Play-off pressure mounts across Europe

Marcus Smith, Owen Farrell and Henry Slade 13/11/2021
The pressure is mounting across Europe as the domestic leagues reach the business end with semi-finals and knock-outs this weekend.

The pressure is mounting across Europe as the domestic leagues reach the business end with semi-finals and knock-outs this weekend.

In Gallagher Premiership and United Rugby Championship it is semi-final time, while over in the Top 14, the play-offs begin in earnest.

And there is a great deal of Guinness Six Nations interest with some big head-to-heads and national team rivalries.


The Premiership sees a pair of local derbies at the semi-final stage as Leicester Tigers host Northampton Saints while Saracens entertain Harlequins.

It is an opposition of styles in both games, with the clinical power games of Tigers and Saracens looking to get the better of the more expansive Saints and Quins.

And the individual duals at fly-half are mouth-watering to say the least. At StoneX Stadium, Saracens will be marshalled by England skipper Owen Farrell, fit again after missing the Championship through injury.

He will be up against Marcus Smith, a potential rival for the England No.10 jersey, or more like a midfield colleague on the summer tour of Australia.

Against the Wallabies, Farrell and Smith’s partnership could flourish, but for one week at least, they will be looking to get one over on the other.

In the pack, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola will both be looking to make an impact, Vunipola having been recalled for a recent England training camp after Marler featured during the Guinness Six Nations.

Top of England’s loosehead pecking order is Ellis Genge though, who will be a key figure for Leicester against Saints.

That game also features a big battle at ten, George Ford, England’s other fly-half, up against Wales skipper Dan Biggar.

Just as intriguing are the two young men at full-back, Freddie Steward having emerged on the Test scene over the past 12 months, while Saints’ Tommy Freeman looks set to join him on the international stage sooner rather than later, potentially in the midfield rather than the No.15 jersey.

With a place at Twickenham on the line, Eddie Jones will be keeping a close eye on those involved to see if they can stake a claim for the Wallabies tour.


The United Rugby Championship is a battle between Ireland and South Africa as Leinster play host to the Bulls while Ulster travel to the Stormers.

In the absence of Ronan Kelleher, Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan will be looking to prove that he can shine on the biggest stage, having finished the Guinness Six Nations as Ireland’s starting No.2.

Elsewhere Jordan Larmour gets a chance to show what he can do after not featuring in the Heineken Champions Cup final, while Jimmy O’Brien shifts to full-back ahead of a potential Ireland debut this summer.

From an Ireland perspective, skipper Iain Henderson faces a huge battle away to a formidable Stormers side packed full of Springbok talent.

After last week’s win over Munster however, all eyes will be on James Hume, the outside centre who was so devastating at the Kingspan Stadium.

The 23-year-old made his Ireland debut last summer and will be pushing for more game time despite the competition in the midfield for Andy Farrell’s team.


The crowning moment of France’s Grand Slam clincher against England came when Grégory Alldritt offloaded to Antoine Dupont for the match-winning try in Paris.

On Saturday the two former Auch youngsters will face off as French champions Toulouse host European champions La Rochelle.

No.8 Alldritt might be one of the few men who could stake a claim for Dupont’s crown as the world’s best player and he will do his cause no harm if he can lead La Rochelle to a win away to the champions.

The forward battle should play a huge part, with La Rochelle arguably possessing the most powerful pack in the game.

As well as Grand Slam hero Uini Atonio, who will relish going up against France colleague Cyril Baille, there is also an interesting match-up at hooker where Julien Marchand and Peato Mauvaka are currently the top dogs for Les Bleus.

Pierre Bourgarit has Test experience and his recent form means that the Toulouse pair will have to be at their very best to get the better of him.

The second barrage sees Bordeaux-Bègles welcome Racing 92 to Stade Chaban Delmas, with neither side coming into the game in top form.

Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios called out some of his Test players this week and will be looking for a response from Cameron Woki and Matthieu Jalibert in particular.

Racing are still sweating over the fitness of Scotland’s Finn Russell, but have the threat of Gaël Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa in their back line if they can gain at least parity up front.

The away team have won the last five meetings between the sides, potentially a good omen for Fickou and Racing.