PHOTO: GB JORDAAN
What must surely be the top club competition in the world will have the best club teams from all the Six Nations competitions doing battle in the quarterfinals of the Champions Cup this weekend.
With the leading eight teams from each of the Top 14, the Premiership and the PRO14 now thinned out to only the final eight survivors, the two matches on each of Saturday and Sunday will provide for top rugby entertainment.
La Rochelle vs Sale Sharks, kick-off 16:00 (SA time)
There are six South Africans in the Sales Sharks starting side and two on the bench for Saturday’s quarterfinal clash in the Champions Cup.
And, looking at Sale’s performances against top sides this season and taking into account their 57-14 drubbing of the Wales’ Scarlets side in the Round of 16 last weekend, Sale will go into the quarterfinal clash against La Rochelle full of confidence.
Rochelle, playing at home, will nevertheless start as champions. They boast a big, aggressive pack and have a backline packed with skill and true French rugby guile, making it a side that plays some of the most effective and also most attractive rugby in the Top 14.
Add to it the 27-16 win against Gloucester last week (57-14), and the challenge that awaits Sales is obvious.
Home advantage could be the clincher for La Rochelle, chasing honours in the Top 14 where they are just three log points behind Toulouse.
The South Africans starting the match for Sale are Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Faf de Klerk, Dan du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Cobus Wiese and Akker van der Merwe, with Coenie Oosthuizen and Robert du Preez on the bench. All except Cobus Wiese have played test rugby.
Dillyn Leyds and Raymon Rhule start and Wiaan Liebenberg, former winning captain of the Junior Springboks, is on the bench for La Rochelle.
Exeter Chiefs vs Leinster, kick-off 16:30 (SA time)
Match of the quarterfinals in the world’s toughest and most glamourous club competition is probably that between defending champions Exeter and PRO14 champions and four-times winners of the Champions Cup Leinster at Sandy Park on Saturday.
Exeter came from 14-0 down inside the opening 10 minutes to secure a 47-25 win against Lyon last week and have the advantage of a home quarter in what should be a match of the highest quality.
Exeter are unbeaten in their last 11 games in the Heineken Champions Cup, and have won their last eight home games in the competition.
Saturday will be Leinster's 16th appearance in the Heineken Champions Cup quarterfinals.
But then, history does not dictate the present.
Bordeaux Bègles vs Racing 92, kick-off 13:30 (SA time)
Last year’s Beaten finalists Racing will continue their quest to avenge last season's heartbreaking defeat to Exeter with a quarter-final tie against their Top 14 rivals Bordeaux on Sunday.
The Racing men ran in seven tries past Edinburgh, winning 56-3 to progress into the quarterfinals.
Racing have fallen at the final hurdle in three of the last five years, in 2016 to Saracens, in 2018 to Leinster and last year to the Chiefs.
Standing between them and a third semi-final in four years is a Bordeaux side that sprung the upset of round 16 with a 36-17 victory over Challenge Cup champions Bristol Bears.
The margin of victory flattered Bordeaux but they did deservedly come out on top to set up the first of two all-French quarter-finals.
Bordeaux have home advantage on Sunday but Racing have a talented side with firepower on paper for what should be an intriguing clash.
Clermont vs Toulouse, kick-off 16:00 (SA time)
Four-time European Cup winners Toulouse and Top 14 champions will meet Clermont this weekend after they beat Wasps in a thriller at Ricoh Arena.
With many top-class and international match-ups in the match, Toulouse fly-half Romain Ntamack – who kicked 20 points in the win over the Irish province – is expecting a game of a match of "international standard", according to Heineken Quarterfinals Guide (bt.com.sport/rugby).
“We know Clermont very well and they know us. We will try to study them as much as possible on video,” Ntamack said during the week.
“We know they won’t stop until the 80th minute and that it will be a match of international standard that we are preparing for.
“We’ll look to repeat the feat like we did against Munster, but we go there without any pressure, playing our rugby and hoping to get the job done there."
Could be a classic!