European Champions Cup Quarter-Finals 2015-16 – Saturday games

Wasps v Exeter

A Wasps v Exeter European quarter-final would have been an unlikely prospect 4 years ago, with the former scrapping for both league and financial survival and the latter newcomers to the top flight.

When the pools were drawn this year, there weren’t many predicting Wasps would reach the knockout stage given they were placed with recent former champions Leinster and Toulon and a team that had finished 4 places above them in the league in Bath.

However, Dai Young’s side topped pool 5 with style – winning 4 games by 26 points or more and gaining home advantage for this stage. The home team has a 75% win rate in quarter-finals in this competition, with an average winning margin of 13 points. In the previous 5 years it is 70% and 11 points.

From 1997-98 (first season that a 6 pool game format was used) until 2011-12, only 20 of 120 quarter-finalists lost their first pool match. Since 2012-13, 13 of the 32 quarter-finalists were beaten in the opening round. Exeter are one of those teams, having begun their campaign with a 25-13 defeat at the Ospreys.

The Chiefs have lost 7 of their previous 9 away matches in this competition and were outscored 2nd half on 6 of those trips – by an average score of 14-5. As well as the Ospreys loss this season, Rob Baxter’s team were also beaten in Clermont (42-10) and Bordeaux (34-27).

In the league their away wins have been against the bottom three teams of London Irish, Newcastle Worcester and significantly for this match – 3rd placed Wasps.

Overall Exeter have won 8 of their 11 meetings with this opponent by an average score of 26-20. The 4 games from 2010-12 were relatively low scoring with an average total points of 31, but the following 7 matches have seen an average of 55 total points.

The most recent contest between the teams saw Exeter win 41-27 at the Ricoh in December, with their strength at the maul proving a key factor in building a 27-6 lead. Wasps did fight back to 27-27, but two further Chiefs tries from forwards sealed the away victory.

In contrast to their European performances, Exeter have a good record 2nd half in recent away league matches, having only been outscored twice on the previous 12 trips. Looking at their previous 4 away Prem matches – they scored 0,6,6 and 6 points in 1st half and 17,16,21 and 12 points in 2nd half.

The hosts are on a run of 10/11 wins in the league and have been scoring plenty of points in this period, with an average of 31 per game. Their 4 wins in the pool stage came by margins of 27,26,26 and 41 points while the defeats were both by 2 points.

Wasps brought in Dan Robson, Jimmy Gopperth, Charles and Siale Piutau, Frank Halai into the backline this season. They have benefitted from those players being available during the Six Nations window while some of their rivals have needed to make adjustments. The key signing might prove to be George Smith in the pack. He has averaged 10 passes, 10 runs and 12 tackles per start for Wasps which is similar to his output at Lyon the year before. Smith’s work at the breakdown, positioning and timing in attack and role as a mentor to the rest of the squad will be vital for the hosts’ run-in.

These sides could face off three times in the following weeks, with a league match at the end of April and possible play-off game at the end of May. Looking at their season stats in the league, there isn’t much to separate them. The hosts have averaged 22 kicks from hand, 149 passes and 121 runs for 471m per league match this season while it is 20 kicks, 140 passes, 120 runs for 418m for the visitors.

Rob Baxter has stated this week that the focus won’t be on how to stop Wasps and instead on Exeter’s own game. Despite those comments he will have noted the 8 lineouts that Wasps lost against Northampton last weekend.

Wasps have lost by 14 and 10 points at home against the top two league sides this season and over the past two seasons have won 3/7 home league games against top 4 teams by an average score of 24-26.

Exeter +9 has covered on 5/6 trips to Wasps and in 18 of their previous 20 away matches against Premiership opposition. Exeter over 9.5 points in 2nd half is 1.8.

Referee Poite averages 1.6 cards per game in this competition this season and 1.7 in the Top 14. A few years ago, Sir Ian McGeechan stated “if you are the coach of the away team, you like a Frenchman refereeing.” Poite has been involved in plenty of games where a home team with a formidable reputation has been upset on their own turf – Munster in 2011-12 against Ulster, both those sides this year (against Leicester and Saracens), Clermont against Castres in 2013-14 and Montpellier last year.

Waldrom has scored 34 tries in 43 Prem / Champions Cup games for Exeter and is 3.25 anytime scorer

Wasps: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Siale Piutau, 11 Frank Halai, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 George Smith, 6 James Haskell (c), 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Matt Mullan
Replacements: 16 Ashley Johnson, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Thomas Young, 21 Joe Simpson, 22 Ruaridh Jackson, 23 Rob Miller

Exeter: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Will Chudley, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Don Armand, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Moray Low, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Dave Ewers, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Michele Campagnaro, 23 James Short


Saracens v Northampton

Top seed Toulouse won all 4 games in the first Heineken Cup tournament, while second seed Brive won their 7 matches on the way to lifting the trophy the following year. However in the six pool match era (1997-98), the top seed has only reached 3 finals. They’ve also lost a home quarter-final on 9 occasions.

Prev seeds

Those trends won’t be of much interest to a Saracens side that have their Six Nations players back and will eyeing up a 4th successive semi-final. The hosts won 8/9 league matches before the Six Nations by an average score of 28-12 and then 4/8 during the tournament by 21-24. In the two games since it has been a 36-18 win over Exeter and 30-10 at Bath.

Taking rounds 1-9 and then 18-19, the hosts conceded an average of 5.5 points in the 1st half. Saracens also cruised through the pool stage, winning their six games by an average score of 37-12 and conceding an average of 5.3 points in the 1st half.

There will likely be a different mentality for Saints this year compared to their quarter-final last year. In 2014-15, Northampton won 14 of 18 league matches and by round 6 looked to set to win their European pool and secure a home quarter-final. At the end of the campaign, they had lost a home semi-final 29-24 against Saracens, the final home pool game 32-8 against Racing and then the quarter-final by 32-8 at Clermont.

This time they sit in 5th place in the league, with 10 wins from 19 games and required a 78th minute try from Harry Mallinder and then win at Scarlets to reach the knockout stage. The sense of being the underdog, written off and reacting to criticism might suit the visitors more than the favourites tag they had for most of last season.

Going back to 2009-10, 13 of their 18 league matches with Saracens have been decided by 1-7 points and they’ve lost by the handicap of +12 in only 1 of those 18 contests. Saints have also won away at Allianz Park in the league in 3 out of 4 attempts.

The visitors have trailed at halftime in 11/18 league games this season, but the won 2nd half in 13/18. Jim Mallinder’s side have only conceded 9 tries after the break in those 18 matches.

Comparing this Saints starting XV with the team that started against Clermont last year – Courtney Lawes is the only survivor in the pack. Alex Corbisiero, Salesi Ma’afu, Samu Manoa aren’t at the club anymore while Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Calum Clark, Sam Dickinson are injured. They are also missing Kieran Brookes, Jamie Gibson, Lee Dickson and George North from the squad for this game.

Given the rivalry between theses teams and usual close margins, the -11 point handicap does look big. However if the Six Nations period is ignored, Saracens have won 16/17 games by an average score of 32-12 and 7/7 at home by 35-11 (including Leicester by 20, Exeter by 18, Toulouse by 25, Ulster by 16). The visitors are missing key players and are likely going to end the match with some unfamiliar combinations in the pack.

Saracens have won 6/7 games with Garces as referee in this competition since 2011-12, including the 33-17 victory over Ulster this season. Northampton have won 4/5. Over the last two seasons, the home team has 9 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses with Garces in charge, by an average score of 23-15.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jared Saunders, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Michael Rhodes, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Marcelo Bosch, 23 Ben Ransom

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden (c), 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Ben Nutley, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Christian Day, 4 James Craig, 3 Paul Hill, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Reece Marshall, 17 Campese Ma’afu, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Victor Matfield, 20 Michael Paterson, 21 Tom Kessell, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Harry Mallinder