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Champions Cup - Rugby Union: Semi-Final Preview

The European Rugby Champions Cup has been whittled down to the last four with a quality quartet set to do battle across semi-finals in Dublin and Lens.

The two ties display a clear divide between the rugby aristocracy and the nouveau riche. The first on Saturday in Dublin features two of the fabled names of this competition, with Leinster and defending champions Toulouse having won nine titles between them.

Then in Sunday's second semi, it is a battle of the relative young bucks as previously beaten finalists Racing Metro and La Rochelle head north to do battle in Lens.

From delight to despair in Dublin for Toulouse?

The Aviva Stadium was a happy hunting ground for Toulouse last Saturday as they beat Munster in only the competition's second ever penalty shootout.

Antoine Dupont (twice), Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack were all successful from the tee for the defending champions as they edged out the Red Army, after a pulsating 80 minutes and extra time finished 24-24.

On Saturday, they return to Dublin to take on another Irish province and arguably the form team in Europe.

Leinster's ferocity on both sides of the ball in their 23-14 win at Leicester emphasised why they are 10/11 to win this competition for the first time since 2017/18 and they are only likely to be stronger on home turf.

The physicality they brought to Welford Road was frightening and that extra 20 minutes is unlikely to have helped Toulouse, who are 13/2 to defend their crown.

Another tweak by ever-evolving Leinster

Their display against the Tigers was even more notable as it showed another side to this Leinster outfit. Like Toulouse, and in fact most French sides, they primarily played off their nine, Jamison Gibson-Park, and then their 12, Robbie Henshaw, before giving the ball to Johnny Sexton.

That would have been unthinkable for much of the last decade or more but showed just how well they have learned to adapt their game.

If there is any fatigue amongst Le Rouge et Noir's ranks, then Gibson-Park's speed of both foot and thought will allow him to exploit it.

Leinster are 8/13 to score first on Saturday and will be looking to fly out of the traps.

The Ireland scrum-half's battle with Dupont will be fascinating and while the 1/4 on Leinster looks short, their momentum suggests they'll have too much for 3/1 Toulouse.

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Lens the setting as Rog eyes rare double

More famous as a footballing city, Lens hosts the second semi-final on Sunday. However, while it may lack the rugby pedigree of the stadiums in the south of France, the atmosphere at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis can rival any.

The fans of Racing Metro and La Rochelle are sure to compete as vibrantly as their teams will on the field and this match has all the makings of a classic.

Racing's Galacticos have finished runners-up in this competition three times, while their opponent Les Corsaires were taken down 22-17 by Toulouse in last year's final.

That was the first time the Charente-Maritime side had appeared in the showpiece and their coach, two-time winner Ronan O'Gara, will be desperate to avoid another near miss.

O'Gara lost his first two finals as a player with Munster in 2000 and 2002 and experienced plenty more heartache before guiding the province to glory in both 2006 and 2008.

La Rochelle are 9/2 to lift the trophy and in doing so, 'Rog' would become only the second man behind his former Ireland teammate, Leo Cullen, to do so as both a player and a coach. In a twist of fate, La Rochelle beat Cullen's Leinster in last year's semi-finals and may fancy a crack at the same rivals in Marseille on 28th May.

Racing rightly the favourites

However, Racing are 11/4 in the outright market and 4/5 to win in 80 minutes on Sunday, with last weekend's glittering 41-22 quarter-final win over Sale their sixth win in a row.

In another twist, La Rochelle were the last team to beat them, triumphing 19-0 in a game where both sides were not quite at full strength due to players coming back from the Six Nations.

La Rochelle, 1/1 in the 80 minute betting, beat Top 14 leaders Montpellier 31-19 to make the last four but have endured a mixed season, currently sitting seventh in the table.

However, they have won six of their last seven across the board so are clearly in form.

That said, Racing's win over Sale was something special, with Teddy Thomas and Finn Russell at their mercurial best.

How those two play could decide Sunday's match and the mood they were in against the Sharks suggests they can break their domestic rivals.

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