With 3 of the 4 quarterfinals taking place on french soil, and all 3 of those against English opposition it could feel somewhat like the Hundred year war for the Premiership sides.
In the only non Anglo-French encounter, Bath travel to Leinster while the remaining fixtures sees Clermont Auvergne take on Premiership table-toppers Northampton Saints, Racing Metro will play last year’s finalists Saracens, and finally champions Toulon will face Wasps.
The record books show that in 72 quarterfinal encounters in Europe’s top flight, 54 have been won by the home club – a staggering 75% success rate for those sides on home soil.
Premiership clubs make up half the Champions Cup quarterfinalists, although all have to play away from home.
English teams have a 20% success rate away from home in the tournament, winning only 4 times in 20 quarterfinal games to date.
For the 9 away matches against French opposition, the success rate is as low as 11%, with only 1 win – Northampton Saints’ 7 / 6 victory over Biarritz Olympique in San Sebastian in 2007.
The only other English away victories in the last 8 have been Leicester Tigers over Leinster Rugby at Lansdowne Road in 2005, Bath at Leicester in 2006 and Saracens against Ulster at Kingspan Stadium last season.
The 3 French clubs in the Champions Cup quarterfinals have never lost at home in the last 8 of Europe’s top flight.
Toulon and Clermont have won home quarterfinals in the past 2 seasons, while Racing Metro have reached the knockout stage for the 1st time in their history.
The odds are definitely stacked against the English clubs, but that does not mean that any of the French teams will take them lightly.
Saturday 4 April:
Leinster vs Bath:
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin – kick-off: 15:15 BST, 14:15 GMT)
The last time George Ford, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Dave Attwood went to the Aviva Stadium, they came away with a bloody nose with England in the Six Nations.
A few weeks on and they will be back in Dublin hoping to exact revenge on many of the Leinster players who made them suffer while wearing Irish jerseys on that day, as the English Grand Slam hopes went up in smoke, 9 / 19.
Ford will be pretty familiar with Leinster loose forwards Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, as well as Rob Kearney behind the scrum.
Attwood, too, will have learned much about the giant Devin Toner, and the power of Leinster’s all-international front row options.
Bath will also have a secret ingredient in their squad at the weekend in the shape of Peter Stringer.
A man who knows better than most what makes Leinster tick and how to get the best out of a team in the knock-out stage of the European Cup.
Head coach Mike Ford is set to include the Irish scrumhalf in his squad along with fit again Wales prop Paul James.
The return to action of James will be a massive boost for the Bath side, because he has experience of going to Dublin and beating Leinster in their own back yard with the Ospreys in 2 Pro12 finals.
His contribution, if fully match fit, could be crucial on the day.
Leinster have identified the Bath front 5 as one of the strongest parts of their game, and would have been looking forward to seeing their 3 international props, Jams, Dave Wilson and Henry Thomas, continuing in the sidelines beyond the quarterfinals.
James’ return, therefore, is most welcome.
After 3 successive seasons of winning European silverware, Leinster fell at the quarterfinal hurdle in Toulon last season.
They could well find themselves heading back to the south of France to play the same opposition in Marseille if they can successfully negotiate a 7th win in their 11th quarterfinal appearance.
“We’ve won in Toulouse already this year, but we don’t want to be the type of team who sits on their laurels and reflects on something that we’ve done in the past.
“We’ve put out performances, but now we need to produce another when we need it,” said Attwood.
“If we want to reach the heights we want to reach, we need to do it on a more consistent basis – and that begins this weekend.”
Given the feel-good factor in Irish rugby at the moment following their back-to-back Six Nations titles, the Aviva Stadium is likely to be buzzing once again.
2011: Leinster won 52-27, Aviva Stadium
2011: Leinster won 18-13, The Rec
2006: Leinster won 35-23, The Rec
Prediction: Bath have been a team that have fought tooth and nail throughout this tournament, managing to just slide into the quarterfinals after a late surge in the pool stages. Meanwhile, Leinster are a championship-winning side what will not be daunted by the arrival of the Premiership team. Leinster’s road to this quarterfinal has seen them topple English giants, Harlequins (14 / 13), hammer French side Castres (50 / 8) and draw with fellow quarterfinalists Wasps (20 / 20). Meanwhile, Bath have overcome 2 French sides in Toulouse (35 / 18) and Montpellier (32 / 12) as well as defeat Glasgow (20 / 15). However, the home ground advantage cannot be ignored and so it should be Leinster’s day as they take it by 7 points.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Christophe Berdos (France), Patrick Péchambert (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Clermont Auvergne vs Northampton Saints:
(Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont – Kick-off: 18:45 French Time, 17:45 BST, 16:45 GMT)
Stephen Myler has warned Northampton they must keep their cool if they are to end Clermont Auvergne’s long unbeaten home record in this weekend’s Champions Cup quarterfinal.
Clermont are going in search of their 1st European title and have not lost in 22 continental contests on their own turf, which makes Saturday’s trip a particularly daunting one, even for a Saints side who are clear at the top of the Premiership.
The English champions warmed up for their visit to Stade Marcel-Michelin with a 52 / 30 win over Wasps, but flyhalf Myler, while pleased with the clinical edge shown in attack, has called for a more composed display this weekend.
“It can take time for the lads to gel when they come back after the Six Nations, there is a lot of energy and we have been overly keen at times.
Against Wasps we gave away 2 penalties early in the 2nd half and we ended up defending on our own tryline, those are errors we cannot afford to make against Clermont,” said Myler.
“We need to work on that, those factors we can control, whether that be our discipline or being overeager and giving the referee a chance to give a penalty.
“But those things are fixable.”
The omens of last-8 meetings where English clubs have travelled to France do not offer much comfort for Northampton.
Of 9 trips across the Channel for a quarterfinal, only 1 has ended in victory.
But it was Saints themselves who pulled off the feat when they beat Biarritz 7 / 6 in San Sebastian in 2007.
“We are the underdogs, we know it is a massive game and a massive challenge,” said Northampton Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder.
“It is a fantastic place to go and play rugby, they are a quality team.
“It is a great environment to play in but we are really looking forward to the challenge.”
Clermont, meanwhile, were defeated by Stade Francais last time out, but hooker Benjamin Kayser feels no apprehension ahead of the return to Champions Cup action.
“We go into a period where we know the games count even more, but I feel more excitement than fear of doing something wrong.
“Every player wants to play in big games and we are facing a big rival for this title,” said Kayser.
2001: AS Montferrand won 50 / 17, Stade Marcel-Michelin
2001: AS Montferrand won 21 / 15, Franklin’s Gardens
Prediction: It is all to clear that playing away from home, and on French soil is no easy prospect, couple that with the fortress that is Stade Marcel-Michelin and it could be an extremely long day for the Premiership giants. One thing is for sure, it should be match of the weekend, with the Saints in good form in the Premiership and Clermont determines, more than ever, to keep their home record intact. Clermont by the smallest of margins.
Referee: Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Leighton Hodges (Wales), David Wilkinson (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Sunday 5 April:
Racing Metro vs Saracens:
(Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, Paris – Kick-off: 13:45 French Time, 12:34 BST, 11:35 GMT)
Top seeds Racing Metro against in-form Saracens promises to be a thrilling encounter with both sides full of confidence ahead of their Champions Cup quarterfinal clash.
The French side were the only unbeaten club in the pool stages, coming out of their group with Northampton Saints, the Ospreys and Benetton Treviso with 24 points thanks to 5 wins and just 1 draw.
It will make them marginal favourites for a place in the semifinals but they won’t be underestimating the visitors, despite Saracens only scraping through qualification.
Saracens went through to the knock-out stages with the lowest amount of points (17) of any qualifying side from their pool of Clermont Auvergne, Munster and Sale Sharks after 2 defeats and 4 wins.
But those stats don’t tell the story of Saracens’ recent excellent form, which has seen them move into 2nd place in the Premiership behind runaway leaders Northampton Saints.
Mark McCall’s side have won their last 5 games in a row, and 8 of their last 10 in all competitions, including a superb bonus-point victory over Harlequins in front of a world record 84 068 club rugby crowd at Wembley Stadium last weekend.
“We are in very good spirits at the moment,” said McCall.
“To have won our last 5 in a row is very pleasing.
“We have watched Racing a lot over the last week, especially their win at Franklin’s Gardens, and they were very good that day.
“They have got superb halfbacks and a big forward pack, but we have been buoyed by our recent results.”
Saracens will have to stop Racing on their best-ever run in Europe, having won their last 3 in a row, but they can take heart from their recent results against the Paris club.
They have won only 2 of their last 8 games on French soil, but both of those victories came against Racing, the last being a 37 / 28 victory in January 2013.
Racing were the only unbeaten team in the pool stages and they have qualified for the last 8 for the 1st time.
History, however, will remind them that no team has won the European Cup with an unbeaten record since the pool stages went to home and a way fixtures.
2013: Saracens won 37 / 28, Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir
2012: Saracens won 30 / 13, Alianz Park
2010: Saracens won 19 / 14 Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir
Prediction: The battle between the form team of the moment, Saracens, vs the form team of the competition should make for some great viewing. If Saracens can take their form across the channel there is a good chance they could knock out the only undefeated team. That, however, is easier said than done, so expect Racing to stay undefeated as they head into the semifinals off a 10 point victory.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies (Wales), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Derek Bevan (Wales)
Toulon vs Wasps:
(Stade Félix Mayol, Toulon – Kick-off: 16:15 French Time, 15:15 BST, 14:15 GMT)
Director of Rugby Dai Young has urged his Wasps side to believe they can cause a major upset on Sunday by ending Toulon’s hopes of winning an unprecedented 3rd consecutive European Cup.
Toulon will be massive favourites to win the European Champions Cup quarterfinal tie at Stade Felix Mayol this weekend, but the Top 14 outfit come into the game on the back of a 24 / 34 home loss against Toulouse.
Wasps have suffered back-to-back Premiership defeats and will be braced for a backlash from Bernard Laporte’s star-studded side, but Young is calling on his players to produce a Herculean display as they attempt to upset the odds.
“If this is a slow, set-piece game we’ll lose.
“If they are allowed to control the tempo, we don’t have enough to win,” he said.
“If we can get some real tempo and intensity and ask questions of them, then who knows what can happen?
“This is a game we have to try to win.
“If we sit back and are conservative, there’s only 1 winner.
“Toulon have lost games and they’re not unbeatable, so you have to back yourselves.”
Laporte revealed Matt Giteau could be named among the replacements after recovering from groin surgery, while Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha are set to return and Leigh Halfpenny is facing a race against time to prove his fitness.
Clermont Auvergne are level with Toulon at the summit of the Top 14 table and also come into their last-8 tie against Northampton Saints smarting from a defeat.
No previous encounters
Prediction: Just listening to the names that Toulon has at its disposal should put a lot of fear into the hearts of a Wasps team that is slowing rising through the ranks of European rugby. Wasps are definitely a team on the rise, but you have to feel, away from home, that it will be a bridge too far. Toulon should take this comfortably by more than 10 points.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips (Ireland), Gary Conway (Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)