What to look out for in Europe this weekend
The Anglo-Welsh Cup may take centre stage this weekend but there are three Aviva Premiership Rugby teams in European quarter-final action – all dreaming of a run at glory.
Two of those come in the Challenge Cup, where Newcastle Falcons host Top14 side Brive on Friday night and Gloucester Rugby visit PRO14 team Connacht on Saturday.
But the big one comes on Easter Sunday, when Saracens put their back-to-back Champions Cup titles on the line as they take a trip across the Irish Sea to Dublin to face Leinster.
Here’s what to look out this weekend:
Biggest test of Saracens’ credentials
Saracens had to battle through their pool to reach the quarter-finals and they have paid the price with perhaps the toughest assignment possible in the last eight.
Leinster are now the bookies’ favourite to go on and lift the title in Bilbao following a stellar season domestically, while all of their international players are in form and full of confidence following Ireland’s Six Nations win.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) March 30, 2018
The Irish team are top of their PRO14 pool and won all six of their games earlier this season in a tough group which also contained Exeter Chiefs, Montpellier and Glasgow Warriors.
However, Saracens are renowned for performing when their backs are against the wall – while a lot of their big guns are back.
The match is perfectly poised. Win this and Saracens could become favourites again.
Mark McCall was able to call on several returning players from the Six Nations last weekend but Owen Farrell was a notable absentee in their win against Harlequins at the London Stadium.
The fly-half returns in Dublin though as the Champions Cup holders face a fierce test against an irresistible Leinster side.
George Kruis is also back and partners Maro Itoje at lock, while Brad Barritt starts at inside centre despite undergoing surgery on a fractured cheekbone this week.
Physical contest at Kingston Park
Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards has warned his side to expect a full on physical battle from Brive tonight.
The French side are fighting for their place in the Top14 but the Challenge Cup provides something else to focus on and they have the muscle to trouble Newcastle.
🔟 – Adam Radwan is the top try scorer in the @ERChallengeCup this season (🔟 tries in 6⃣ games), while no player has gained more metres (630), made more clean breaks (13) or beaten more defenders (45) than the Falcons wing. Flying. pic.twitter.com/oTBGbbuvxA
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) March 30, 2018
Richards has packed his forwards with big hitters but admits they all need to be at the top of their game.
“Brive are a confrontational side in and around the breakdown just as France were against England in the Six Nations, and when you couple that with the fact we have an Irish referee who will allow a contest at the breakdown, it’s going to be a bruising day for the forwards,” he said.
“Fingers crossed we will come out on top.”
Afoa joins the Gloucester 100 club
John Afoa becomes the latest player to join Gloucester Rugby’s 100 club this weekend as the Cherry & Whites travel to Connacht.
The prop joined from Ulster in 2014 and has been a regular in the side since, although he is set to leave for Bristol Rugby this summer.
Before going, he will determined to help his side finally crack it in the Challenge Cup.
Morgan and Moriarty form potent double act
Injury has robbed Gloucester Rugby of Ross Moriarty and Ben Morgan for much of the season but they are fighting fit for the run-in.
We’re here at the Sportsground getting a taste of our surroundings by the sea pic.twitter.com/ZxVCOWXjYh
— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) March 30, 2018
Their absence has allowed the likes of Ruan Ackermann and Jake Polledri establish themselves in the side but head coach Johan Ackermann will be delighted to have two senior back-row players fit against an experienced Connacht team.
“You can’t read too much into their [Connacht’s] result against Edinburgh last week because they’re probably out of that competition and maybe the focus wasn’t there,” he said.
“But this is a big chance for them to do well in a highly-rated competition.
“They’re at home and they will be highly motivated.
“We have the likes of David Humphreys, Jonny Bell and Richard Hibbard etc who have played a lot of games there in the past who have told us that it’s a tough place to go to, the weather can change quickly and the crowd is quite verbal.”