European Champions & Challenge Cup preview

  • Three English teams in European semi-finals
  • Saracens play Munster in the Champions Cup
  • Gloucester & Bath play French sides in Challenge Cup

As the dust settles on international team announcements, attention shifts to European rugby semi-finals this weekend, and the three English sides still in with a chance of securing silverware. 

Saracens take on Munster in the Champions Cup competition, while West Country outfits Gloucester and Bath meet La Rochelle and Stade Francais respectively in the Challenge Cup instalment.   

History boys 

Sarries travel to Dublin on Saturday where a possible nine British & Irish Lions will be on show at the Aviva Stadium - 6 of them from the north London club - and a win would see them go 17 games without defeat in the Champions Cup. A record.

Mark McCall's men - who are defending champions - will be aiming to make their third final in four years, and after a convincing 38-13 win over Glasgow Warriors in the last 16 three weeks ago, they are a team peaking in form.

When: Saturday, 22 April 

Where: Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Kick-off: 3.15pm

The stage is also set for Saracens wing Chris Ashton who, if he crosses the whitewash, will become the leading try-scorer in European Champions Cup history. The 30-year-old is currently tied with former France international Vincent Clerc on 36 tries apiece, but he'll have his work cut out against 'one of the best defensive teams in Europe' according to club captain Brad Barritt.

"It will be a game of fine margins. Semi-finals often come down to discipline and you can't allow the excitement of the occasion to get to you," he added.

"Munster are very smart about seeing their opportunities at the breakdown and their line speed is a constant weapon. They are one of the best defensive teams in Europe."

Gloucester happy as underdogs

Gloucester take on La Rochelle at Stade Marcel Deflandre on Saturday night in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup.

The Cherry and Whites have played the TOP14 leaders twice already this season in the competition, winning 35-14 at Kingsholm before registering a 42-13 loss in south west France.

When: Saturday, 22 April

Where: Stade Marcel Deflandre, France 

Kick-off: 8pm

Since the departure of long-time coach Lawrie Fisher last month, Gloucester have racked up three wins in their last four matches, and director of rugby David Humphries says his side is happy to be labelled as ‘underdogs’ heading into Saturday’s match.

“We would love to be going in as favourites but when you look at it, La Rochelle had 12 consecutive wins in the TOP14 until last weekend, and that shows the quality they have,” he said. “We're all very excited to go there as underdogs with less pressure on us than we've had previously.”

The West Country side will be boosted by the availability of club captain, and Scotland international, Greg Laidlaw who has recovered from ligament damage he suffered during the RBS 6 Nations in February.

On the return, Humphries added: "Coming back from an injury that he had, he's worked hard and as you'd expect he's desperate to come back and play.”

Buoyant Bath

Bath travel to Paris on Sunday in the hope of making their fifth European Challenge Cup final.

The West Country side fell at the final hurdle in 2003 to Wasps and again in 2007 to Clermont Auvergne before winning their first title the following year in a 24-16 triumph over Worcester Warriors.

They were bettered in the final once more in 2014 by Northampton Saints at the Cardiff Arms Park, so have plenty of experience in making and contesting European finals. 

When: Sunday, 23 April

Where: Stade Jean-Bouin, France

Kick-off: 12.30pm

Todd Blackadder's men have won their last four matches in the competition, and most recently recorded a 34-20 victory over TOP14 side Brive in the quarter-finals, thanks to a brace of tries from both Taulupe Faletau and Semesa Rokoduguni.

Bath have scored 30 tries and 248 points in this season's competition - 52 points more than Stade Francais - and boast three British & Irish Lions in: Faletau, as well as England duo Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.  

The side's confidence will also be aided by lock Dave Attwood, who returns to the starting side for Sunday's clash after a four month absence, due to a knee injury.