It has been a pretty a limp start to a huge year for Irish rugby, with Joe Schmidt’s side losing twice en-route to a third place finish in the Six Nations.
But it’s time to consign that disappointment to the rubbish bin of history, for this weekend sees the glorious return of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Indeed, on Friday and Saturday the four provinces are back in European action, with Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster all facing into quarter-final clashes.
The latter three are all bidding for places in the semi-finals of the continent’s premier club competition – but only two of them can make it into the last four.
Because while Munster have a date with Edinburgh at Murrayfield, defending champions Leinster and Ulster will meet each other in a mammoth interprovincial derby at the Aviva Stadium.
And the return to provincial action could have a galvanising effect on Ireland’s stars, after a gruelling couple of months on international duty.
The Rugby World Cup is now less than six months away, meaning impressive performances on the continent could be the difference between selection for Japan or missing out altogether.
A quarter-final victory this weekend would also provide massive momentum for each province as we approach the business end of the domestic season.
There’s plenty on the line and plenty to play for – here’s everything you need to know as the Champions Cup knockouts get underway.
What is it?
The quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.
When is it?
The last-eight fixtures are to be played on Saturday March 30th and Sunday March 31st.
Who’s left in it?
Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Saracens, Toulouse and Racing 92 are the eight teams participating in the knockout stages.
What are the full fixtures?
Saturday March 30th
Edinburgh v Munster, Murrayfield (12.45, Channel 4/Virgin Media/BT Sport)
Saracens v Glasgow Warriors, Allianz Park (3.15, BT Sport)
Leinster v Ulster, Aviva Stadium (5.45, BT Sport)
Sunday March 31st
Racing 92 v Toulouse, La Defense Arena (3.15, BT Sport)
How can I follow?
As shown above, all four quarter-final clashes are being broadcast on BT Sport – with Munster’s trip to play Edinburgh at Murrayfield being shown on free-to-air television by Channel 4 and Virgin Media One.
You can also keep up to date with Munster against Edinburgh – and later Leinster against Ulster – via the Irish Times liveblog, which will be up and running roughly half an hour before kick-off for both fixtures.
How did we get here?
It’s been a while since the pools reached their conclusion at the back end of January – here’s a reminder of how each team made it into the quarter-finals, in order of seeding.
Saracens – 1
The back-to-back champions in 2016 and 2017, Saracens romped their way through Pool Three, winning all six of their fixtures and earning four bonus points on the way. They beat Glasgow twice in the pool stages, and the top seeds meet the Scottish side again in the knockouts.
Racing 92 – 2
Last year’s beaten finalists have looked capable of going one better this time, and they comfortably topped their group, securing both a home quarter-final and semi-final as second seeds. However, there was one blot on the Parisians’ copybook – they were beaten 26-22 by Ulster in Belfast in round five on a famous day for the province.
Leinster – 3
The defending champions topped Pool One, after winning five of their six fixtures. They started with an ominous 52-3 win over Wasps, before losing away to a resurgent Toulouse in the second round, 28-27. Four consecutive victories followed, however, and they secured third seeding and a home quarter-final.
Edinburgh – 4
Richard Cockerill’s side proved a revelation in the pool stages, as two Scottish sides qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in Heineken Cup history. The Scots were beaten in their opening Pool Five game by Montpellier but then reeled off five victories on the spin, including a double over Toulon and revenge against Montpellier.
Munster – 5
Munster won one of the most keenly contested pools, but it required a tense final round victory over the Exeter Chiefs in Limerick. Johann van Graan’s side edged Exeter out 9-7 at Thomond Park on the final weekend, and despite not earning a home quarter-final they will fancy their chances at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Ulster – 6
Ulster’s qualification seemed improbable but they proved themselves to be a different beast on the continent, doing doubles over Leicester Tigers and the Scarlets – and beating Racing 92 at Ravenhill – as they secured second position in Pool Four. Dan McFarland’s side were 13-0 down in their final fixture at Welford Road but fought back to book their place in the quarters.
Toulouse – 7
Four-time winners Toulouse have been resurgent this term, and landed one of the most eye-catching results of the pool stages as they beat Leinster 28-27 at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. They were hapless in Dublin, however, but doubles over Pool One whipping boys Bath and Wasps ensured their progression.
Glasgow Warriors – 8
The Scottish side beat Cardiff and Lyon twice to scrape through as eighth seeds, despite being well beaten by Saracens twice. Another trip to Allianz Park – where they were beaten 38-19 on their last visit – is a daunting prospect.
Johnny Sexton is set to start for Leinster at outhalf as the provinces big guns return from international duty. Robbie Henshaw is almost certainly out however, while Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier remain long-term absentees. Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath both returned to action against Edinurgh last Friday night and could be fit for Saturday’s clash.
Joey Carbery hasn’t featured since Ireland’s win away to Scotland in the Six Nations last month, but he is set to recover from a hamstring injury in time to start for Munster at Murrayfield, a few days after signing a two-year contract extension with the province. Carbery aside, Van Graan has no fresh injury concerns.
Ulster’s hopes of upsetting Leinster in Dublin largely hinge on being at full-strength but Will Addison will miss Saturday’s game, as well as Louis Ludik. Marty Moore and Darren Cave are also doubts but the biggest concern is over Iain Henderson, who injured his knee during Ireland’s Six Nations win over France. Ulster will make a late call over Henderson’s fitness.
Can I go?
The Aviva Stadium is a sell-out for Saturday's Leinster-Ulster derby. There are however a limited number of tickets still available for Munster's visit to Murrayfield, priced between £25-£30 for adults. If there are any left, you can purchase them here.
What are the odds?
Edinburgh 13-8 Draw 20-1 Munster 8-15 (Handicap Munster -4 5-6)
Saracens 1-9 Draw 33-1 Glasgow 11-2 (Handicap Saracens -15 10-11)
Leinster 1-9 Draw 33-1 Ulster 11-2 (Handicap Leinster -15 10-11)
Racing 92 4-9 Draw 20-1 Toulouse 15-8 (Handicap Racing 92 -5 5-6)
Who’s favourite to lift the trophy?
The current tournament betting is as follows:
Racing 92 11-2
Who’s on the whistle?
This weekend’s referees are as follows:
Edinburgh v Munster – Pascal Gauzère (France)
Saracens v Glasgow – Nigel Owens (Wales)
Leinster v Ulster – Romain Poite (France)
Racing 92 v Toulouse – Luke Pearce (England)
The road to Newcastle
The route to the final – held at St James’ Park – has already been decided.
The winner of Saracens v Glasgow will play the winner of Munster v Edinburgh in the last four, while the winner of Racing 92 v Toulouse will play the winner of Leinster v Ulster.
Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, Paris La Défense Arena, and Murrayfield have been names as semi-final venues. Providing Saracens and Racing 92 win their quarter-finals they are guaranteed a home semi-final.
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