Stephen Ferris previews Leinster and Ulster Champions Cup quarter-finals
With the Pro14 season now over, everyone’s attention turns to the big quarter-final clashes in the European Champions Cup.
Leinster retained the Pro14 title for a record-breaking 7th time, and are surely favourites to go on and do the double… or are they?
It just shows the strength and depth that there currently is in Leinster when your club captain, Jonny Sexton, is on the bench for the Pro14 final.
He will be fresh and relishing the opportunity to lead his side out against Saracens. I’m sure there has been a recurring word used in the Leinster camp this week… that word being- REVENGE!
Leinster suffered their last defeat in all completions to Saracens on the 11th May 2019 in the Champions Cup final – a match that Saracens dominated for the most part and one that Leinster can take a lot of learnings away from.
Will they make the same mistakes again? I don’t think so.
Leinster beat Ulster in the Pro14 final with relative ease. They did put themselves under some unnecessary pressure with a malfunctioning lineout in the first half, but once that was sorted out they never looked back.
They have power, athleticism, pace, a clinical edge, an educated kicking game, and a skill set any side in world rugby would be envious of. No wonder they are the favourites for the Champions Cup.
No one really has come close to beating them in the last 25 games. However mentally Saracens might have the edge on this ‘invincible’ Leinster team due to their last contest between each other.
Saracens will of course be missing their club captain in Owen Farrell who has been banned for five games due to his dangerous tackle two weeks ago. This is a huge loss.
We know that Saracens have world class players who can step up to the mark, but Owen is the man who makes them tick.
Sarries had a great win last weekend at home to Exeter. And that result against the Gallagher Premiership league leaders might turn a few heads when it comes to the betting.
However, Exeter fielded a 3rd string team away from home which had five or six debutants. I wouldn’t take this result into consideration when looking at recent form.
Prediction – Leinster to win this game. Leinster at the Aviva stadium are almost unbeatable… Toulon were the last team to win there in 2015.
It’s a 9-point handicap and if Owen Farrell was playing I would be backing Saracens to beat that, but he isn’t. So Leinster -9 is my bet and I might even be cheeky and go for the draw on the handicap of -9 at 25/1.
Come on the Irish.
Sunday afternoon rugby, it’s hard to beat!
The early kick-off in the Sunday games sees the Pro14 finalists take on last year’s Top14 winners.
Toulouse are huge favourites for this match but the stats between the two sides in recent years suggest Toulouse won’t get it all their own way.
With only three wins and a draw out of the last nine games against Ulster, you can maybe see why a few Toulouse fans might be nervous about this one.
The match has been moved to a slightly smaller venue to try and make the atmosphere better for the home team. And there will be atmosphere because 5000 fans are allowed in to support the French Champions.
The handicap of 13 points I think is overstating Ulster’s chances. My reason for thinking this is because Ulster have had a really tough few weeks.
Connacht, Leinster, Edinburgh, Leinster…. and only winning one of the last four probably isn’t the best confidence booster going into this match.
Ulster do have a couple of players in top form mind you. McCloskey and Coetzee have been the awesome performers all season in both the Pro14 and Champions Cup. Can these two men drive Ulster to an unexpected away win? They won’t go down fighting I know that!
Toulouse have been scoring lots of points since the restart of their league, but they have also been conceding too many.
Their defence will be tested at times throughout the game, and it’s vitally important they don’t concede any soft tries which might give Ulster some hope. Thomas Ramos and World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe were superb last weekend against La Rochelle.
If Ulster are going to give themselves a chance of winning then they will have to shut down these two lads. Both are a joy to watch.
Prediction – Toulouse to win and beat the handicap of 13 points. I feel Ulster are a little battered and bruised from the last four weeks and probably more importantly, they could be emotionally and mentally drained.
I would like to see some fresh faces on the Ulster team sheet. Play with no fear away from home and give it a crack. But unfortunately, I feel it will be Ulster who will crack.