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Heineken Champions Cup semi-final previews: Saracens and Exeter Chiefs face mouth-watering Anglo-French battles as they look to set up all-English European Cup final
You can watch both games from the semi-finals of the Champions Cup live on BT Sport as Saracens, Racing 92, Exeter Chiefs and Toulouse battle it out for a place in the final.
England versus France. A historic confrontation that has been played out on battlefields across Europe for the past thousand years.
Now the latest instalment of the storied rivalry will play out in front of the BT Sport cameras as Premiership titans Saracens and Exeter Chiefs take on Top 14 giants Racing 92 and Toulouse for a place in the final of European rugby's most prestigious club competition.
It will be the first all Anglo-French semi-final line-up in the Heineken Champions Cup since 2016 and you can watch both acts of the drama live on BT Sport as four clubs with very contrasting histories go to war for the chance to be crowned kings of Europe.
Racing 92 v Saracens
Saturday 26 September, 12.30pm
Live Stream – BTSport.com & BT Sport app
TV - BT Sport 3HD
It was supposed to be the end of an era. The final curtain call for one of the greatest rugby dynasties of all time.
Without their suspended talisman Owen Farrell, few gave Saracens a fighting chance at beating a Leinster side who had not lost a single match in any competition since the 2019 Champions Cup final between the two sides.
Instead, the reigning champions defied the odds and silenced the naysayers to keep the remarkable defence of their European crown alive with a memorable victory over the competition's favorites in Dublin.
It was a typically robust performance from a Saracens side not accustomed to their pre-match underdog tag.
Leinster had won 25 matches since losing to Saracens in the final in Newcastle last year, while the holders have lost the likes of George Kruis, Will Skelton, Ben Earl and Ben Spencer as they cut costs for next year in the Championship.
My Greatest - Maro Itoje interview
Maro Itoje revisits his first European Cup triumph as Saracens beat Racing 92 in Spain to lift the Champions Cup for the first time in their history.
In terms of personnel, the Londoners may be depleted from last season, but the Wolfpack spirit that inspired them to the summit of club rugby remains as strong as ever.
Saracens took the lead through the boot of Alex Goode inside two minutes and never looked back.
Goode added a further 16 points, including a wonderful try. Farrell who?
“This group of players never ceases to amaze,” said director of rugby Mark McCall.
“That they could produce a performance of that quality says a lot about them. We will have to do it again next week in France [against Racing 92] and it is another opportunity for us.”
Leinster head coach Stuart Lancaster suggested last Saturday may be Saracens' 'last dance'. Now they face a penultimate dance as they prepare to play Racing for a place in the final.
Racing 92 await the reigning champions in the last four after they saw off fellow French side Clermont Auvergne in the day's later quarter-final.
The two semi-finalists are no strangers to each other having both emerged from pool one, Racing as winners and Sarries as runners-up.
The challenge now for Saracens is can they produce another gargantuan performance just seven days after going to the well against Leinster?
Saturday's victory in Dublin saw them draw on every last drop of energy and emotion available to get over the line. How much more is left in the tank?
Racing, who defeated Saracens on the opening weekend of the Champions Cup this season but lost the return in the final round of pool-stage games, will demand even more drive and focus.
“We are going to have to come down, relax and then go again,” said Sarries scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth.
“We will face a massive French team with a huge budget and stars galore who are desperate to win this competition. We know what level of emotion and intensity we need to bring."
The success against Leinster was built on defence, making more than twice as many tackles as their opponents with just 37% ball possession.
Maro Itoje and captain Brad Barritt made an eye-watering 35 tackles between them and the champions will have to produce another heroic defensive stand if they are to keep Racing's star-studded backline quiet.
Nobody has beaten more defenders than New Zealand-born centre Virimi Vakatawa, while his France teammate Teddy Thomas leads the competition for clean breaks made.
Marshalling the troops will be Finn Russell, somebody who will be no stranger to Saracens' England contingent after the mercurial fly-half wreaked havoc in the Calcutta Cup last season.
If Sarries are to maintain their quest for a fourth European crown in five years they will have to do what no side has done since May 2019: beat Racing at the Paris La Defense Arena.
The Parisians have won 10 of their last 11 home games in the Champions Cup, including a 30-10 triumph over Saracens in the curtain raiser to this season's competition.
Exeter Chiefs v Toulouse
Saturday 26 September, 3.15pm
Live Stream – BTSport.com & BT Sport app
TV - BT Sport 3HD
The second semi-final is a case of old versus new as European aristocrats Toulouse meet new kids on the block Exeter Chiefs.
The Chiefs, mainstays of English rugby's second tier until 10 years ago, are in unfamiliar territory.
This the Devonians' first foray into the last four of Europe's premier club competition and they could not ask for a more fitting opponent as they welcome European rugby royalty to Sandy Park.
By contrast, Saturday will be a 12th semi-final appearance for Toulouse. The French giants are bidding for a record fifth Champions Cup crown, which would take them clear of Leinster as the competition's most successful club.
Toulouse have reached the final of Europe's elite competition on six separate occasions, but their last outing came way back in 2010 - the same year Exeter were promoted to the Premiership for the first time.
After years spent on the fringes of European rugby, Toulouse are back to their brilliant best.
With a cast of talent that is the envy of Europe, there is a growing sense that the famous old club are well-primed to end their 10-year wait for another shot at lifting the trophy.
There's added incentive for Toulouse boss Ugo Mola, who is looking to create a bit of history of his own.
A winner with Toulouse in 1996, the 47-year-old is in line to become only the second person ever - after Leinster’s Leo Cullen - to have won the tournament both as a player and as a head coach.
Toulouse were one of only two sides to win all six pool matches this season. The French giants topped pool five by a whopping 13 points, comfortably ahead of nearest challengers Gloucester, and their free-flowing brand of rugby lit up the competition before its suspension.
Half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntmack are the conductors of a backline orchestra that includes South Africain pocket-rocket and one-man highlight reel, winger Cheslin Kolbe.
The diminutive winger scored a brace of tries as Toulouse brushed past Ulster to set up a mouth-watering winner-takes-all clash in south west England.
The Top 14 giants are stacked with talent from 1 to 15 and Chiefs boss Rob Baxter knows his well-drilled outfit will have to be on their mettle to repel the French firepower on Saturday afternoon.
The Chiefs have been in awesome form in domestic competition, winning every game since the restart until they ran into a rampant Saracens side prior to beating Northampton.
Notwithstanding that defeat, they are 12 points clear in the league and are firm favourites to win the Premiership for the first time since 2017 - but a first taste of European glory has to be this season's priority.
Exeter booked their place in the last four with victory over Premiership rivals Northampton and Baxter was thankful for the examination ahead of what is sure to be a formidable test of their credentials.
“It is exactly what you want and I think it is what we need," said Baxter looking ahead to the weekend.
“The group of players involved today need a really tough, really exciting game because the way the Premiership has turned out, we got a couple of tough games under our belt early on with Leicester and Sale but then it has ended up that this group has played against rotated teams a little bit more than the midweek team."
So often the bully boys of English rugby, Exeter have struggled to translate their power game onto the European stage until this season.
Scotland internationals Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray were brought in to help take the Chiefs to the next level and the duo have done just that.
Gray completed 18 out of 18 tackles against the Saints last weekend taking his match average for the competition to an astonishing 19.8 per game.
With England internationals Jack Nowell and Henry Slade either side of Hogg, Chiefs have a stacked backline to compliment a world-class pack that includes the competition's leading try scorer, Sam Simmonds.
Can Exeter upset the old guard and edge one step closer to history, or will Toulouse prove Sandy Park party-poopers and book their place in this year's St James' Park final?
There's also the prospect of an all-English final in the Challenge Cup as Bristol Bears take on Bordeaux before Toulon play host to Leicester Tigers - with both games live and exclusive on BT Sport.
BT Sport is the only place you can watch every single game from the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup. If you're not already a subscriber, click here to see our list of packages.