French heavyweights eye European Cup glory
Toulon's Drew Mitchell (C) runs with the ball during the quarter final rugby union match against Leinster at the Mayol stadium on April 6, 2014 in Toulon, France - by Anne-Christine Poujoulat
Defending champions Toulon, the side expensively assembled by president Mourad Boudjellal and coached by Bernard Laporte, demonstrated their raw power in what turned out to be a comfortable 29-14 quarter-final victory over three-time title-holders Leinster on Sunday.
That win set the Jonny Wilkinson-captained club up with an April 27 semi-final in Marseille against Irish province Munster, who showed their intent by routing Toulouse 47-23 in their quarter-final.
A day before, last season's losing finalists Clermont will travel to Twickenham to play English league leaders Saracens in the first semi.
Clermont saw off Leicester 22-16 in their quarter-final for a 75th successive home victory, while Saracens overcame an Ulster side reduced to 14 men for all but four minutes of their match by 17-15.
"It's a major achievement to reach the semi-finals of such a great competition at this," said Clermont's Kiwi coach Vern Cotter, who will leave the hotbed of French rugby for the beleaguered Scotland national team next season.
"The first-half performance was the best we have produced for a long time.
"But our experience from previous big games such as last year's final was also crucial in the second half. It helped us both in attack and defence to raise our level when we really needed.
"We will celebrate this and then start preparing for the next challenge."
Toulon and Clermont sit second and third in the Top 14 behind leaders Montpellier, and while not mathematically qualified for a place in the top six for end-of season play-offs, should both realistically make it, with three games of regular season to play.
Given the relegation-focused nature of the elite French league, however, Toulon backs coach Pierre Mignoni said the club's focus would not immediately be on Munster.
"I'm not looking ahead too much to Munster, I'm more focused on Bordeaux," he said of the club's next Top 14 fixture.
"But it's sure better to host them than play away. We hope to play a great match."
- 'Public expects lot from us' -
President Boudjellal added: "I know the public expects a lot from us.
"We're going to have an incredible fixture list: we also have to ensure Top 14 play-off qualification.
"I'm not saying that we'll head to Bordeaux in flip-flops but it won't be with the same team as this evening."
Munster put four-time former champions Toulouse, who are currently sitting seventh in the Top 14, to the sword, running in six tries-to-two in an impressive performance that will mean they are no pushover for Toulon.
"Against a side like that and given the occasion that it was, it was without a doubt the best performance since I've been here," Munster coach Rob Penney said.
"The manner in which the boys went about their work was fantastic -- not once did they go into their shells or get nervous even when a little bit of pressure came on them in the second half.
"The spirit is there and is going to see this organisation well for a period of time."
Saracens coach Mark McCall was understandably thrilled at seeing his team scrape past Ulster at the fortress that is the Northern Irish province's Ravenhill.
"We were just lucky to get over the line at the end," he said of a match in which Ulster's Kiwi full back Jared Payne saw red for taking opposite number Alex Goode out in the air.
"To lose a man after five minutes and not only to show the effort that they showed -- which was incredible -- but to be as tactically astute and smart as they were, was a brilliant achievement."
But McCall said there were many things Saracens could learn like discipline.
"The thing that we are most disappointed in is at times we played some good rugby and at times our effort and our physicality was outstanding but we kept on undoing a lot of good work with some unbelievable indiscipline," he said.
"We gave away too many penalties and gave them field position for free.
"We kept them in the game, kept the crowd in the game and we were fortunate to get away with the win."