Guinness Six Nations stars set to do battle in Champions Cup semi-finals

The cream of the domestic crop from France and England face off this weekend in two tantalising European Champions Cup semi-finals.

The cream of the domestic crop from France and England face off this weekend in two tantalising European Champions Cup semi-finals.

Racing 92 host Saracens before Exeter Chiefs welcome Toulouse on a super Saturday of action with a place in the final at stake.

With plenty of Guinness Six Nations stars set to feature, here’s a look at some of the key match-ups who have a history of lining up against each other in the Championship…

Donnacha Ryan (Racing 92) vs Maro Itoje (Saracens)

Itoje may have been expecting to line up against Bernard Le Roux, who he faced in Paris in the opening round of this year’s Championship, but will instead go head-to-head against a wily operator in Donnacha Ryan.

The pair were at opposite ends of their Championship careers when they met at Twickenham in 2016, Itoje’s first and Ryan’s penultimate Guinness Six Nations campaign, and will enjoy renewing hostilities in Paris.

Itoje was at his inspirational best as Saracens brought Leinster’s unbeaten season to an end in Dublin last time out, putting in a game-high 19 tackles, so Ryan will have to call on all his experience to stop the England man in his tracks.

Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92) vs Duncan Taylor (Saracens)

These two played against each other when Scotland welcomed France to BT Murrayfield in the 2016 Championship.

Taylor emerged victorious on that occasion as the hosts won 29-18 but the two were not in direct opposition, with Taylor at outside centre and Vakatawa out on the wing.

The French ace starts in the No.13 jersey for his side on Saturday, however, putting him in the sights of Sarries star Taylor in what promises to be a hard-fought battle in midfield.

Taylor made 16 tackles against Leinster while Vakatawa missed four against Clermont, though his defensive nous shone through in his two turnovers won.

Simon Zebo (Racing 92) vs Elliot Daly (Saracens)

Zebo’s most recent Championship appearance for Ireland came in the final round of the 2017 Championship – when Daly was his opposite number.

The pair were each on the left wing on that occasion, a 13-9 win for the hosts at the Aviva Stadium, but will be wearing No.15 this time around having both done so in their respective quarter-final wins.

Daly’s monster boot came in handy for Saracens last weekend as he slotted two long-range penalties in the space of three minutes to help establish his side’s dominant first half position, while Zebo made 21 metres from his three carries against Clermont.

Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) vs Julien Marchand (Toulouse)

The scrum battle will be crucial at Sandy Park and two hookers with international experience are set to go head-to-head.

Marchand started February’s Championship clash between France and England in Paris and had 18 minutes up against Cowan-Dickie, who was introduced early in the second half.

The Frenchman made seven carries having come off the bench himself against Ulster last Sunday and returns to the starting XV in place of his international teammate Peato Mauvaka this weekend.

Cowan-Dickie was his usual solid self as Exeter downed Northampton in the last eight and, with 28 tries for the Chiefs, carries a deadly threat when he sniffs an opportunity.

Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) vs Yoann Huget (Toulouse)

Nowell made his England debut in the opening round of the 2014 Championship, lining up opposite Huget in Paris.

The French wing had the better of that battle, scoring twice in the opening 17 minutes to set the hosts on their way to a 26-24 victory, but Nowell got his own back the following year with a brace of his own as England won 55-35 at Twickenham.

The pair came off the bench to face each other again in 2017, a 19-16 England triumph, and now the battle crosses over to the club scene in the west country this weekend.

Nowell scored in Exeter’s quarter-final victory and will be desperate to help his club into a first Champions Cup final, while Huget will be keen to remind supporters of his own talents having watched fellow wing Cheslin Kolbe steal the show with two tries against Ulster.

Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs) vs Thomas Ramos (Toulouse)

This pair shared the field for the final nine minutes of Scotland’s win over France in March and Saturday’s clash could be particularly tasty, with both full-backs in fine form.

Ramos has excelled since French rugby’s return, kicking 24 points in Toulouse’s Top 14 win over La Rochelle a fortnight ago before following that up with 16 more in their quarter-final win over Ulster last time out.

Hogg has added further international class to Exeter’s backline since his arrival from Glasgow Warriors last year and made 51 metres from his nine carries in their quarter-final triumph.

The Scotland captain would love to cap his first season in Devon with silverware – can Ramos stop him?