European Cup quarterfinal draw pitted Leinster against holders Saracens in a repeat of last year’s final, rugby aficionados were counting the days, but now the game has finally arrived the marquee match has lost some of its sheen.
Instead of 50 000 baying fans, Dublin’s Aviva Stadium will echo to the same scattered shouts and exhortations heard at any Saturday club game under coronavirus restrictions.
Instead of flaunting in as the all-conquering and possibly greatest club side in history, Saracens will arrive with their triumphs tarnished, having been kicked out of the Premiership for multiple salary cap breaches.
Neither will there be a showdown between Europe’s two greatest flyhalves, with the suspended Owen Farrell watching from the stands while 35-year-old Johnny Sexton desperately tries to find the form that seems to have deserted him as he approaches the sunset of his career.
Even without the usual fanfare attendance, however, Saturday’s game should still be a monumental clash between two sets of high-class players and it has long been the focus of both club’s season.
Ever since Saracen’s automatic relegation was confirmed, this extended their Premiership campaigning effectively became a training regime for their Europe defense.
Champions in the previous three of the last four campaigns, are not permitted to participate or rather compete in Europe as a second-tier club next season so the heartfelt emotional investment in this year’s competition is huge and the loss of talisman Farrell, still serving a five-game ban for a high tackle, is the last thing they needed.
Regular fullback Alex Goode is expected to get a race outlying in the 10shirt, though the decisive moments might yet be forged by probable bench flyhalf Manu Vunipola.
Stinging from last year’s final defeat, Leinster seeks a fifth title, also showed their priorities by keeping Sexton on the bench for an hour of last weekend’s Pro-14 final victory over Ulster.
The winner stands to face either Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92, who also met on Saturday, in the semis. Losing five of the last seven finals between the two French sides, they’re desperate to shake off that loser tag.
Clermont, possibly more than any other club, will be shuttered by the absence of fans, such is the incredible atmosphere usually generated at state Marcel- Michelin.
The third French contenders, Toulouse, are seeking a fifth title and, on the back of some scintillating, sometimes suicidal, rugby since the return to play, look favorites to back Ulster on Sunday.
The approach taken by runaway English Premiership leaders Exeter may rather be less effervescent if not more effective, who are odds-on to overcome misfiring Northampton.
Exeter have struggled to translate their domestic form into European success in recent years but, having added more variety to their strangulation approach and given valuable experience to their first-team fringe players since lockdown, they now look capable of going all the way.
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Accredited To Fati Peu