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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.

Champions Cup

Big names miss out for Ulster

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(Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Ulster match-day squad to face Gloucester tomorrow afternoon in Round 2 of the Heineken Champions Cup has been named (Kingsholm Stadium, kick-off 3.15pm).  

The back line sees just one change from the side that played Toulouse last Friday. Michael Lowry, Jacob Stockdale and Matt Faddes all retain their positions in the back three. Stuart McCloskey and James Hume are the starting midfield duo. Billy Burns returns at fly-half and will captain the side; he will partner John Cooney at scrum-half.  

The front row remains unchanged for this game. Rob Herring is named at hooker, with Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore packing down at loosehead and tighthead prop. Alan O’Connor will partner with his brother David – who will make his first Heineken Champions Cup start with Sam Carter missing out through concussion. Sean Reidy has been selected at blindside, with Jordi Murphy returning at openside. Nick Timoney comes in to start at Number Eight to replace the injured Marcel Coetzee.

John Andrew, Kyle McCall, Tom O’Toole, Matty Rea, and Greg Jones are the forward bench options. Academy player, Ethan McIlroy could make his European debut if called upon from the bench, and is named alongside Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan in the back line replacements.    

Ulster team to play Gloucester, Heineken Champions Cup Round 2, Saturday 19 December 2020 at Kingsholm Stadium, kick-off 3.15pm, live on BT Sport / beIN Sport:  

(15-9) Michael Lowry, Matt Faddes, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns (Capt.), John Cooney; 

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

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

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Champions Cup

Ulster name strong side to face Toulouse

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(Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Ulster coaching team has named the match-day squad for the province’s opening Pool game of the 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup against Toulouse on Friday (kick-off 8pm, Kingspan Stadium). 

In the back three, Jacob Stockdale returns from international duty to the left wing, joining Michael Lowry at full-back and Matt Faddes on the right wing. In midfield, Stuart McCloskey also returns from the Ireland squad to partner with James Hume. Ian Madigan has been named at fly-half alongside John Cooney at scrum-half. 

Having made his international debut against Scotland last week, Eric O’Sullivan, comes in to take the starting berth at loosehead prop. Rob Herring also returns from Ireland duties and is named at hooker, with Marty Moore retaining his position at tighthead. Alan O’Connor will partner with Sam Carter, who will lead the side from the second row. Sean Reidy and Jordi Murphy are named at blindside and openside, with Marcell Coetzee completing the pack at Number Eight. 

John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, and Matty Rea provide the forward options, with Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore and Craig Gilroy offering back line cover from the bench. 

Ulster team to play Toulouse, Heineken Champions Cup Round 1, Friday 11 December 2020 at Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 8pm, live on BT Sport / beIN Sport:

(15-9) Michael Lowry, Matt Faddes, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Ian Madigan, John Cooney; 

(1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter (Capt.), Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee. 

Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, Matty Rea, Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore, Craig Gilroy.

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Champions Cup

Heineken Champions Cup Pool Draw for 2020/21

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The holders, Exeter Chiefs, will play against Toulouse and Glasgow Warriors in the pool stage of the 2020/21 Heineken Champions Cup following the tournament Pool Draw which was held on Wednesday 28 October at the Maison du Sport International in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Exeter, who lifted the trophy for the first time after a dramatic 25th anniversary final earlier this month, were drawn into Pool B and will meet the four-time tournament winners and Glasgow over four pool stage rounds on a home and away basis.

Under the new format for the 2020/21 season featuring two pools of 12 clubs, reigning Guinness PRO14 champions, Leinster Rugby, will have Montpellier and Northampton Saints as their opponents in Pool A when the tournament kicks off again in December, while last season’s runners-up, Racing 92, are in Pool B where they will be up against Connacht Rugby and Harlequins.

Wasps, who were edged out by the Chiefs in the Gallagher Premiership final, will meet Dragons and Montpellier in Pool A, and PRO14 finalists, Ulster Rugby, will take on Gloucester Rugby and Toulouse in Pool B.

Munster Rugby will renew their European rivalry with ASM Clermont Auvergne and Harlequins in Pool B, while Bristol Bears’ Director of Rugby, Pat Lam, will make a return to Galway when the Challenge Cup winners go up against Connacht and Clermont also in Pool B.

For the purposes of the draw, the 24 clubs which qualified from the Premiership, the PRO14 and the TOP 14 were classified into four tiers based on their performances in the knockout phases of their respective leagues, and/or on their qualifying positions in their respective league tables.

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 not 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 and the Challenge Cup preliminary stage fixtures, including venues, kick-off times and TV coverage, will be announced as soon as possible following consultation with clubs and EPCR’s partner broadcasters.

The four highest-ranked clubs from each Heineken Champions Cup pool will qualify for the quarter-finals which will be played over two legs, and the clubs ranked from number five to number eight in each pool will qualify for the Round of 16 of the Challenge Cup.

Today’s draw, which mapped out the first steps on the journey to the 2021 Marseille finals weekend, was conducted by EPCR Chief Executive, Vincent Gaillard, and by EPCR Commercial and Brand Manager, Anya Alderslade.

The event scrutineer was Lausanne-based solicitor, Jean-Guillaume Amiguet.

2020/21 HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP

POOL A (with opponents in brackets)
Bordeaux-Bègles (Dragons, Northampton Saints)
Leinster Rugby (Montpellier, Northampton Saints)
Wasps (Dragons, Montpellier)
Bath Rugby (La Rochelle, Scarlets)
Edinburgh Rugby (La Rochelle, Sale Sharks)
RC Toulon (Sale Sharks, Scarlets)
La Rochelle (Bath Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby)
Sale Sharks (Edinburgh Rugby, RC Toulon)
Scarlets (Bath Rugby, RC Toulon)
Dragons (Bordeaux-Bègles, Wasps)
Montpellier (Leinster Rugby, Wasps)
Northampton Saints (Bordeaux-Bègles, Leinster Rugby)

POOL B (with opponents in brackets)
Exeter Chiefs (Glasgow Warriors, Toulouse)
Lyon (Glasgow Warriors, Gloucester Rugby)
Ulster Rugby (Gloucester Rugby, Toulouse)
Bristol Bears (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Connacht Rugby)
Munster Rugby (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins)
Racing 92 (Connacht Rugby, Harlequins)
ASM Clermont Auvergne (Bristol Bears, Munster Rugby)
Connacht Rugby (Bristol Bears, Racing 92)
Harlequins (Munster Rugby, Racing 92)
Glasgow Warriors (Exeter Chiefs, Lyon)
Gloucester Rugby (Lyon, Ulster)
Toulouse (Exeter Chiefs, Ulster Rugby)

2020/21 season weekends
Round 1 – 11/12/13 December 2020
Round 2 – 18/19/20 December 2020
Round 3 – 15/16/17 January 2021
Round 4 – 22/23/24 January 2021

Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, 1st leg – 2/3/4 April 2021
Challenge Cup Round of 16 – 2/3/4 April 2021
Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, 2nd leg – 9/10/11 April 2021
Challenge Cup quarter-finals – 9/10/11 April 2021
Semi-finals – 30 April – 1/2 May 2021
2021 finals – Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Challenge Cup final – Friday 21 May
Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 22 May

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