After four and a half months of big hits, electrifying tries, fiercely contested set pieces, and a few long-range drop goals, we’ve reached the semi-final stage of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
The four teams who are left to duke it out in Europe’s premier club rugby tournament are all thoroughly deserving of their spots.
The first of the two semis is an all English affair with the undefeated Saracens taking on the free running London Wasps.
Which of these two will book their place in the showpiece final? Let’s see if we can find out.
Saracens v London Wasps | Saturday 23 April | Madjeski Stadium | 16:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Saracens 9/20 | Draw 20/1 | Wasps 7/4
'Saries have been the dominant force in both the European Champions Cup and the Aviva Premiership this season. Mark McCall’s men are yet to taste defeat in Europe this term and are firm favourites with the bookies to claim the Champions Cup. They play an extremely organised brand of rugby that is reminiscent of that of the Highlanders.
Key to McCall’s men's success has been their ability to exit from deep inside their own half. Unlike most European teams, Saracens tend to take the ball through a few phases with their forwards so as to set an ideal platform for either Owen Farell or Richard Wigglesworth to clear from. This tactic allows Saracens to find far more distance on their clearances which helps ensure that they play the majority of the game inside the opposition half.
While their halfback pairing of Wigglesworth and Farell have been instrumental in Saracens run to the semi-final, they have been aided by a star-studded backing cast that features former Natal Sharks 12 Brad Barrett and incumbent Argentine 13 Marcelo Bosch in the centres, England flyer Chris Ashton and one of America’s greatest ever players, Chris Wyles on the wings, and mercurial youngster Alex Goode at fullback.
Impressed by that backline? Well, wait until you see their forwards.
Their front row of Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, and Petrus du Plessis have been immense at scrum time as well as in the loose. Their young locking duo of George Kruise and Maro Itoje have dominated at line-out time, while their loose trio of Michael Rhodes, Jackson Wray, and Billy Vunipoala are by far and away the most balanced combination in Europe.
The Wolf Pack have truly walked the walk this season. They’ve racked up an astonishing 249 points while only conceding 93 on route to a semi-final berth. While it was a hard-fought affair, they always seemed to have Northampton Saints at arms-length during their 29-20 quarter-final victory.
Mark McCall will want to rectify a few of the issues that were evident during that quarter-final win. The Saracens mentor may be a bit worried about his side seeming to suffer from a bout of stage fright during said fixture. But at the end of the day, this is a knockout tournament, and all that matters is that you get a win no matter how tight the score line ends up being.
The London Wasps are the best-attacking team in Europe by a country mile. Dai Young’s side play the most attractive brand of rugby north of the equator and have been rewarded with a place at Europe’s most exclusive rugby club; the European Champions Cup final four.
While Young is a fantastic coach, who wouldn’t look out of place coaching a Super Rugby side, the main reason for his side’s attacking swagger is their New Zealand imports. Auckland Blues old boys Charles Piutau and Frank Halai set the group stage of the Champions Cup alight with their explosive counter-attacking skills.
The duo has continued to be as devastating as they were during the early weeks of the tournament with both men crossing the whitewash in Wasps 25-24 victory over Exeter in the quarter-finals.
The Kiwi duo recently extend their ranks with Charles’ brother Siale being snatched up on a short-term deal in mid-February. The burly inside centre has made an immediate impact for Wasps scoring three tries in 11 Aviva Premiership appearances.
Like their opponents for Saturday, Wasps have a brilliant centre pairing in the aforementioned Siale Piatau and English youngster Elliot Daly. The latter has been in immaculate form with the boot this season nailing some pearlers from long range. His ability to convert a shot at goal from 50 to 56 meters out will come in handy this coming weekend.
Much like their opposition for this semi-final, Wasps have a forward pack to match their impressive backline. Their back row of former Auckland Blue Nathan Hughes, former Wallaby and turnover machine George Smith, as well as England talisman James Haskell form an imposing combination.
With their ability to steal ball at line-out time, Wasps’ second-row pairing of Joe Launchbury and Bradley Davies are capable of turning opposition hookers into quivering wrecks, while their front row of Matt Mullan, Carlo Fetuccia, and Jake Cooper-Wooley are capable of mixing it up with the best in Europe.
Wasps may not have had as flawless a run as Saracens on the way to the semis but they have still put in some impressive performances along the way. They managed to top a pool that featured defending champions Toulon, a Bath team packed with internationals, and Irish Giant Leinster. They then overcome a fired up Exeter Chiefs squad that had led for the majority of the fixture
Verdict: Saracens 9/20
Both teams come into this one off domestic victories. Their performances in those Aviva Premiership games have actually given me a great indicator to work off. While Wasps ran in a plethora of tries during their 53-35 victory over Worcester, they showed how porous their defense can be conceding four tries. While this attacking approach is to be admired, I think it will ultimately prove to be their downfall this weekend against a clinical and well-structured Saracens outfit.