Sale Sharks, through to their first European Cup quarter-final since 2006, visit La Rochelle and holders Exeter host four-time champions Leinster in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup action…
Sanderson: Half their team is shark-bait
Sale have one of the most physical forward packs in Europe. In Jean-Luc du Preez and his twin brother Dan they have an abrasive pair of back rowers, while England star Tom Curry is tough to dislodge when he gets over the ball at the ruck.
A second row pairing of Jacobus Wiese and Josh Beaumont offers plenty of muscle, and hooker Akker van der Merwe is ferocious in the loose.
However, despite their electric backs, La Rochelle have some monsters of their own up front, in the form of 6 ft 8 Wallaby lock Will Skelton and 6 ft 4 All Black Victor Vito, who is as athletic as he is strong.
“Their abundant strengths are obvious,” Sale boss Sanderson said.
“But I guess you have got to ask yourself is there any other team in the Premiership that is more suited to matching them physically, bar us? I don’t believe there is.
“It is understanding the opposition threats, nullifying those threats and then imposing your own strengths on the opposition.
“There is no point going in against another heavyweight and trying to slug it out. I don’t believe that’s the way. There are tactics and boxing smart, here.
“We’ve got this thing called shark-bait where we look to target a few players that give teams momentum. Well, half the team is shark-bait this weekend, so you can’t go after half a team.”
‘You don’t want to be under the radar forever’
It is 15 years since the Sharks reached the last-eight of European club rugby’s blue riband event, while a semi-final appearance would be uncharted territory.
Whatever happens in France this weekend, it will be another important staging post for the Sharks, says Sanderson.
“We feel like we are creating something here – it’s just that no-one has been paying that much attention to us – but now they are because we are in the quarter-finals,” Sale’s rugby director said.
“It’s brilliant to be under the radar, to be honest. But you don’t want that forever, do you, because it is important the lads get some recognition for their efforts.
“I guess once you get to a quarter-final, no-one is underappreciated or underrated because you have to be a good team to get there.
“For us, there is an energy and excitement about how special the occasion is on Saturday.”
Leinster preparing for ‘exceptional’ Chiefs
Rob Baxter’s reigning champions meet a side who are appearing in the last eight for the 16th time as Leinster chase down a record fifth major title on the continental stage.
Leinster are among only four teams to have successfully defended the European title, while Exeter are now chasing membership of that exclusive club.
Leo Cullen’s side may be one of the most successful teams in Europe, but quarter-final challenges don’t come much harder than their one at Sandy Park, says assistant coach Felipe Contepomi.
“We know Exeter are a brilliant team. They are not double winners by chance,” Contepomi said.
“They’ve been developing into the team they are now after going through a rocky road for the last 10 years.
“They are an exceptional team and there is no bigger challenge then to play the champions on their own park.
“We embrace that challenge and know it will demand one hell of a performance from us, but this competition is about playing the best teams.”
Simmonds fuelled by England snub?
Exeter coach Rob Baxter says Sam Simmonds’ stellar season is fuelled by ability rather than anger over being ignored by England.
Simmonds has amassed 14 tries in the Gallagher Premiership this season, six more than his nearest rival, and is reigning European player of the year, yet he is consistently overlooked by Eddie Jones.
While Jones is unpersuaded, the No 8’s rampaging form has propelled him into contention for a place on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa this summer, with Saturday providing the perfect stage to convince Warren Gatland that he is of Lions calibre.
“Sometimes we look for all of these complex drivers but Sam is having a good season because he’s a very good player and it’s as simple as that,” Baxter said.
“If he is angry and has got a point to prove to England then that’s great and there is nothing wrong with that being a driver, but his driver might also be that he wants to have a great season and win some games of rugby.
“He hears everyone keep saying he should be in the England team and he should be going on the Lions tour and all of these things.
“They are all motivators but ultimately you can only play well if you are a great player. So the foundation of it all is that he’s a good player and whatever his motivations are, then great.”
La Rochelle vs Sale Sharks (3pm)
La Rochelle: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Tawera Kerr Barlow, 1 Reda Wardi, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Romain Sazy (c), 5 Will Skelton, 6 Grégory Alldritt, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 8 Victor Vito.
Replacements: 16 Facundo Bosch, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Arthur Joly, 19 Thomas Lavault, 20 Wiaan Liebenberg, 21 Thomas Berjon, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Pierre Aguillon.
Sale Sharks: 15 Simon Hammersley, 14 Byron McGuigan, 13 Sam James, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Faf de Klerk, 1 Bevan Rodd, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 3 Willgriff John, 4 Jacobus Wiese, 5 Josh Beaumont (c), 6 Jean-Luc du Preez, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Dan du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Curtis Langdon, 17 Ross Harrison, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 James Phillips, 20 Cameron Neild, 21 Raphael Quirke, 22 Robert du Preez, 23 Luke James.
Exeter Chiefs vs Leinster (5.30pm)
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Olly Woodburn, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds (c), 9 Jack Maunder, 1 Ben Moon, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Tom Francis, 4 Jonny Gray, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 8 Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Stu Townsend, 22 Harvey Skinner, 23 Ian Whitten.
Leinster: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Rory O’Loughlin, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Luke McGrath, 1 Cian Healy, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Scott Fardy, 5 Devin Toner, 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 Ryan Baird, 21 Hugh O’Sullivan, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Dave Kearney.