The short side: Champions Cup returns, front-row duel and Manu Tuilagi set to shine

David Skippers

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the European Champions Cup.

Games to watch

Munster v Toulouse

Munster host Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin after Thomond Park was already booked for an Ed Sheeran concert.

It is set to be a titanic battle, notably after Toulouse snatched victory away from Ulster in the dying minutes of their round-of-16 tie, thanks to an Antoine Dupont try. The defending champions have a winning ethos on the European stage and, even when they are not necessarily the best team on the day, they can find a way to emerge victorious.

Many Toulouse players are riding the wave after France’s Grand Slam win and they will be eager to add to their trophy cabinet. Dupont and fly-half Romain Ntamack have an impressive partnership with an understanding that transcends standard communication. It is a powerful asset that Les Rouge et Noir will undoubtedly use.

Set-piece is a cornerstone for the French side’s success, and their strong pack will be looking to maintain dominance up front for their flyers out wide.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan will be looking to combat that area of the game and find a way to disrupt Toulouse’s possession and hope to rush the French half-back pairing.

Dupont will punish lazy defending, and that will be a focal point of preparation. Munster boasts control in their backline with all their players excellent on the ball, but the game will be won or lost in the forward pack.

Van Graan’s men have to take away Toulouse’s power or it will be an uphill battle for the Irish province. Expect a classic European clash complete with physicality, ball skills and a tight finish.

Leicester Tigers v Leinster

The Premiership‘s pacesetters will have it all to do when they go head-to-head against an in-form and highly confident Leinster side in this highly anticipated fixture between these two European heavyweights at Welford Road on Saturday.

Both teams have won four and lost two out of their last six matches with Leicester returning to winning ways courtesy of an emphatic 56-26 triumph over Bristol Bears in the Premiership after back-to-back defeats against London Irish and Harlequins in that same tournament.

They seem to be hitting their straps at the right time and one player who will be keen to show he is not a spent force in the Champions Cup cauldron is veteran flyer Chris Ashton, who became the Premiership’s all-time leading try-scorer when he scored a hat-trick against Bristol.

Also keep an eye on Freddie Steward, who is in a rich vein of form and, like Ashton, he presents a big threat on attack. Brilliant in the air, the England full-back has the ability to turn defensive situations into attacking ones and if he manages to gain momentum, he is sure to test Leinster’s defence.

Meanwhile, Leinster’s most recent fixtures saw them suffering consecutive losses to the Sharks and Stormers in the United Rugby Championship but they fielded second-string sides in those matches in South Africa.

Despite that, they delivered competitive performances and were rewarded with losing bonus points in both games which secured them the top position in that tournament’s standings.

Meanwhile the core of their senior players were resting in Ireland and stalwarts like captain Jonathan Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson-Park, Josh van der Flier and James Lowe are all expected to return to action against the Tigers this weekend.

The forward battle will be huge and both packs have been crucial to their respective sides’ dominance so far this season. It should be a thrilling and entertaining spectacle.

Player to watch – Manu Tuilagi (Sale Sharks)

The England centre will be a key player for the Premiership outfit when they go head-to-head against Racing 92 in Paris on Sunday as he is one of the best attacking players in the game when on song.

Tuilagi’s injury woes have been well documented over the years and he comes into this weekend’s encounter after Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson wrapped him in cotton wool in recent weeks.

Sanderson opted not to play Tuilagi in a hard-fought victory over Newcastle Falcons last weekend which means the 30-year-old has been rested for two consecutive weeks as Sale also had a bye in the Premiership the previous week.

That means he last saw action on April 15 when Sale sealed a 35-29 triumph over Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate and he delivered an influential all-round performance with his attacking prowess particularly impressive. During a 60-minute stint, Tuilagi proved a real handful with ball in hand as he got his team over the advantage line on several occasions and eventually gained 52 metres from 10 carries.

He is seen as a human wrecking ball due to his excellent ball carrying ability and will be champing at the bit to have a crack at Racing’s defence.

Sanderson believes by keeping Tuilagi fresh for a clash like this weekend’s one, the Sharks will reap the rewards as Tuilagi in full flight is one of the most fearsome sights in the game. If he builds up a head of steam, it will be a long day at the office for Racing’s defenders.

One-v-one battle to watch – Ellis Genge (Leicester) v Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)

It is a repeat of their Six Nations encounter where the England prop achieved the rare feat of getting the better of the world’s best tighthead in the set-piece. Furlong, his team-mates and his coaches were not necessarily happy with the interpretation of the scrum, claiming skulduggery on Genge’s part, but there is no doubt the Leinster man has something to prove this weekend.

It will be a massive battleground as the visitors attempt to tame what has been an outstanding Tigers pack. Leicester’s success this season has been based around the forward eight, with their set-piece comfortably the best in England, but the Irishmen are full of outstanding internationals who are in fine form.

Furlong is one of those and is key to how both Leinster and Ireland operate. As well as his scrummaging expertise the 29-year-old is exceptional in the loose, with his deft handling on the gain line becoming a real feature over the past year. He has always had that skill set but it is no doubt that Andy Farrell and Leo Cullen have incorporated it more into their respective game plans over the past 12 months.

Genge is also a threat with ball in hand but the Leicester powerhouse is more direct. Although he can act as a distributor, the loosehead’s primary role in possession is as a carrier. The Leicester captain, who started his career as a number eight, is very quick and, allied by his power, it means that he can provide real go-forward.

However, it all starts and ends at the scrum and that is where the real individual duel will take place. You feel, given the strength of the Leinster squad, that Genge needs a season-defining performance if the Tigers are to stand a chance this weekend.

Subplot to watch – French dominance yet again in the semi-finals?

There is already one Top 14 outfit guaranteed to be in the last-four as La Rochelle take on Montpellier on Saturday, but there is the very distinct possibility of seeing three teams make up the four semi-finalists.

Leicester or Leinster will at least provide one point of difference next weekend, but both Racing 92 and defending champions Toulouse will very much fancy themselves in their respective matches.

Racing have the ‘easiest’ task of the two when they face Sale Sharks on Sunday. They certainly have to be wary of their English opponents, with the Sharks’ squad containing a serious amount of talent, but Sale just haven’t quite got it right this season.

After reaching the Premiership play-offs in 2020/21, they were expected to be one of the front-runners domestically but they have struggled for consistency. There have been highs, and their round-of-16 triumph over Bristol Bears was one of them, but it is difficult to see them overcoming Racing in the cauldron of the Paris La Défense Arena.

As for Toulouse, who have struggled for form in 2022, they have a much harder encounter by taking on Munster in Dublin. However, Ugo Mola’s men do have recent experience of beating the Irish province away from home after their 40-33 success in last season’s competition.

Three French teams qualified for the semi-finals last year and they could well repeat that feat by the end of this weekend. It wouldn’t necessarily be good for the Champions Cup but it shows how the Top 14 and French rugby has got it right in so many ways over recent campaigns.

Challenge Cup quarter-finals

The quarter-final stage begins with an all English derby when Gloucester face Saracens at Kingsholm Stadium. Gloucester comes into the clash off the back of a dominant performance against Bath and will be desperate to bring the same intensity to face their well-drilled opponents. Saracens have enjoyed a good season thus far, and Owen Farrell’s return to form will count against Gloucester.

Edinburgh host Wasps at the DAM Health Stadium and will be looking to get one over their English rivals, who have endured a tough season with mixed results. Wasps will certainly be looking to bounce back from a frustrating draw to London Irish last time out.

Lyon welcome Glasgow Warriors, a side that recently returned from a challenging tour to South Africa. Glasgow will be eager to kick on in the Challenge Cup, having just qualified for the United Rugby Championship play-offs, but the Frenchmen are another fine Top 14 side and are favourites.

Finally, Toulon face up to London Irish, who have shown good form of late and will be buoyed by their dramatic comeback to draw against Wasps last weekend. The Exiles play an exciting brand of rugby which could shock the Frenchmen, but they will need to get that platform up front first.

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