What a weekend of Champions Cup quarter-final action – four full houses, a 62% increase in aggregate attendance from 2016 and four home wins, including Leinster and Munster’s successes in Dublin and Limerick.
It left us with the mouthwatering prospect of the following semi-finals on the weekend of April 22-23 to determine who will fight it out at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, May 13 for the biggest club rugby trophy in the world:
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP SEMI-FINALS:
Saturday, April 22 –
MUNSTER v SARACENS, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, 3.15pm (live BT Sport/beIN Sports/Sky Italia)
Sunday, April 23 –
CLERMONT AUVERGNE v LEINSTER, Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon, 4pm local time (live Sky Sports/FR2/beIN Sports/Sky Italia)
For the Clermont director of rugby Franck Azema, it will mean an emotional return to the ground where he played for the club in their first European final in 1999. On that day they beat Bourgoin 35-16 in front of a then record crowd of 31,906.
The Clermont side of 2017 will be bidding to reach a third Champions Cup final, and a fifth European final overall, having also won the Challenge Cup in 2007. They are old adversaries of Leinster, who have twice before beaten them in the knock-out stages.
Leinster triumphed 29-28 in Dublin in the 2010 quarter-final and won 19-15 in the 2012 semi-final in Bordeaux. The teams have met eight times before overall in the tournament, with Leinster holding the upper hand 5-3.
For a handful of Leinster players there will be a chance to stay on course for a record-equalling fourth European Cup winners’ medal. Cedric Heymans and Frederick Michalak both have four winners’ medals, but Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Sexton and Cian Healy could all join them if they can go all the way again.
They were all part of the Leinster side that won their first title at BT Murrayfield in 2009. Eight years on, the home of Scottish rugby will once again be the venue for the final.
The challenge for the reigning champions Saracens against Munster in Dublin, in what will be a record-equalling fifth successive semi-final, will be to win their first one away from home. In their five previous appearances in the final four (2008, 2013-2016) they have played in England on four occasions and were beaten by Clermont at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, in Saint Etienne, in their only away tie.
That narrow defeat, 13-9, in 2015, was the last time Saracens were beaten in the tournament. Since then they have won 15 and drawn one and will be looking to match Leinster’s record of 17 games without defeat when they play at the Aviva Stadium.
They met Munster in their first semi-final at the Ricoh Arena in 2008 when they were pipped 18-16, and scrum half Neil de Kock is the only survivor from that match. The two teams have met seven times in Europe with Munster winning five times.
CHAMPIONS CUP QUARTER-FINALS – DID YOU KNOW?:
– The aggregate attendance for the four quarter-finals was 110,339, up 62% on last season’s total of 68,122
– There were four home wins in the quarter-final matches for the second season in a row. The last time all home teams triumphed in the quarter-finals in back-to-back seasons was in 2000 and 2001
– Chris Ashton’s two tries in Saracens’ win over Glasgow Warriors brings his total to 36 and makes him the joint-top try scorer in European Cup history with Vincent Clerc
– 870,976 fans have already come through the turnstiles for this season’s Champions Cup matches with the one million total likely to be exceeded at the Edinburgh final on May 13
– The last time Munster featured in a semi-final in Dublin was their famous 30-6 victory over arch rivals Leinster at Lansdowne Road in 2006
– Europe’s three major professional leagues, the Aviva Premiership, GUINNESS PRO12 and Top 14 are represented in the semi-finals
– The last time two Irish provinces reached the semi-finals was in 2012 when Leinster went on to lift the trophy by beating Ulster in the final
– Two-time winners Munster are through to a 12th tournament semi-final, while Leinster are in the last four for the eighth time
– The tournament’s leading scorer, Owen Farrell of Saracens, needs just three points to bring up a century for the season
– This season’s top tackler is now Clermont’s Sébastien Vahaamahina with 80 tackles
– Leinster captain Isa Nacewa is the current tournament leading try scorer with seven tries
– Damian Penaud, a try scorer for Clermont on his Champions Cup debut, is keeping a family tradition alive. His father Alain captained Brive to win the European Cup in 1997