There will be no room for error when giants collide in the European Champions Cup semi-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
And then there were four. Four title-hungry teams who’ve all tasted the sweetest victory in all of franchise rugby and are licking their lips in anticipation of doing so again.
Two blockbuster battles are in store with Leinster taking on Toulouse in Dublin on Saturday and defending champions La Rochelle hosting the Exeter Chiefs in Bordeaux on Sunday.
Leinster v Toulouse
Saturday, 29 April – 16:00
The two most successful clubs in the tournament’s history collide in a monumental clash. Toulouse boast a record five stars, their last triumph coming in 2020-21, while Leinster have four titles to their name, the last materialising in 2017-18.
Their paths have crossed three times in the semi-finals with Leinster holding a 2-1 advantage courtesy of last year’s 40-17 victory. Whenever these two powerhouses face off, it’s a humdinger with Test match-like intensity and this weekend will be no different with both sides stacked with international superstars.
Both teams have been imperious in their unbeaten runs to the final four and flexed their muscles in the quarter-finals, Leinster lashing the Leicester Tigers 55-24 and Toulouse trouncing the Sharks 54-20. They also top their respective domestic competitions, which adds to the enormity of the encounter.
Leinster are a well-oiled machine unlike any other and it’s no surprise that they top most of the stats. The Irish club’s efficiency is off the charts and sees them overwhelm the opposition.
Toulouse’s play is built around the brilliant Antoine Dupont. Along with Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos, the French outfit are adept at playing finals rugby, with the latter being a sharpshooter at goal.
Aside from having home-ground advantage, Leinster are fresh as their frontline players skipped the United Rugby Championship tour of South Africa. At full strength, they have an extra gear that sets them apart and they should prevail in a hard-fought contest.
La Rochelle v Exeter Chiefs
Sunday, 30 April – 16:00
The reigning champions host the 2020 winners in the second semi.
La Rochelle’s fantastic forwards lay the foundation for their success. This strength was highlighted in their powerhouse display against Saracens in the quarters, which saw them secure a 24-10 win.
The Chiefs have had an average Gallagher Premiership campaign, sitting sixth, and have saved their best rugby for the European showpiece. They showed in their season-best showing against the Stormers in the quarter-finals (42-17) how lethal they can be when they click.
The English club, who regained much-needed momentum with a last-gasp 22-21 win over the Bristol Bears on the domestic front at the weekend, have special motivation as several stars of their golden generation will depart at the end of the season, so they shouldn’t be taken lightly.
La Rochelle, though, are clear favourites for a reason and with their unrivalled pack, they’ll be too strong for the Chiefs and will set up a repeat of last year’s final.