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Monday, 26 January 2015

Are we headed for an all-French Champions Cup Final?

As the pool stages came to an end this weekend, the draws for the quarter and  semi finals of the Champions Cup were held and its looking increasingly likely that London will be hosting an all-French affair this May.

The quarter finals include three French Top14 sides, one Irish side and for the first time ever four English Premiership sides have made it out of the pool stages but unfortunately for all four of them they have been handed away draws.

Semi-Final draw
(Toulon v Wasps) v (Leinster v Bath)
(Clermont v Northampton) v (Racing Metro v Saracens)

The draw already looks set for a repeat of the 2012/13 final where Toulon overcame French rivals Clermont Auvergne 16-15 with both sides on different halves of the draw and both securing a home route to the final. As likely as this seems of course this is no certainty and there is still a lot of rugby to be played before we reach the final.

Toulon are the bookies favourites to retain their title and make it three in a row after following up their 12/13 win against Clermont with a relatively easy win over Saracens last season in the final year of the old structure Heineken Cup.  The French side were the only ones to get through pool 3 ahead of Leicester, Ulster and Scarlets, finishing with 22 points and five wins out of six, just losing one game. Their star studded side contains big names such as Halfpenny, Habana and Steffon Armitage and it will take a massive performance by any team to knock them out especially at home where they will play the quarter final and semi final should they make it.

Wasps are the team that were given the unfortunate task of playing Toulon in the quarters in Toulon and will be cursing their luck because if Goode had converted a last minute drop goal against Leinster on Sunday they would have topped their group and avoided the French giants but it was not to be. It’s hard to see Wasps beating Toulon especially away from home and you would expect the real test for Toulon will be in the semi-final.

The winner of Leinster and Bath will come up against the winner of that first quarter final and based on their pool form Leinster should come through this one. Leinster snuck into the top spot of the pool and with Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien set to be back for their knockout clashes they should be able to see-off Bath, who won their pool with fewer points than any other pool winners.

The probable semi-final would be Toulon hosting Leinster. Leinster’s experience in the competition should hold them in good stead and they seem the most likely side to go to France and knock out the reigning champions.

At the other side of the draw, Clermont Auvergne will welcome Northampton Saints and will be fully confident of coming through that tie. Clermont is arguably the hardest place to visit and despite Northampton scoring the most tries (25) in the pool stages the likes of George North will struggle to break through Clermont’s strong line.

Racing Metro are the third French side to get a home quarter-final as Jonny Sexton’s side welcome Saracens. Racing are the only unbeaten side in this seasons Champions Cup and with a home draw they are strong favourites to progress past Saracens. Their unbeaten status may be a bit misleading after coming through a relatively easy group that included both the Ospreys and Treviso with Northampton offering the only real threat.

Saracens made it to last years final only to be defeated by Toulon and it looks likely their campaign will be ended by a French side again this year. Englishmen Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton will have to be on top of their game if they are to cause an upset but even then it’s hard to look past the French side.

One would expect the semi-final will be a mammoth clash between French giants, Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro in Clermont. Home advantage would not be as important in this tie with both sides being French but Clermont’s exciting back line of Jonathan Davies, Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra amongst others should be too strong for their French counterparts.

Money talks in sport and as has been the trend the wealthy French sides look set to dominate once again in the latter stages of this seasons Champions Cup. Unless one of the English sides can cause an upset or Matt O’Connor’s Leinster pull something out of the bag, an all-French final looks almost inevitable.