be in the Quarter finals and that is why this game is a nightmare for Racing. The metropolitan elite should win this at a canter and that’s the sort of situation that brings untold amounts of pressure, Racing have won their last five games, but three of those were against their neighbours Stade who are struggling in eleventh place in the Top 14 table and the other two were against bottom of the table Biarritz and Pau who sit tenth. The last game Racing played against reasonable opposition was in La Rochelle (who are only seventh in the league) on the 26th of March and they lost 19-0. Sale haven’t exactly been ripping teams to pieces recently either mind you but they excel in games that have become staccato and scrappy which turn into error strewn affairs and with a coach in Alex Sanderson who understands how to pressurise opponents with defensive line speed and frantic counter-rucking. If Racing can keep their heads and create a stable platform to attack from they will be in the Semi-finals again, but with Andrew Brace and his vociferous whistle it’ll be difficult for anyone to keep their cool and build momentum. Brace officiating should negate any distinct advantage Racing would have in the scrum too, there’s a good possibility that as much as Racing want to play champagne rugby this game will be decided by place kicks and with Joy Neville TMOing alongside and Irish referee in a game that will may well decide who Leinster play in the Semi-finals there could be a large amount of controversy under the roof of the La Defense Arena. I quite fancy this will be the most memorable game of the weekend and if anyone can benefit from some incomprehensible nonsense it’s Alex Sanderson’s Sharks outfit, they did score three of their four tries in the Quarter final after they had been reduced to 14 players after all.