We look ahead to Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup round-of-16 ties, as Leinster host Toulon and Gloucester welcome La Rochelle…
Leinster vs Toulon (Friday, 5.30pm kick-off)
It’s a meeting of two serial winners in Europe first up in the round of 16, as Leinster and Toulon meet in Dublin with seven European Cup titles between them; Leinster four (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018), Toulon three (2013, 2014, 2015).
In history, Leinster and Toulon have met four times before in the Champions Cup, with the Top 14 side surprisingly holding a 100 per cent record of four wins from those clashes.
The pair last met at Europe’s highest stage back in the 2015/16 season, as the French side picked up a pair of pool-stage victories, including a 16-20 win at the Aviva Stadium.
Since Toulon beat Leinster in December 2015, the Irish side have gone on to win 17 of their 18 ensuing home games in the Champions Cup, losing only vs Saracens in September 2020.
Overall, Toulon have won eight of their 10 Champions Cup games against Irish sides, a pair of defeats against Munster the only blemishes.
Leinster, recently crowned PRO14 champions for 2021, have won eight of their last nine Champions Cup matches, averaging 34 points and 4.6 tries per game in those victories. They have averaged more carries (140) and passes (182) than any other side in the Champions Cup this season.
Skipper Johnny Sexton (Leinster, 697) needs three more points to become the fourth player to record 700 points in the Champions Cup (Ronan O’Gara, Stephen Jones, Owen Farrell).
Meanwhile, Toulon’s average of 25 defenders beaten per game in the Champions Cup this season is the best of any side. Talented fly-half Louis Carbonel’s absence is a major blow for Toulon – he has landed all six of his shots at goal in the Champions Cup this season – only Joe Simmonds (Exeter, 6/6) has had as many attempts without missing.
Leinster: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Devin Toner, 5 Ryan Baird, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Scott Fardy, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Dave Kearney.
Replacements: 16 Bastien Soury, 17 Sébastien Taofifenua, 18 Emerick Setiano, 19 Raphael Lakafia, 20 Julien Ory, 21 Frederick du Plessis, 22 Anthony Meric, 23 Simon Moretti.
Gloucester vs La Rochelle (Friday, 8pm kick-off)
In the second of Friday’s round-of-16 ties, Gloucester host Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle.
The two sides have never met before in the Champions Cup, but they have crossed paths nine times in the Challenge Cup, with Gloucester having won seven of their previous nine meetings with La Rochelle, including three of their four home games against them.
Gloucester have won their last three home games in the Champions Cup; beating Connacht and Montpellier in 2019/20, and Ulster in 2020/21 in a crucial victory to clinch a round-of-16 place. They’ve not enjoyed a longer winning run at Kingsholm since a five-game streak between 2006 and 2008.
La Rochelle have played four previous away games against Premiership teams in the Champions Cup, winning the first of those (vs Harlequins) but losing the three subsequent games.
Gloucester have lost five of their last six Champions Cup games against Top 14 opposition, including two losses where they had led at half-time. At home, however, Gloucester have won seven of their last eight Champions Cup games against Top 14 sides, losing only to Toulouse last season.
Gloucester are aiming to reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time since 2007/08, failing to do this in their last six campaigns in the tournament.
In terms of stats, La Rochelle have the best tackle success rate (92 per cent) in the Champions Cup this season, missing just nine of 112 tackles so far.
Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow has made 28/28 tackles so far this season, no one has made more without missing at least one, while team-mate Seb Nagle-Taylor has gained more metres (139) than any other forward in the Europe this season, averaging an impressive 9.3 metres per carry so far.
Gloucester: 15 Santiago Carreras, 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Mark Atkinson, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Barton, 9 Willi Heinz; 1 Val Rapava Ruskin, 2 Henry Walker, 3 Fraser Balmain, 4 Ed Slater, 5 Matías Alemanno, 6 Jordy Reid, 7 Lewis Ludlow (c), 8 Ruan Ackermann.
Replacements: 16 Santi Socino, 17 Alex Seville, 18 Jamal Ford-Robinson, 19 Alex Craig, 20 Freddie Clarke, 21 Jack Clement, 22 Charlie Chapman, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
La Rochelle: 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Arthur Retiere, 13 Raymond Rhule, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Jules Favre, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Tawera Kerr Barlow, 1 Dany Priso, 2 Facundo Bosch, 3 Arthur Joly, 4 Romain Sazy (c), 5 Will Skelton, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 8 Victor Vito.
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Grégory Alldritt, 21 Thomas Berjon, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou.