European Champions Cup semis: Jeremy Guscott on Wasps, Saracens & Leicester

Christian Wade, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi
Wasps winger Christian Wade, Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell and Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi
European Champions Cup semi-finals
Saracens v Wasps: Saturday 23 April, 15:00 BST, Madejski Stadium. Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and online, plus live text commentary online
Leicester v Racing 92: Sunday 24 April, 15:00 BST, City Ground. Live commentary on BBC Radio Leicester and online, plus live text commentary online

The latter stages of the European Champions Cup have had a distinctly Gallic accent in recent years.

Toulon beat Clermont in last season's final as Twickenham, the home of English rugby, hosted an all-French affair.

The same two sides met - with the same result - in the 2013 final in Dublin. And, just for good measure, Toulon also won the 2014 title.

This season, though, has seen an Anglo-Saxon backlash.

English teams fill three of the four semi-final slots, with Wasps and Saracens meeting in the first encounter on Saturday before Leicester take on Parisian big-spenders Racing 92 on Sunday.

So which players could ensure an English side become European champions for the first time since Wasps triumphed in 2007?

Wasps

Winger Christian Wade has captured the headlines in the build-up to the match with six tries in the 54-35 win over Worcester.

It may have been against one of the Premiership's weaker teams, but it was still an amazing feat - and I don't think he is back to 100% yet after the foot injury he picked up in the winter.

Christian Wade against Worcester
Christian Wade's six tries against Worcester matched the record for one player in a Premiership match, set by Saracens' Ryan Constable against Bedford in 2000

By the end of the season, he will be razor sharp and Wasps' director of rugby Dai Young, as you would expect, is banging the drum for Wade to be included on England's tour of Australia or the Saxons' trip to South Africa.

He may well get to go. But he will have to make an absolutely stellar case to displace Anthony Watson or Jack Nowell as England's first-choice wings.

Nathan Hughes finally completes his three-year residency qualification to become eligible for England this summer, and the Fiji-born number eight will relish the chance to prove himself against Saracens counterpart Billy Vunipola, who has become one of the mainstays of Eddie Jones' England.

It is very easy to spot what the 24-year-old brings to a well-balanced Wasps back row completed by George Smith and James Haskell.

Nathan Hughes
Nathan Hughes has represented Fiji's second-string Warriors side, but turned down a call-up to the senior side for the 2015 World Cup which would have made him ineligible for England

Hughes' eye for a gap, pace off the mark and ability to carry strongly with a firm hand-off means he can rampage in the loose.

However, it is also his attitude which impresses me. He works selflessly for the team and his discipline is watertight.

He only switched his sporting focus to rugby from hockey at 17 and there is even more to come from him as he develops.

Both he and Vunipola will say that the game is not about individuals but, having been there and done it, I know that facing your direct rival for an international spot brings an extra edge to the game for players.

Saracens

Fly-half Owen Farrell is having the best season of his career. He has had to adapt to playing inside centre internationally for England, giving him a wider understanding of the game - and he can now unlock a defence as well.

Owen Farrell

A few seasons ago he would have given the pass to put a team-mate into a gap. Now he is running through it himself.

Farrell's kicking and defence have always been exemplary, but now he is a threat with ball in hand too. The improvements have been incremental over the past three seasons, but now you see him wrapping around behind his backline, and supporting and getting fully involved.

Sarries' 22-12 win over Harlequins at Wembley last weekend gave us a chance to admire the contrasting styles of the Premiership champions' full-back Alex Goode against England incumbent Mike Brown.

Alex Goode
Alex Goode made more metres (164m) and had more carries (20) than any other player in Saracens' win over Quins

Brown is a very direct, physical player, committing fully to everything he does, whether it is fielding a high ball, racing across to make a cover tackle or running the ball back fast and hard at the opposition defence.

Goode is different. He is a well-balanced, elegant runner who has more guile than Brown and can anticipate what the field of play will look like in half a second's time.

His vision and awareness are more subtle qualities but mean he can pick the pass that will turn a half break into a try.

The verdict

Wasps' quarter-final win over Exeter was amazing. They were 13 points down with fewer than 20 minutes to play and fought their way back magnificently to win with daring, dashing rugby.

But we should not have been surprised - Wasps showed in their pool stage wins against Toulon and Leinster that they can score tries from anywhere.

By playing a free-running game you are dealing in very fine margins, however, and Wasps will have to nail every pass, every offload and every angle to beat Saracens.

There is a lot that can go wrong, especially in a game of that magnitude and tempo against a superbly structured and fit defence.

Billy Vunipola in the 2014 Heineken Cup final
The closest Saracens - and Billy Vunipola - have come to winning the tournament was defeat by Toulon in the 2014 final

Saracens' way of playing is not risk-free either, but it is a style they have been evolving and refining in reaching the last four at least in each of the past four seasons.

They have introduced a more expansive, attacking edge to their shrewd percentage-based game this season in anticipation of matches like this.

They could win the domestic title by playing as they did last season, but they have realised they have to score more tries if they want to reel in the really big prize - becoming champions of Europe. I think they will move a step closer to landing this one by beating Wasps.

Leicester

Freddie Burns
Freddie Burns has scored two tries in 13 Premiership appearances this season after failing to cross the line in 21 top-flight games last season

Having suffered a broken jaw and a bout of Bell's palsy since he arrived at Welford Road in 2014, fly-half Freddie Burns has not yet reached the heights with Leicester that he managed with previous club Gloucester.

He is not the most fluid of fly-halves. It does not seem that he can bring together the distribution, running and kicking from hand in a complete performance. And he does not consistently dominate games at the moment as he did in his final two seasons at Kingsholm.

But one part of his game that has been functioning perfectly is his kicking off the tee. He landed six out of six in the win over Northampton last weekend and did not look like missing. That could be key this weekend.

Since he made his comeback after 15 months out injured, I have seen England centre Manu Tuilagi make breaks and big hits, but also miss his man and drop balls.

His form has been patchy as he finds his feet, but he is a game-changer. He can shift the momentum of a match in a moment and that is a rare ability.

He is likely to be opposite France international Alexandre Dumoulin against Racing 92. The France international is no shrinking violet and theirs will be an intriguing duel.

The verdict

The Leicester-Racing semi-final will be tight and tactical rather than the fast and fluid encounter Wasps v Saracens promises to be.

Dan Carter
Dan Carter has missed only one of his 20 kicks at goal in Champions Cup action this season

It is a bit of myth that French sides don't travel well. They have been the strongest teams in this tournament in recent years and the influx of top foreign players into the Top 14 has helped shake that unwanted tradition.

But it is less than 30 miles from Welford Road to the City Ground in Nottingham where the match is being played and I expect it to be a bubbling atmosphere.

World Cup-winning New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter leads a galaxy of stars in the Racing line-up, but I think if Burns keeps up the accuracy of his goal-kicking Leicester will have enough to turn over the French side and set up an all-English final.

Top Stories