Champions Cup teams: Five takeaways as French powerhouses flex their depth, Leinster’s bold call and Bulls shift focus

Jared Wright
Bordeaux winger Damian Penaud, Leinster flanker Will Connors and Bulls hooker Akker van der Merwe.

Our takeaways from the weekend's team announcements.

Following the Investec Champions Cup quarter-final team announcements, here are our takeaways from the squads named.

Brutal Bordeaux without standout stars

Bordeaux have realised their potential this season, with Yannick Bru coming in and taking the club to the threat level their powerhouse squad promised.

A good measure of a world-class team is their ability to perform without their best players, and last time out against Saracens, they proved their status, thrashing the defending Premiership champions without their star playmaker Matthieu Jalibert.

And they will have to do so again without their Les Bleus superstar, who is still sidelined with a troublesome knee injury, but adding to their woes this week is the absence of Damian Penaud.

Penaud beat a mind-blowing 13 defenders against Saracens last week, and while he didn’t cross the whitewash, he was one the French outfit’s most lethal weapons as they cut through the Sarries defensive line.

The competent Pablo Uberti, who is usually a centre, comes in to fill his void on the wing, and while Bordeaux are more than capable of overcoming the absence of their star duo, they will undoubtedly be a bit more blunt in the backs. Thankfully for former hooker Bru, he has built a brutal pack that can offset any shortcomings behind the scrum.

England and France stars out of opening Champions Cup quarter-final while Bulls prioritise URC as Springboks left at home

Harlequins rest veterans

While the Famous Quarters haven’t gone to the same extent as the Bulls – more on that later – in resting their frontline players, the omissions of Danny Care and Joe Marler on the teamsheet were unmissable.

The pair have gone non-stop since the Six Nations and have been carrying niggles while doing so, with director of rugby Billy Millard explaining: “Our club cares deeply about player welfare. Sometimes, for long-term gain, you have to take a short-term hit.”

That long-term gain may be the Premiership’s run-in but could be even longer-term, with Will Porter’s inclusion in the starting XV particularly important in the seasons to come. It is expected that Care will sign another extension to remain at Quins, but eventually, the brilliant half-back who is the heartbeat of the Harlequins’ attack will need to retire or move on.

Porter getting the nod for a big fixture could do his development a world of good, giving him the confidence to press Care further for the rest of the season.

Springbok returns bolster Sharks and Ulster packs for Challenge Cup play-offs

Heavy hitter Will Connors backed over Josh van der Flier

The Leinster coaches made the bold decision to back Will Connors in the starting XV ahead of former World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier against the French powerhouse La Rochelle in a repeat of the tournament’s last two finals.

There is no doubting Connors’ class, and it certainly indicates as to what the Irish province are expecting from the clash. While both players have been excellent choices for the role, they do offer slightly different skill sets.

One of Connors’ best selling points is his relentless approach to defence, including his chop tackles and breakdown expertise. With the huge ball carriers in La Rochelle’s pack, Connors will be tasked with quickly and effectively cutting down the likes of Uini Atonio, Louis Penverne, and Will Skelton.

Van der Flier is no slouch defensively and is a bigger asset on attack than Connors, but the selection suggests that Leinster are expecting a tight battle up front and the latter to start the clash with the former adding a spark and grunt in the closing stages with a quality six-two split on the bench.

Meanwhile, La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara has limited the changes to his team despite the Top 14 club having to fly back from Cape Town for the fixture after edging past the Stormers.

Brice Dulin’s absence will certainly be felt, and Leinster will see that as an area of the game where they could get the upper hand, but there are very few chinks in the French side’s armour.

La Rochelle haven’t quite been at their best this campaign but still head into the heavyweight clash as one of the favourites to win the tournament thanks to the quality littered through their squad. They didn’t play near their best against the Stormers but still managed to eke out a victory despite trailing by 16 points at one stage.

Bok-less Bulls can still upset

The Bulls have dominated the headlines this week with Jake White making a noise about SA Rugby’s travel plans for the Pretoria-based side as they made their way to the East Midlands.

Eventually, the situation was sorted out and clarified by SA Rugby, but what came next was reports that the Bulls left 11 Springboks in South Africa for the clash as they look to improve their chances of claiming a URC home play-off run.

White is clearly looking to go deep in both competitions, but his overall selection raises doubts about the Investec Champions Cup’s prestige and formatting. Adding the South African teams to the tournament was always going to come with its own challenges, but the organisers will be hard-pressed to ensure this does not occur again.

The schedules are stacked with domestic competitions, but one wonders whether the Bulls’ stars would have been on the plane to the UK had there been an off-week after this fixture before the URC resumed.

Still, write the Bulls off at your peril. This team might be void of 11 Springboks, one due to injury, with White hinting at other niggles, but there is plenty of quality throughout the 23 that can upset the Premiership league leaders.

There are three internationals in Springboks Akker van der Merwe and Nizaam Carr, as well as Scotland international Jaco van der Walt.

Several players are also pushing for Test call-ups, including back-rowers Mpilo Gumede and Cameron Hanekom, while multiple players have been in fine form for the Bulls, like Sebastian de Klerk, Devon Williams and Harold Vorster. There is more than enough firepower to claim a win or at least be competitive.

As for Northampton. Rugby has become a 23-man game, but it is still significant to be named in the starting line-up for a vital fixture and a sense of reward to start a major fixture and for George Hendy, it is just reward.

He came off the bench last week against Munster, scoring two crucial tries in the victory, and rightfully claims a starting role against the Bulls. While the South African outfit has named a team depleted of several stars, it does not diminish the importance of the fixture.

Toulouse powered up with Thomas Ramos

Last week, Toulouse had the luxury of including Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack in their starting XV, with the pair orchestrating a 31-7 thumping of Racing 92.

And now ahead of the clash with Exeter Chiefs, the French side have another star making a timely return as Thomas Ramos is added to the bench to power up their attacking options in the latter stages.

Toulouse should be considered as one of the favourites to win the tournament, and they reinforced that assertion with an emphatic win over Racing, and one cannot help but marvel at their playing stocks.

Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn starts ahead of Ramos this time but the French side still have Ange Capuozzo sidelined and still fielded a back three of internationals with Les Bleus winger Matthis Lebel and Los Pumas star Juan Cruz Mallia. It’s a freakishly good side on paper and one that is producing the results so far.

Anything less than a win this weekend would be a major disappointment for them and a glorious victory for the Chiefs.

Champions Cup talking points: ‘Painfully’ predictable home advantage, ‘different level’ Toulouse and Harlequins’ miracle