THERE’S LITTLE DOUBT about the standout tie in the Champions Cup round-of-16 on Easter weekend.

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Munster hosting Toulouse at Thomond Park really should involve a sold-out crowd lighting up Limerick but, sadly, it will be behind closed doors instead. Even still, it promises to be a European epic on the weekend of 2/3/4 April.

Like Leinster, Munster knew they would have a home tie before today’s draw but this is the toughest fixture they could have been handed. Toulouse, current leaders of the Top 14, have been in sizzling form once again this season.

France out-half Romain Ntamack is among their stars and has just recovered from a broken jaw, while Toulouse also have big names like Cheslin Kolbe, Antoine Dupont, Julien Marchand, and Charlie Faumuina. Fullback Thomas Ramos has been ruled out for the next six weeks or so with injury but they have depth across the squad. Munster did hammer Toulouse at Thomond Park in knock-out ties in 2014 and 2017, but Ugo Mola’s men are very much a revived force in recent years.

Of course, Munster have a sprinkling of stardust of their own, particularly with Joey Carbery now starting to build match fitness. We will see him back in the starting XV in the coming weeks and his return is a major boost for games like the Toulouse one.

Fixture dates and kick-off times are still to be confirmed for the European knock-out games, but Munster v Toulouse is certain to draw a big TV audience. 

If Johann van Graan’s side can overcome the challenge, an away quarter-final against either Clermont or Wasps awaits. Neither of those would be straightforward but Munster have already won in Clermont this season and would back themselves not to give Wasps the kind of opportunities they thrive on.

Antoine Dupont is one of Toulouse’s star names. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Similarly, Leinster will be away in the quarter-finals on 9/10/11 April if they win their round-of-16 tie the weekend before. Leo Cullen’s men have been drawn against Toulon in Dublin.

These European knock-out games take place the weekend after the Pro14 final between Munster and Leinster, so it will be intriguing to note how the provinces select for that decider – which comes directly after a busy fortnight of Six Nations action. Van Graan and Cullen seem unlikely to be at completely full-strength for both the final and in the Champions Cup a week later.

Either way, Leinster should have too much quality for Toulon, who have impressed at times to sit sixth in the Top 14 and have a squad that combines youthful talent like out-half Louis Carbonel with experienced heads like 38-year-old Ma’a Nonu.

If Leinster jump that hurdle at home in Dublin, they look likely to be facing a quarter-final trip to Exeter. The Premiership side have to overcome Lyon at home to secure their own quarter-final spot, but it would be fascinating to see Leinster taking on the reigning champions on their patch.

Cullen’s men have suffered major European disappointment at the hands of English opposition in Saracens in recent years, so it would be an exciting new challenge against Rob Baxter’s men if they both reach the last eight. If Lyon win that round-of-16 tie, then Leinster would be away in France if they also beat Toulon.

EPCR will carry out a further draw following the quarter-finals, so we don’t know yet if Munster and Leinster are on a semi-final collision course but they certainly have plenty of hard work ahead of them to reach the final four.

Meanwhile, Ulster and Connacht will be battling it out in the Challenge Cup as they aim to pick up silverware before the end of the season. Both have been drawn away in the round-of-16.

Bundee Aki and Connacht will travel to Leicester. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Connacht will visit Steve Borthwick’s Leicester at Welford Road on the weekend of 2/3/4 April and will be aware that the Tigers’ home form has been strong in recent times, with wins over London Irish, Wasps, and Worcester in the past month.

If Andy Friend’s men can pull off a big win on the road, they will have a winnable home quarter-final against either the Ospreys or Newcastle. Connacht are the most experienced Challenge Cup team but they have yet to win it, so there is plenty of motivation there.

Ulster have a European title to their name but it dates back to 1999 in the Heineken Cup, while their most recent trophy came in the Celtic League in 2006. As such, Dan McFarland will be hungry to be in the hunt in the Challenge Cup final, scheduled to take place in Marseille on 22 May. 

With a couple of Pro14 dead rubbers ahead in the coming fortnight, Ulster will be focusing much of their attention on their round-of-16 European clash away to Harlequins.

McFarland’s men beat the Premiership outfit home and away in the Champions Cup pool stages last season, but Quins have enjoyed an upturn in form since Paul Gustard’s departure in January, winning five of their last six games to leave them third in the English top flight.

A full-strength Ulster will back themselves to win away, which would ensure another away game in the quarter-finals against either Northampton or the Dragons the following weekend.

None of the Irish provinces have been handed particularly favourable draws but all will head into April with strong European ambitions.