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Champions Cup

Leinster vs Saracens Preview & Key Match-Ups

Leinster and Saracens have named their star-studded teams for the Champions Cup Final

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(Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Leinster and Saracens have confirmed their respective 23-man squads for the Champions Cup Final in Newcastle’s St. James’ Park on Saturday at 17 00.

The mouth-watering clash which sees Leinster chasing a record fifth European crown take on Saracens who are looking for a third European title in four years is being hyped up as the biggest final ever and when you see the teams you can see why.

Leinster have named an unchanged XV from the one that comfortably dispatched of Toulouse in the semi-finals. While Saracens have made only two changes to their fifteen that saw off Munster in their last-four tie.

That means that Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong remain in the prop positions alongside a fit-again Sean Cronin, who has recovered from a calf-injury that he picked up in the game against the French giants.

Devin Toner and James Ryan lock down behind them in the second-row, with Scott Fardy, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan making up the pack at six, seven and eight respectively.

Luke McGrath begins the match in a half-back partnership with captain Johnny Sexton, as Ireland centre duo Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose take the 12 and 13 jerseys.

James Lowe continues on the left-wing having missed last years final, with Jordan Larmour on the right and Rob Kearney at full-back.

The reigning champions have plenty of depth on the bench as well with James Tracy and Michael Bent, joined by the surprise selection of Jack McGrath as the front-row replacements.

Rhys Ruddock, Max Deegan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin make up a strong subs-bench for the boys in blue.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen is well-aware of the opportunity his side have to become the first side to win five European Cups and admits it is in their heads.

“It’s in the back of everyone’s minds, we know it’s there,” he said when asked about the prospect.

While lock James Ryan has told his teammates that they will need to produce a big game if they are to come out on top on Saturday.

“We’re going to need a season-best performance this weekend,” he said.

The formidable Saracens stand between Leinster and history and they have named as strong a side as possible.

England powerhouse Mako Vunipola opens the game alongside Jamie George and Titi Lamositele in the front-three.

The only change in the pack sees Will Skelton come into the second-row beside George Kruis, with Maro Itoje shifting to blindside flanker, to partner Jackson Wray and Billy Vunipola in the back-row as Michael Rhodes misses out through injury.

Ben Spencer is at scrum-half, with Owen Farrell at fly-half. Captain Brad Barritt has been passed fit for the showdown and is joined by Alex Lozowski in the centre.

Wales star-man Liam Williams is on the left-wing, with Scotland speedster Sean Maitland on the right and Alex Goode finishing the starting line-up at 15.

Just like Leinster, Sarries have a vast amount of quality to call upon from the bench.

Joe Gray, Richard Barrington, Vincent Koch, Nick Isiekwe and Schalke Burger are the forwards replacements while Richard Wigglesworth, Nick Tompkins and David Strettle cover the back-line.

Speaking ahead of the match Saracens No 9 Wigglesworth has told the media that their previous final losses make them a better team in finals today.

“We suffered a lot of pain in Europe before winning in the Lyon rain (against Racing 92 in 2016). The feeling that day was relief because we had put it to bed. The best thing now is that there is no sense of panic; that is not bought, but comes from experience. We can react to pressure and get the job done. When we lost before, it tended to be because we were unable to cope with it but, if Leinster win, it will be because they were the better team,” he said.

Saracens are the only unbeaten team in this seasons Champions Cup while Leinster have only lost one game to Toulouse by a single point, 28-27.

With that in mind and the history they have created, here are five key match-ups to look out for on Saturday.

Cian Healy vs Mako Vunipola:
Although they won’t be on the same side of the scrum, these are possibly the two best looseheads in the game. Healy is going for his fifth crown while Vunipola will be determined to make his mark on the game with another dominant display. Both are key at the breakdown and big ball carriers, however, both have faced injury worries over the past few years and will be hoping that they can remain on the itch as long as they can to help their team. In a clash of titans all over the pitch, the men in the No 1 jerseys could hold the key to where this match is won or lost.

Devin Toner vs Will Skelton:
This is an interesting one as everyone thought we would be looking at Ryan vs Itoje, however, this will be an entirely different beast for Toner to cope with as Michael Rhodes sits the game out. The man mountain that is Skelton will make as many carries as Leinster’s Ryan and it will be a big decision as to whether Toner or Ryan take on the Australian in open play.

Both Toner and Skelton will be essential to their side’s line-out and creating a clean attacking platform if chances arrive. The set-piece and breakdown are vital in a match where no errors will be allowed and these two will have some battle in the air.

Jack Conan vs Billy Vunipola:
Conan has really come into his own in the past few months, but this will be his toughest challenge yet. These are possibly Ireland and England’s starting No 8’s for the World Cup and both will want to make a marker on the biggest stage.

Although different in size and shape, the two are similar in play as they both carry with shear power and speed, while either one can produce a moment of magic when needed. Leading from the back of the scrum is a huge role, while a sniping run off the back of a ruck from either one could be the winning of this game if they seize their opportunity.

Johnny Sexton vs Owen Farrell:
The last time these two met in the Six Nations Farrell was in form while Sexton was off-colour, and we saw what happened. This time it looks as though both will be at their best, with last years’ world player of the year taking on a very possible future holder of that title.

Sexton plays on the gain-line, while Farrell is not afraid to put in a massive hit on any player and will take any chance he gets to put Sexton on his backside. That is before we take into account the kicking abilities of both, which as we know from previous finals, the finest margins come between teams, meaning accuracy from the tee will be crucial.

James Lowe vs Sean Maitland:
Big carrying, hard-hitting James Lowe will be looking to make up for missing the final last season and will have a difficult time against Scotland legend Sean Maitland. Lowe brings a certain sparkle to the game that others dream of having and Maitland will have to keep an eye on his man, or he will walk all over him.

However, Lowe’s defensive abilities will be tested here as Maitland will take any chance to counter that he can and is solid in the air. Both defences are rock-solid, but you wouldn’t bet on either keeping out these men if they are on form for the 80 minutes.

All fifteen players on the pitch have a titanic match-up with their opposite number as the majority of them are proven international players and that is what sets this final apart. Which is why you won’t want to miss this match wherever you are.

Whatever happens, this is the game rugby fans have wanted to see for a long time now and it is almost upon us. These are the two best teams in Europe over the past few years and it may be safe to say that the winner of this will not only be crowned winners of the Champions Cup this season, but perhaps the ultimate champions of European rugby since the competition started.

Challenge Cup

Heineken Champions Cup pool draw for 2021/22

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(Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

The holders, Stade Toulousain, will be up against Wasps and Cardiff Rugby in the pool stage of next season’s Heineken Champions Cup following the pool draw for the 2021/22 tournament which was held today (Wednesday 21 July) in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Stade Toulousain, who completed the Heineken Champions Cup and TOP 14 double last month for the second time in the club’s history, were drawn into Pool B and will meet Wasps and Cardiff over four pool stage rounds on a home and away basis.

With the qualified clubs drawn into two pools of 12, reigning Gallagher Premiership champions Harlequins will have Castres Olympique and Cardiff as their opponents in Pool B when the tournament kicks off again in December, while last season’s PRO14 winners, Leinster Rugby, are in Pool A where they will be up against Montpellier Hérault Rugby and Bath Rugby.

Stade Rochelais, runners-up in the Heineken Champions Cup final, will meet Bath and Glasgow Warriors in Pool A, while Exeter Chiefs, who lost out to Harlequins in the Premiership decider, will take on Montpellier and Glasgow in Pool A.

Munster Rugby, who were in Tier 1 as the second-ranked qualifier from the PRO14, were drawn against Castres Olympique and Wasps in Pool B.

Elsewhere, Ulster Rugby will take on ASM Clermont Auvergne and Northampton Saints in Pool A whilst Stade Français Paris were drawn into Pool B and will take on Pat Lam’s former club, Connacht Rugby, and his current charges, Bristol Bears.

For the purposes of the draw, the 24 clubs which qualified from the TOP 14, Premiership, and the PRO14 were classified into four tiers based either on their respective league rankings or on other qualification criteria.

Each tier contained six clubs with Tier 1 made up of the number one and number two ranked clubs from each league, and Tier 2, the number three and number four ranked clubs from each league, and so on.

Starting with Tier 1, the clubs were either drawn or allocated into either Pool A or Pool B so that each pool contained 12 clubs with no clubs in the same tier from the same league in the same pool.

The key principles regarding the pool stage fixtures are that clubs will only play against opponents in the same pool, and clubs from the same league cannot play against one another.

The Tier 1 and Tier 4 clubs which were drawn in the same pool, but which are from the same league, will play one another home and away over four rounds. The same principle applies to the Tier 2 and Tier 3 clubs which were drawn in the same pool, but which are not from the same league.

The exact dates of the Heineken Champions Cup pool stage fixtures, as well as venues, kick-off times and TV coverage, will be announced as soon as possible following consultation with clubs and EPCR’s partner broadcasters.

The 2021/22 tournament will be played over nine weekends with four rounds of matches in the pool stage. The eight highest-ranked clubs from each pool will qualify for the knockout stage which will consist of a Round of 16 on a home and away basis, quarter-finals and semi-finals, with the final in Marseille on 28 May 2022.

Today’s draw, which was live-streamed on HeinekenChampionsCup.com, was conducted by EPCR’s Head of Events and Operations, Ben Harries, and by EPCR’s Partnerships Activation Executive, Laia Gonzalez. The event scrutineer was Lausanne-based solicitor, Jean-Guillaume Amiguet.

2021/22 HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP

POOL A (with opponents in brackets)

Stade Rochelais (Bath Rugby, Glasgow Warriors)

Exeter Chiefs (Montpellier Hérault Rugby, Glasgow Warriors)

Leinster Rugby (Montpellier Hérault Rugby, Bath Rugby)

Racing 92 (Northampton Saints, Ospreys)

Sale Sharks (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys)

Ulster Rugby (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints)

ASM Clermont Auvergne (Sale Sharks, Ulster Rugby)

Northampton Saints (Racing 92, Ulster Rugby)

Ospreys (Racing 92, Sale Sharks)

Montpellier Hérault Rugby (Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby)

Bath Rugby (Stade Rochelais, Leinster Rugby)

Glasgow Warriors (Stade Rochelais, Exeter Chiefs)

POOL B (with opponents in brackets)

Stade Toulousain (Wasps, Cardiff Rugby)

Harlequins (Castres Olympique, Cardiff Rugby)

Munster Rugby (Castres Olympique, Wasps)

Union Bordeaux-Bègles (Leicester Tigers, Scarlets)

Bristol Bears (Stade Français Paris, Scarlets)

Connacht Rugby (Stade Français Paris, Leicester Tigers)

Stade Français Paris (Bristol Bears, Connacht Rugby)

Leicester Tigers (Union Bordeaux-Bègles, Connacht Rugby)

Scarlets (Union Bordeaux-Bègles, Bristol Bears)

Castres Olympique (Harlequins, Munster Rugby)

Wasps (Stade Toulousain, Munster Rugby)

Cardiff Rugby (Stade Toulousain, Harlequins)

2021/22 weekends

Round 1 – 10/11/12 December

Round 2 – 17/18/19 December

Round 3 – 14/15/16 January 2022

Round 4 – 21/22/23 January 2022

Round of 16 (1st leg) – 8/9/10 April 2022

Round of 16 (2nd leg) – 15/16/17 April 2022

Quarter-finals – 6/7/8 May 2022

Semi-finals – 13/14/15 May 2022

Challenge Cup final – Friday 27 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 28 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

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Champions Cup

2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup format and qualifiers confirmed

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(Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the conclusion of the domestic seasons in England and France, EPCR is pleased to confirm the format and qualifiers for the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup as Europe’s elite club tournament is set to return with a highly competitive schedule of 71 matches.

The Heineken Champions Cup will once again be competed for by 24 clubs with eight representatives from the Gallagher Premiership, the Guinness PRO14 and the TOP 14 having secured their places. (See qualifiers and rankings below)

The clubs will be divided into two pools of 12 – Pool A and Pool B – by means of a draw and the tournament will be played over nine weekends with four rounds of matches in the pool stage starting in December when Stade Toulousain begin the defence of their title.

The eight highest-ranked clubs from each pool will qualify for the knockout stage which will consist of a Round of 16 on a home and away basis, quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final in Marseille on 28 May 2022. (See key dates below)

The draw for the pools will be carried out on the same lines as last season with the clubs separated into four tiers, and clubs from the same league in the same tier will not be drawn into the same pool.

The number 1 and number 2 ranked clubs from each league will be in Tier 1, the number 3 and number 4 ranked clubs will be in Tier 2, the number 5 and 6 ranked clubs will be in Tier 3, and the number 7 and number 8 ranked clubs will be Tier 4.

The Tier 1 and the Tier 4 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, will play one another home and away during the pool stage, as will the Tier 2 and Tier 3 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league.

The pool draw will be live streamed on HeinekenChampionsCup.com and the date of the event as well as further details will be communicated shortly.

As previously announced, EPCR is currently putting the finishing touches to a new shareholder agreement, and discussions to finalise the Challenge Cup format for the 2021/22 season, as well as the formats for the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup for future seasons, are ongoing.

These discussions include the future participation of South African clubs in EPCR’s tournaments as referenced recently by the United Rugby Championship and no further comment will be made until the appropriate time.

2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup qualifiers
Gallagher Premiership: 1 Harlequins, 2 Exeter Chiefs, 3 Bristol Bears, 4 Sale Sharks, 5 Northampton Saints, 6 Leicester Tigers, 7 Bath Rugby, 8 Wasps

Guinness PRO14: 1 Leinster Rugby, 2 Munster Rugby, 3 Ulster Rugby, 4 Connacht Rugby, 5 Scarlets, 6 Ospreys, 7 Cardiff Rugby, 8 Glasgow Warriors

TOP 14: 1 Stade Toulousain, 2 Stade Rochelais, 3 Racing 92, 4 Union Bordeaux-Bègles, 5 ASM Clermont Auvergne, 6 Stade Français Paris, 7 Castres Olympique, 8 Montpellier Hérault Rugby

2021/22 key dates
Round 1 – 10/11/12 December
Round 2 – 17/18/19 December
Round 3 – 14/15/16 January 2022
Round 4 – 21/22/23 January 2022
Round of 16 (1st leg) – 8/9/10 April 2022
Round of 16 (2nd leg) – 15/16/17 April 2022
Quarter-finals – 6/7/8 May 2022
Semi-finals – 13/14/15 May 2022
Challenge Cup final – Friday 27 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 28 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

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Challenge Cup

Ulster name team for Northampton Quarter-Final trip

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Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

The Ulster coaching team has named the match-day squad for the trip to face Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday (kick-off 8pm).

Michael Lowry is named to start at full-back, and is joined in the back three by Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune. Stuart McCloskey and James Hume will form the midfield duo, and Billy Burns and John Cooney are the starting half-backs.

In the front row, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring and Marty Moore retain their starting berths. Alan O’Connor will partner Kieran Treadwell in the second row. Last week’s Player of the Match, Sean Reidy, will start at blindside flanker, with Jordi Murphy skippering the team at openside and Nick Timoney at Number Eight.

John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Matty Rea and Greg Jones will provide the forward reinforcements from the bench, with Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan and Ethan McIlroy named as the back line options.

Ulster team to play Northampton Saints, Challenge Cup Quarter-Final, Saturday 10 April at Franklin’s Gardens (kick-off 8pm, live on BT Sport):

(15-9) Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney;

(1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy (Capt.), Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Matty Rea, Greg Jones, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Ethan McIlroy.

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