Two Irish provinces, including now three times in a row champions Leinster, will have the task of showcasing the depth of the Guinness PRO14 as an intriguing round of finals series matches in the European Rugby Champions Cup starts with the quarter-finals this coming weekend.
Ulster, well beaten by Leinster in a one-sided PRO14 final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin a few days ago, will join the champions of their league in the last eight after finishing second in Pool 3 of the Champions Cup behind French club Clermont Auvergne. By virtue of the fact that they finished three points behind Clermont, Ulster will have to travel for their game on Sunday, with their destination being Toulouse.
There wasn’t that much between the two top teams in Pool 3 and they lost just once in six games, which vindicates Ulster’s claims to being one of the top teams in Europe even though they came a distant second to Leinster in their pool in the PRO14 and there was a yawning chasm between them and the winners in the PRO14 final.
Ulster has been tough and popular competitors in Europe in the past and their quarter-final against Leinster last year, watched by 55 000 people, is still talked about.
Leinster have been as impressive so far in the 2019/2020 edition of the Champions Cup as they have been in the PRO14, winning all six of their pool games to finish comfortably ahead of second-placed Northampton, from England, in Pool 1. Of course, Leinster are unbeaten this year in all competitions and haven’t lost since last year’s Champions Cup final in Newcastle, meaning that they now boast a 25-game winning streak.
The Leinster determination to go all the way and make up for last year’s disappointment in the European competition was advertised by their coach Leo Cullen’s decision to play Ireland and British and Irish Lions flyhalf, Johnny Sexton, off the bench in the PRO14 final. Sexton came onto the field in the second half and his cameo will have been the perfect warm-up for him for the Aviva Stadium quarter-final.
Indeed, the entire Leinster team should benefit from having scored such an emphatic victory in a high-pressure final, with their ability to lift a gear when it was needed being very much in evidence against Ulster.
They may need to engage full intensity from the start, rather than give away early points as they have in their last two games, against Saracens, who finished second in Pool 4 behind Racing 92 but just ahead of another PRO14 team, Munster, in what was considered the Pool of Death.
Quarter-finals (home teams first)
Leinster v Saracens (Saturday, 16.00)
Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92 (Saturday, 18.30)
Toulouse v Ulster (Sunday, 13.30)
Exeter v Northampton (Sunday, 18.30)