By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - When the European Cup quarter-final draw pitted Leinster against holders Saracens in a repeat of last year's final, rugby aficionados were counting the days, but now the game has finally arrived the marquee match has lost some of its sheen.
Instead of 50,000 baying fans, Dublin's Aviva Stadium will echo to the same scattered shouts and exhortations heard at any Saturday club game under coronavirus restrictions.
Rather than swaggering in as the all-conquering and possibly greatest club side in history, Saracens will arrive with their triumphs tarnished, having been kicked out of the Premiership for multiple salary cap breaches.
Nor will there be a showdown between Europe's two greatest flyhalves, with the suspended Owen Farrell watching from the stands while 35-year-old Johnny Sexton desperately tries to find the form that seems to have deserted him as he approaches the sunset of his career.
Even without the usual fanfare, however, Saturday's game should still be a monumental clash between two sets of high- class players and it has long been the focus of both clubs' season.
Ever since Saracens' automatic relegation was confirmed, this extended Premiership campaign effectively became a training regime for their European defence.
Champions in three of the last four campaigns, they will not be allowed to compete in Europe as a second tier club next season so the emotional investment in this year's competition is huge and the loss of talisman Farrell, serving a five-game ban for a high tackle, is the last thing they needed.
Regular fullback Alex Goode is expected to get a rare outing in the 10 shirt, though the decisive moments might yet be forged by probable bench flyhalf Manu Vunipola.
Leinster, seeking a fifth title and still stinging from last year's final defeat, also showed their priorities by keeping Sexton on the bench for an hour of last weekend's Pro-14 final victory over Ulster.
The winners will face either Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92, who also meet on Saturday, in the semis. The two French sides have lost five of the last seven finals between them and are desperate to shake off that loser tag.
Clermont, possibly more than any other club, will be hampered by the absence of fans, such is the incredible atmosphere usually generated at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
The third French contenders, Toulouse, are seeking a fifth title and, on the back of some scintillating, sometimes suicidal, rugby since the return to play, look favourites to beat Ulster on Sunday.
Less effervescent, but probably more effective, is the approach taken by runaway English Premiership leaders Exeter, who are odds-on to overcome misfiring Northampton.
Exeter have struggled to translate their domestic form into European success in recent years but, having added more variety to their strangulation approach and given valuable experience to their first-team fringe players since lockdown, they now look capable of going all the way.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)