14 hours on a flight and cup quarters are still up in the air

1 April 2018

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The Crusaders flew from Christchurch to Sydney last Monday morning and then took on a 14-hour schlep to Johannesburg for this Sunday’s Super Rugby duel with the Lions. I slept for eight (I tend to do that), ate for two, and spent the rest studying and working on this column.

Most of that last bit was thinking: Has there ever been four Champions Cup quarter-finals as tantalisingly balanced as this weekend’s?

Maybe it’s because rugby is getting more and more popular, but these pairings, all four of them, are incredibly exciting.

If Scarlets are favoured in tonight’s meeting against La Rochelle, it’s with a degree of hesitancy. La Rochelle may be European freshmen but their pure size will upset the Scarlets, and being in bonus territory can go one of two ways — ease the pressure or get rid of that priceless edge. Wayne Pivac and his players would still take tonight’s opponents over Toulon.

Clermont-Auvergne have never lost a European quarter-final at home but that may change Sunday. ASM is a club in turmoil now, and their president, Eric de Cromières, has expressed his anger over last week’s shocking 49-0 loss to Toulon.

At the start of the Top 14 season, Racing should have won down there but for some frustrating and questionable refereeing calls. It’s a peculiar problem Racing won’t be confronted by this time with Wayne Barnes in charge.

Clermont are out of the running for the Top 14, and their season ends Sunday with a loss. If changes in the coaching booth aren’t imminent, one could see movement at the end of the season.

Racing maintained their top-four form with a win over Lyon last Saturday with Patrick Lambie at 10. Whether he holds off Dan Carter for the starting jersey in the Champions Cup is an interesting decision.

As is the call on who kicks for the Parisians. Maxime Machenaud has delivered a 95% conversion rate in the Champions Cup this season and brought that form into the Six Nations. Had he kicked the fateful penalty missed by Anthony Belleau against Ireland, we may not be talking about any Grand Slam.

Machenaud now has a technique he believes in for the first time in his career. In cup rugby, consistency off the tee is frequently the difference between winning and not.

It’s funny when people talk about the questionable standard of the Top 14, they overlook the rich seam of talent running through it. There’s no other team in Europe would put 49 points without reply on Clermont other than Toulon.

And it wasn’t a B team they entertained. Where Clermont are scrambling for life rafts, Toulon seem to have overcome their internal wobble after the defeat to Oyonnax on Paddy’s Day and managed to park their problems, at least until the end of the season.

They can roll out a spicy blend of big-name players and big, physical players. Trinh-Duc gets the start at 10 but the real fascination from a collisions point of view will be watching Nonu and Bastareaud coming up the middle.

How are Munster going to check them? Even in the modern-day game of giant men, you are dealing with a revitalised, pumped-up 120kg of Bastareaud, who’s been given a new lease of life after being handed the French captaincy in the absence of his club colleague, Guilhem Guirado, for the last game.

He is coming off his best Six Nations campaign for France.

Be assured, Toulon will travel. French homesickness is not an issue with such a multicultural squad. They are big-occasion performers and if ever Munster needed a sell-out home crowd to get involved early — before kick-off early — then it’s tomorrow.

It’s the one left-field element the Toulon players will not be braced for. One can never underestimate the uneasiness that spreads through a visiting team facing into a Thomond Park Saturday in Europe.

They get good crowds and atmosphere in Toulon, but it’s not a Thomond Park atmosphere.

Knockout rugby is so different. Maybe it’s a day for 1 to 10 to get Munster over the line. If it’s an occasion for getting tactics right and playing it that way, then so be it. It’s less about performance now and more about winning rugby and getting to a semi-final. Cup rugby.

You better believe it. It remains a hugely underappreciated concept all over the rugby world.

Munster should be hoping Toulon play Hugo Bonneval at 15. I would have major question marks over his temperament. However, in almost every other line there’s quality. Toulon won’t even look to go bosh rugby if it’s a dry day.

They’ll play and it would take a 9/10 Munster effort to stop them. Munster may not have had their “names” playing against Scarlets last week, but the performance was damn good, and that’s what Johann van Graan must demand again.

The pack, the scrum, the breakdown was tight and efficient, but they won’t want to kick as loosely as they did in the Scarlets game against Chris Ashton, Josua Tuisova, or Semi Radradra.

They’ll have it returned down their throat with interest.

The Munster lads have used the right language this week but you must acknowledge and factor in the talent they are missing: Earls, Farrell, Jaco Taute, possibly Conway in the backline.

Earls is a loss because he’s such a quality player, Taute is a loss in European terms because he is such a good defender, and Farrell is a big miss in that regard too.

A couple of late calls will be important. Conway would be a big boost if he played. Ditto Rory Scannell, who has been going really well under the radar for Munster this season and was maybe the biggest loser in Bundee Aki’s elevation to the national squad.

I honestly could not call tomorrow’s quarter-final in Limerick. I could probably tell you after the first five or ten minutes if that’s any good. But for neutrals, Sunday’s clash of Leinster and Saracens is the cherry on top of a glorious weekend bonanza.

Leinster amassed 27 out of a possible 30 points in a pool containing Exeter, Montpellier, and virtually the Scottish national team in the guise of Glasgow. Leo Cullen’s camp is overflowing with lads who want to play. Badly.

The Irish players are riding the crest of a wave, but the regulars won’t like the idea of handing over jerseys. They wanted to be in Irish camp too. They should be half-pissed off at the notion of fellas coming back and walking into the team.

In Irish rugby we have traditionally not dealt with success very well. We tend to fall in love with ourselves, but that’s no longer an issue in a green jersey. Are the provinces next to make that important psychological transition?

When Joe Schmidt isn’t there to grab things by the scruff, will some Leinster lads relax a bit? There is rugby with Joe and there’s rugby without Joe. I don’t think you can make any comparison between the two.

You look at Jacob Stockdale playing for Ulster against Cardiff last weekend and you wouldn’t pick him out as Six Nations player of the tournament. Was that the same player who scored a cracking try against England at Twickenham a week earlier?

That’s a fundamental issue in this quarter-final. Attitude. Hunger. Momentum. Mark McCall has got back a group of players from England that lost three of their five matches.

These are back-to-back Champions Cup winners. They are not used to that. It’s a deliciously dangerous mindset walking into camp. Vengeance.

What an opportunity to seal their legacy as true European greats. Go to Dublin and knock off the top seed in their own living room. And the reality is that whoever emerges from this quarter-final is the favourite for the tournament and the one to avoid.

Perhaps Saracens are already on the slide. You never see that coming as a player until you’re wondering how and why it happened.

What happened to Munster at Croke Park in 2009 was a classic case. None of us saw it coming. We thought we were bulletproof going to play Leinster. When momentum is taken away from you, things evaporate quickly.

Belief and momentum vanishes. The hunger you presumed was still there is doused by something greater still.

It should be a cracking game. There are lots of personalities on the teams for Jerome Garces to be dealing with. Rugby galacticos who like to control the game and everything in it. Garces’ mindset will be crucial.

A Top 14 referee would normally ping as many penalties in 20 minutes as he will the entire fixture on Sunday. It would be some statement by Saracens to come to Dublin and win.

They dispatched Munster emphatically in last year’s semi in the Aviva, but Leinster are a better team than Munster at the moment. With a full team it might be different…

Van Graan is scrambling to name a team, whereas Cullen and Lancaster have amazing options to choose from, and reserve strength that goes on and on. It may edge Sunday’s semi for them.

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