After all the excitement of the Autumn International series in November, we are quickly back into European Cup mode with two critical fixtures looming large which will decide who qualifies for the quarter final phase of the competition. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action and expects some fireworks.
Pool 1: La Rochelle in control
A key series of fixtures in this pool. La Rochelle could conceivably have one foot in the quarter final if they beat Wasps with a bonus point performance. The debutantes have being outstanding in their first two European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures. Their speed and ability to create line breaks from anywhere on the park has being to the fore.
La Rochelle’s back row and three quarters have caught the eye in these opening rounds. Gourdon and Vito in the back row are excellent ball carriers with physicality to boot in defensive and breakdown duties. Sinzelle and Aguillon in the three quarters against Ulster Rugby were compact defensively but their pace and speed with ball in hand caused massive issues for the Irish province.
This is a daunting trip for Wasps. The injury list is easing but this a game where all players on duty need to be on it for the entire contest. La Rochelle with a fervent home crowd support will look to establish their dominance early and it is imperative that the likes of Launchbury, Haskell and Hughes do not allow this to happen.
Wade in the back line is always a threat but I do fear for Wasps in the pack exchanges. La Rochelle’s mobility and physicality in the pack could turn the screw after the restart. La Rochelle win here. If Wasps come away with a loser point, then it will be considered a good result.
Ulster Rugby travel to the Stoop to face a revitalized Harlequins side fresh from defeating London rivals Saracens in domestic action last weekend. The manner of the result (late Visser try) will surely provide timely momentum for John Kingston’s charges. One point in the pool so far but form has picked up since the start of this competition.
Danny Care has being outstanding in recent weeks, controlling games and his contribution last weekend was sublime setting up all three tries. Robshaw was also prominent last weekend with a tigerish display at the breakdown with several steals to boot. In the Stoop, the home support will look for the same again.
Les Kiss announced a couple of key pack signings in recent weeks next season. Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy will arrive to bolster a pack who has had their struggles this season. The pack performance last weekend at Rodney Parade will hardly inspire confidence of a much sought after road trip. The scrum was a shambles, line out had periodic issues.
The concentration lapses were exposed again last weekend immediately after superb passages of play to score some quality tries. The back line were dangerous with ball in hand but their hard work was undermined by terrible defensive lapses and restarts. This fixture will be decided on which side can be more consistent on the day, nod to Harlequins given their recent upturn in form.
Pool 2: Top two slug it out at the Allianz
The top billing game of the round surely is the visit of ASM Clermont to reigning champions Saracens who are suffering an injury crisis ahead of the game. Disappointing set of results recently with three defeats on the bounce in the Aviva Premiership but with the likes of Brit, Williams, Vunipola, Itoje out, the side have had to go deep into the squad for replacements.
ASM Clermont’s road trip woes continue this season domestically. Head coach leveling blame to players for lack of work rate and responsibility. The home form is as strong as it has ever being but surely this is a fixture where the French side will fancy their chances of winning given the injury list of their opponents.
Huge onus on the pack to setup the platform. Lee, Kayser, Van Der Merwe are key players in the pack, they need to provide front foot ball. The back line has lacked cohesion at times but with the talented Abendandon, Lamerat and Lopez, an intriguing fixture beckons. Slight edge to Saracens given their home record but ASM Clermont could nick this.
Northampton and Ospreys prop up the pool and realistically one of these sides need to take a clean sweep this month to put any pressure on the front two. Northampton Saints have being wholly inconsistent in recent weeks, sliding down the Aviva Premiership at a rate of knots and this break from domestic action will be gratefully received.
Saints will fancy their chances against an Ospreys side devoid of confidence and cohesion after another heavy loss to Munster Rugby on the road last weekend in Guinness Pro 14 action. The good news for Ospreys is the return of their Welsh international contingent and should improve the performance levels in the pack and half back positions particularly.
A key opening quarter beckons at Franklin Gardens. Ospreys will look to keep the game tight and settle into the contest while Northampton Saints will look to attack on the front foot.
Wood, Hartley, Lawes to provide the leadership and drive to secure the home win. If the Saints can produce an effective opening quarter, expect a bonus point win. Ospreys need to regroup fast and will look to their most recent European road trip to Saracens as solace but given the results since, the home side are favored.
Pool 3: Sandy Park fixture pivotal
A pivotal fixture in Exeter this weekend. Leinster Rugby travel to Exeter Chiefs in a top of the table clash, a road win here and surely Leinster Rugby will hit a decisive in the outcome of this pool but it is going to be incredibly tough given the form of the reigning Aviva Premiership champions.
The Exeter Chiefs have beaten Saracens on the road and destroyed Bath Rugby last weekend with a cohesive pack orientated performance. The back line also got on the act with some superb line breaks as well. A superb performance ahead of this fixture.
Leinster Rugby come into this fixture with good form as well. They have hammered the Dragons at home and then last weekend had to stay patient for a hour against Benetton Rugby before unleashing a couple of well worked tries to secure the bonus point.
James Lowe’s debut could not have gone any better and his all round performance may have secured his starting berth. An exciting player with ball in hand, interesting to see his defensive nous as the hosts will have their periods of pressure this weekend. The pack battle should be explosive, two well drilled sets and the scrum exchanges early will be pivotal.
This is a very tough fixture to call. Sandy Park will be hopping, great atmosphere assured and how Leinster Rugby quell the home support will go a long way to deciding this fixture.
Steenson at ten will play a major part of the Exeter Chiefs game plan, his kicking from hand will need to be on point and look to pin Leinster Rugby deep into their own territory early doors. Slight edge to Exeter Chiefs but Leinster Rugby are well capable of securing the win here provided that their pack is on point early doors.
Glasgow Warriors have taken the Guinness Pro 14 by storm. Ten wins from ten in the league, virtually secured a playoff berth already with their all conquering expansive style of play.
However, this expansive style of play has not being seen this season in ERC action. Glasgow have being second best against Exeter Chiefs and Leinster Rugby where the pack has being exposed at scrum time conceding penalties and territory in spades. Montpelier arrive to Scotstoun and one wonders about their appetite for battle this weekend given their two early losses in the pool already.
The home loss to Exeter Chiefs hurt massively in the last round but with the threat of Nadolo and Steyn out wide, you can never discount the French threat but I would not be surprised if Montpelier play fringe players in this fixture to freshen the side up ahead of the home fixture the following weekend. Glasgow Warriors to win with a bonus point here, no question.
Pool 4: Munster and Leicester showdown
Thomond Park on Saturday night will provide decisive clues on the direction of this pool. With Racing 92 potentially eyeing up a ten point haul against a Castres side who now quite frankly are going to fulfill fixtures here on out, either Munster or Leicester know that a win is a must this weekend.
Leicester Tigers will have revenge on their mind after last season’s’ visit to the Irish province. A blowout loss, no points scored which prompted further coaching changes mid-season. Matt O’Connor has come into the club again and steadied the ship with assertive pack play and the emergence of back line potential with new signing Jonny May in superb form.
I greatly admire the Leicester Tigers. Their style of play is very much akin to Munster Rugby. Their abrasive pack orientated style sets the platform. Tom and Ben Youngs provide leadership and with George Ford at ten continuing to develop into a world class ten, the side is coming to Thomond Park full of intent and looking to right the wrongs of last season.
Munster Rugby’s side will have an interesting look to it this weekend. The thirteen jersey will be duly noted given the list of injuries in the position. No Earls, Farrell to call upon so potentially Sam Arnold will make his European debut.
Zebo’s fitness is key for Munster; his flair and creativity to unlock defenses will be required. The pack will need to be on point as well with discipline the key mantra. The scrum has gone well in recent weeks and it needs to be again this weekend. The line out will need to be varied to allow Murray and Keatley to launch attacks and keep their opposition off balance.
An intriguing fixture, do not see any bonus point try performances here. A pack stalemate could ensue with a slight edge to Munster Rugby but Leicester Tigers will feel that a loser bonus point will be satisfactory with confidence high to win at Welford Road the following weekend. BT Sports, a game for the pack purists this. Thomond Park, love it. Roll on Saturday!
Pool 5: Scarlets to gain ground, Toulon to consolidate
Scarlets are playing catch-up in this pool and a home fixture against Benetton Rugby requires the minimum five points to put pressure on the top two teams in the pool. Benetton come into this contest on the back of a heavy loss to Leinster Rugby, a fixture where they were in touch for a hour until a sin bin opened the game up.
Scarlets will hope for good weather conditions to launch their expansive play but this will require patience to unlock a well organized Italian defensive outfit. A win to be secured and it could take until the final quarter for Scarlets to secure the fourth try of the contest. Scarlets win.
Toulon are an enigma this season, good talent at the club but there has being a lack of cohesion in the overall team dynamic. Bath Rugby have nothing to lose going to the Stade Mayol.
They stifled Scarlets in horrific weather condition to secure a pivotal road trip win in the last round. Bath Rugby will look to Charteris, Faletau to lead from the front and with an exciting back line containing Watson, Brew and Priestland from half-back, they are a threat.
Toulon if provided with a dry day could wreck havoc with the likes of Nonu and Basteraud to the fore. Toulon to win but there will be periods where cohesion is not quite there. A pool which could have to wait until January to determine who advances to the last eight.
Scarlets are not out of this pool and their trip to Bath Rugby looks like a playoff eliminator already!