By Phil Rice
Just two weeks after Grand Slam glory, Ireland’s battered warriors return to competitive action at the critical quarter-final stage of the European competitions.
All three teams have earned home ties as a result of their performances in the group stages.
Leinster are the only undefeated team in the Champions Cup and were unlucky to draw such strong opponents at this stage when Saracens just managed to qualify in the final round of group matches. Champions for the past two years they will want to seize the opportunity to retain the title.
Saracens have had a mixed season to date for such a dominant team in recent years, injuries to key players and loss of form by some of their stars have contributed to their inconsistency. However, they will not lack focus when they arrive at the Aviva on Sunday (KO 3:30pm).
A number of the players will be resuming battle with opponents from Twickenham just two weeks before. The fly half confrontation will be particularly interesting.
Johnny Sexton won the Twickenham duel, but Owen Farrell is undoubtedly one of the finest players in world rugby and he will be looking for revenge.
Disrupt the flow
The Irish pack, plus substitutes, featured nine Leinstermen so we can expect the home team to take on the Saracens forwards and attempt to disrupt the flow of possession that Farrell and his backline will need to strut their stuff.
The Londoners tend to use their battering ram captain Brad Barritt at inside centre to get over the gain line, and then utilise their mobile pack to make inroads into the opposition defences.
The Vunipola brothers are key to developing this style of play but number 8 Billy Vunipola will not feature through injury, and instead they will rely on Lion’s first choice hooker, Jamie George and English locks Maro Itoje and George Kruis for their continuity play.
In addition to Barritt their backline will feature Welshman Liam Williams, Scotsman Sean Maitland and Englishmen Alex Lozowski and Alex Goode. Williams and Maitland are lethal finishers and Leinster will be hoping to starve them of ball.
Leinster fielded a shadow XV at the weekend against a full-strength Ospreys team and duly lost only their second league game of the year.
Leo Cullen will be hoping that the head injury incurred by Fergus McFadden will not be serious enough to prevent him from playing this week, as the winger has returned to his best form in recent weeks.
Young sensation Jordan Larmour is unavailable through a knock he received at Twickenham and his attacking threat will be missed.
Garry Ringrose and James Lowe should be included in the starting XV but the inside centre position will be an issue for Cullen. Robbie Henshaw is out for the remainder of the season and Noel Reid was injured at the weekend.
Captain Isa Nacewa is unlikely to be fit, so the alternatives are thin on the ground. Rory O’Loughlin and Garry Ringrose are ideally both outside centres but one of them may have to move to the inside position.
This will be a key role as Brad Barritt will come bulldozing down the twelve channel. Jordi Murphy will probably be given responsibility at openside to stop the Saracens captain in his tracks.
Saracens will certainly not give up their title lightly and a full house will be expected to attend at the Aviva for what should be a closely fought encounter.
Munster did Leinster a big favour last weekend by beating Pro12 champions Scarlets. The Welshmen are Leinster’s closest rivals for Conference B of the new Pro14 league and despite losing Leinster managed to stay top as a result of Munster’s efforts.
The Munster pack were outstanding and they will need to be again this week against the powerful Toulon forwards on Saturday (KO 3:15pm).
One of the unluckiest players in the Munster squad, Tommy O’Donnell looked to have suffered a serious shoulder injury in the match and with Chris Cloete already unavailable, their back row options are looking stretched.
Robin Copeland gave a man of the match performance at number eight at the weekend and either he or Jack O’Donoghue may have to switch to openside.
Toulon may not be quite the force they were a few years ago when they fielded the most expensive team of galacticos ever assembled at club level in Europe.
However, they are close to the top of the French Top 14 league and will ask serious questions of the Munstermen. Expect Munster to keep the ball close to their pack and CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony to steer the home team to a narrow victory.
In the Challenge Cup Connacht face a much-improved Gloucester team, who are currently lying sixth in the English Premiership. Director of Rugby David Humphreys, has done an excellent job in bringing back winning ways to the Kingsholm faithful.
Their away form is less impressive and Connacht will be hoping that a packed Sportsground (KO 1pm) can carry them to the semi-finals.
This is pay-off time for all the season’s hard work. The Irish teams fell at the penultimate stage last season and this year they have focussed their efforts on reaching the European finals and will not want to miss out again.