European powerhouses pitted together as provinces bid for semi-final meeting

All-Ireland semi-final in the Aviva Stadium on the cards if Leinster and Munster prevail

Quarter-final weekend in the Heineken Champions Cup rarely, if ever, does dull and this one almost certainly will be no exception. Not for the first time, Leinster and Munster are the last two Irish teams standing and opposing them in the same half of the draw is fellow European royalty in Toulouse and Leicester.

Between them this quartet have reached the quarter-finals on 64 occasions, and have claimed half of the 26 European Cups to date.

Such is Irish rugby's investment in the competition that Munster and Leinster's season will be at least somewhat defined by Saturday's events against Toulouse in the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3pm) and against Leicester at Welford Road (kick-off 5.30pm).

As the semi-finals arrive with indecent haste, come 7.30pm or so we will know whether they are destined to meet at the semi-final stages for a third time, after the seismic and defining clashes of 2006 and 2008, next weekend. Or alternatively whether one will have maintained Irish interest. Or, almost unthinkably, if there is to be no Irish team in the semi-finals for just the third time in 15 seasons.

Munster and Toulouse have clashed on just seven occasions and save for the only pool meeting 25 seasons ago, when Toulouse won 60-19 at home, once again they lock horns in the knock-out stages.

Munster won an epic semi-final in Bordeaux in 2000, lost a taut semi-final in Toulouse in 2003, won the 2008 final and two quarter-finals at a throbbing Thomond Park in 2014 and 2017, before losing in the round of 16 last season.

That was behind closed doors and while the Munster branch has given over Thomond Park to Ed Sheeran, it's still better to have a home crowd in the Aviva than an ill-fitting library in Limerick.

Over 37,500 tickets had been sold as of lunchtime yesterday and with the forecast set fair the atmosphere will far exceed the same venue for Ireland's home Six Nations games.

Injuries

The Red Army would feel better about their team's chances had Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes not all still been sidelined. Even so, Johann van Graan has a settled side which looks in a better place than a year ago on the back of three wins.

There are only two changes from the starting XV against Exeter three weeks ago, with Stephen Archer promoted at tighthead and Alex Kendellen replacing Hodnett in the backrow.

Flanker Jack Daly is among the replacements for what could be his European debut after five previous appearances, all off the bench. A native of Currans in Kerry, the 23-year-old came up through the ranks at Castleisland RFC and plays his AIL rugby with Garryowen.

Toulouse make just two changes from last week's 23-16 win over La Rochelle, rotating Rodrigue Neti and Cyril Baille at loosehead, and also two French Grand Slam winners Francois Cros and Anthony Jelonch in the backrow.

If Munster win, they will either play Leicester in Welford Road or Leinster at the Aviva as the ‘home’ team, given Thomond Park will still be unavailable.

Hence, Leinster know that victory over the Tigers would secure a semi-final in the Aviva, either as the home side against Toulouse or against Munster.

Return

The return of James Ryan is Leinster's only change from the side which beat Connacht 56-20 in the last-16 second leg at three weeks ago. It will be his first game in eight weeks since being concussed by the Charlie Ewels high hit which earned him a red card and a three-week suspension in Ireland's win over England at Twickenham.

Ryan could have played against Connacht but Leinster opted to take their time. Joe McCarthy is named among the replacements for what would be the 21-year-old's European debut, and ditto 23-year-old winger Tommy O'Brien, while Cian Healy also returns to the bench.

Steve Borthwick's only change to the Leicester team from their 56-26 win over Bristol last weekend sees Ollie Chesum picked in the secondrow.

Along with Shane Jennings, Leo Cullen spent two informative seasons at Welford Road from 2005 which helped to infuse Leinster's emergence as a Euro powerhouse and he readily appreciates why the Tigers are unbeaten in a year at home.

“I suppose it’s the atmosphere, it’s the crowd, it’s the way the team plays, the way they respond. From my time there, I have always got this nervous feeling in my stomach on match day.

“You were there for your pre-match meal trying to eat your chicken and pasta at home. I remember sitting beside Shane Jennings when we went over there first.

“The crowd were queuing up before the gates opened two hours before the game to get their spot on the terrace, which used to always amuse us. They were sprinting in to get to the spots on the terrace.

“It’s similar to ourselves in many ways. It means a huge amount for our guys to play for Leinster because the friends, family, the support piece really matters. There is a great responsibility that goes with representing the two teams.

“You’re at these play-off games and these are the games that players will remember for the rest of their days. They remember the wins at the very end when they win, but often they remember the ones that they lose and get knocked out of tournaments.

“They’re the ones that stick in the mind. For our guys, it’s a great test against a great club.”

By contrast, there are no past winners on the other side of the draw, where the La Rochelle-Montpellier quarter-final also kicks off at 5.30pm Irish time. The semi-final line-up will be finalised in Paris on Sunday afternoon when Racing '92 host Sale Sharks in La Défense Arena (kick-off 3pm Irish time, live on Virgin Media and Channel 4).

La Rochelle (last season) and Racing (three times) have reached the final before and they are favourites to meet in the semi-finals in Lens, as La Défense Arena is unavailable due to Genesis playing there.

If so, Ronan O'Gara would come up against his good friend and former provincial halfback partner, the Munster-bound Mike Prendergast, in what is now his last season as the Racing backs coach.

And that, of course, is not the only Irish renewal of acquaintances on the cards next weekend.