Heineken Champions Cup: Will there be Gallagher Premiership representation in the last four?

Saracens' Nick Tompkins will come up against the dangerous Jonathan Danty on Sunday
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With reports of more star names exploring the possibility of moving away from English rugby's top-flight combined with further concerns around financial situations, can Leicester, Exeter and Saracens be a shining light in Europe?

To do so, they will have to overcome the best of Ireland, France and South Africa and TRU's John Wiffen picks out the key matchups which he believes could decide the flow of each of the four games.

Leinster vs Leicester Tigers

Andrew Porter vs James Cronin

Games at the top level often throw up some strange storylines. Andrew Porter, the former primary tight head that converted seemingly because of a lack of competition at both province and country, against the experienced veteran who left Ireland and is playing some of the best rugby of his career this season.

James Cronin has thrived since arriving at Leicester Tigers and has been one of the best loosehead props in the division, despite only making 13 appearances due to several injuries. His real strength is in the tight, with excellent scrummaging and lineout skills – which mirror the (relative) weaknesses in Porter’s game.

If Cronin was still playing on the Emerald Isle, would there be louder shouts for an Ireland recall? Without doubt. Cronin will come ear-to-ear with Tadhg Furlong, who is one of the most rounded rugby players of this generation, but with the opportunity to make a statement in front of Andy Farrell, he will certainly be motivated to put on a show.

On the other hand, you have Porter, who is without question the finest loosehead prop in world rugby around the field, with his dexterity standing out from all other front-rowers, barring perhaps his teammate Furlong. Do Porter’s sizable strengths outweigh his shortcomings up front? Certainly. However, Dan Cole will be looking to attack at scrum-time, and if the away side are to have any chance this weekend, they must front up and get parity – at the very least – in the scrum.

Toulouse vs Sharks

Jack Willis vs Siya Kolisi

What a style clash this is!

The Englishman who has forced his way into the all-star Toulouse side, against the greatest modern flanker. Willis is a supreme ball-winner and disruptor in chief for both club and country, with a burgeoning attacking game that is often overlooked.

Kolisi on the other hand is the ultimate rugby player, but has been a couple of per cent off his absolute best this season. What Kolisi offers around the field is crucial for the way the Sharks operate, with his energy and willingness to hit rucks and carry in both wide channels a major plus point for the Durban side.

His greatest attribute is his leadership though, and he has developed an ability to read the general flow of a game better than anyone, allowing him to make tactical tweaks that even top-class coaches would be proud of.

If Willis were to get on top in this game, he could almost single-handedly vastly reduce the effectiveness of the Sharks attack, as a single lost ball in a ruck dents the confidence to fire it wide to the stars of Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am. If Kolisi can churn out the performance that he is capable of – and often brings on the big stage – then he can carry his team on his back to victory.  

Exeter Chiefs vs Stormers

Damian Willemse vs Stuart Hogg

It came as a huge shock to the rugby world when Stuart Hogg announced that he will retire from the game at the end of the year aged only 31.

Not only is he the best Scottish player of the modern era, but he is also still one of the finest full-backs in the Gallagher Premiership. Of course, everyone wishes him well, but it is a shame that we will not see his ludicrous mix of energy, pace, class and decision-making for much longer.

His opponent (should he make it back in time) will be Damian Willemse, who in many ways is very similar to Hogg. A highly skilled footballer, with speed, and a vicious step, able to cover at fly-half and full-back, Willemse *could* go on to emulate the achievements of Hogg with the Stormers and the Springboks in the next few years.

The Stormers are having a very successful season, flying high in second in the United Rugby Championship, and they have the kindest draw that would see them to a semi-final place in the Heineken Champions Cup.

To beat Exeter Chiefs is still a big task though, and to do so they must play in the right areas, with the Devonshire outfit consistently failing to keep their discipline this season.

Doing so again would allow Willemse and co. to create an insurmountable lead, which they threatened to do against Harlequins last week. Travel issues will have harmed their preparation for this Saturday’s fixture, but they will have a quiet confidence about winning, and Willemse has the opportunity to lay down his name as a future big-game player.

La Rochelle vs Saracens

Jonathan Danty vs Nick Tompkins

Having played against each other at the Stade de France just three weeks ago, these two men will know one another very well.

Danty is a classic hard-running 12, with a surprisingly deft set of hands, as well as being the best jackalling back on the planet. Tompkins is much more of an all-round player, offering an accomplished skill set, if perhaps missing a standout quality.

He has struggled at times when the game plan around him isn’t clear, particularly for Wales, and thrives much more in the structure of his club, whereas Danty is lucky to be in two systems that are almost tailor-made for his qualities.

Twelve months ago, it would have been easy to predict the type of game that would be coming, with Sarries offering the most classic Saracens gameplan in Europe. Defensively solid, plenty of box-kicking, and then clinical with their opportunities. Now though, it is a much more interesting tactical battle, as the English side have changed their game plan pretty drastically into an all-court style with plenty of offloading and a much more attack-based approach.

Of course, they have the old blueprint in their back pocket should it come to it, but a combination of the two makes them perhaps the second favourites for the tournament behind Leinster.

If Danty can dominate his opposite number, it will narrow Saracens' defence and cracks – similar to what we saw in the Gallagher Premiership final last season – will appear.

However, if Saracens can play as fast as we know they can, they could never give Danty and his La Rochelle teammates a chance to work their way into the game. Either way, it will be fascinating to see where the battle of the 12’s, as well as the war that will go on around them, is won.


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