Champions Cup: The key head-to-heads to watch during the semi-final ties

Colin Newboult

With the Champions Cup now at the semi-final stage, we discuss the main battles from the Leinster v Toulouse and La Rochelle v Exeter Chiefs encounters.

Leinster v Toulouse

Tadhg Furlong v Cyril Baille

The battle all starts in the front-row as two of the best props in the world clash in Dublin. They did not face off in the Six Nations, due to Furlong nursing a calf injury, but they now get the chance to go head-to-head this weekend. It should be a humdinger, especially with Baille back in form after his struggles in the early part of that tournament.

Both are outstanding scrummagers and we can’t see either getting the upper hand necessarily, so it will be the efforts in the loose which will separate them. Baille tends to do the better work in the tight with his bowling ball frame allowing him to break tackles close to the ruck and get over the gain line. Furlong is also incredibly dynamic but it is his passing and off-loading ability that sets him apart, which allows him to act as an extra playmaker.

Dan Sheehan v Peato Mauvaka/Julien Marchand

If fully match fit, Marchand would no doubt start as his compatriot is seen as being the greater impact player, but the 27-year-old’s recent injury means that he is on the bench. Ultimately, Toulouse would have liked to have kept Mauvaka in reserve due to his dynamism around the field, especially in the carry against tired bodies.

Marchand is better at the breakdown and his work around the contact area tends to set the tone for the game and would have been important in Dublin, but Toulouse will have to wait until the second half to see that influence. His game style contrasts nicely with Sheehan, who we expect to play most of the game given Ronan Kelleher’s absence.

The Leinsterman is incredible around the field, having both the skills and pace of a centre, and he will be one of his team’s primary carriers. If Sheehan can drive over the gain line, stopping the Les Rouge et Noir fetchers from winning turnovers, then that will be decisive in who reaches the final.

Jack Conan v Francois Cros

Akin to the Sheehan v Marchand battle in the second half, this is very much about carrying v breakdown. With Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Conan in the back-row, the Irish province have players that will charge into contact and get their team across the gain line. Jack Willis and Cros, on the other hand, will do the majority of their work defensively.

While Willis in particular is a very good carrier close to the ruck, Meafou and Baille will be primarily used for go-forward ball. The Toulouse back-row, with Cros to the fore, will therefore act as disruptors. The 29-year-old is one of the best counter-ruckers around and his influence will be crucial as they attempt to stop Leinster from implementing their free-flowing style.

Hugo Keenan v Thomas Ramos

Solidity tends to win out over the mavericks in these big games, but you feel Toulouse need some of Ramos’ magic in Dublin. His kick-pass on his own line early on in their Champions Cup quarter-final with the Sharks rather set the tone for that clash as he produced an imperious display, ending the game with 29 points scored.

Keenan has been similarly impressive recently and his high ball work is among the best in the world. He just doesn’t make mistakes, while the 26-year-old’s footwork and lines of running also makes him a significant threat on attack.

Ramos is playing some sublime running rugby at the moment but, as ever with these mavericks, they can have the odd shocker and Toulouse will hope it does not happen on Saturday. If he does then Keenan and co. will enjoy testing him aerially.

La Rochelle v Exeter

Gregory Alldritt v Sam Simmonds

We begin with arguably the most intriguing individual battle as two of European rugby’s best number eights at one time or another in the past few years collide.

Alldritt is a player who oozes class at the base as his silky skills are matched only by his incredible ability to make metres post contact, something that has proven invaluable to La Rochelle and France in recent times. He’s integral to both teams and Exeter will know stopping Alldritt is much tougher than it sounds.

The Chiefs will, however, fight fire with fire as Simmonds is equally impressive and currently looks incredibly determined to finish his Exeter career on a high note. While dreams of a Premiership title are dead in the water, Europe is still alive and Simmonds will carry the challenge to La Rochelle all game on Sunday.

Will Skelton v Jonny Gray

Staying in the pack – as that’s where this game is definitely going to be won and lost – we head to the engine room where a Wallaby and Scot clash in Bordeaux.

Skelton has been prominent in the media duties this week and obviously knows the Premiership and this weekend’s opponents very well due to his time playing for Saracens. He credits the English club for helping him become the top player he is today and Exeter will know they have a job on their hands stopping this giant. His power with ball in hand is complemented by lovely touches and there is no doubt La Rochelle are a much better team with the Wallaby than they are without.

The tireless Gray will therefore need to be at his usual busy self around the field as defensively there’s few more workmanlike locks in the game. His lineout expertise will also be key if Exeter are to disrupt La Rochelle’s flow but in terms of the clash with Skelton, Gray and his team-mates must stop him at source.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow v Will Becconsall

Heading to the backs and La Rochelle’s quarter-final hero, Kerr-Barlow, has proved a wonderful signing since he arrived from the Chiefs in New Zealand in 2017. His tough edge, speed around the fringes, slick service and general rugby knowledge make him the perfect on-field general for Ronan O’Gara to direct matters.

20-year-old Becconsall meanwhile must be pinching himself as his rise to starting scrum-half has been meteoric, usurping the likes of Jack and Sam Maunder and Stu Townsend. Rob Baxter has not been shy in making changes of late and the Becconsall move is certainly paying off as his style suits the way the Chiefs play. This, however, is going to be a big step up in terms of test for the Truro-born youngster.

Uini Atonio v Scott Sio

Finally, we move to the front-row where France international Atonio is poised to go up against Wallabies loosehead Sio in what should be a fascinating contest. It is not just at scrum time where the interest will be but also around the field as both players are not shy in carrying and regularly make metres in contact.

The pair are also known to burrow over from close range and if either side are in the opposition red zone, look out for Atonio and Sio sniffing out a crossing. But, as is always the case with props, getting the fundamentals right will be the first job on the to-do list as two talented front-rowers prepare to face off.

READ MORE: Champions Cup preview as Toulouse to stun Leinster and keep Leo Cullen’s men waiting for fifth European title