The final round of European Rugby Champions Cup action this calendar year is upon us. A weekend where a couple of teams will be condemned to an early European exit while other teams will look to fight for another day. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.
Pool 1: Massive fixture for Ulster
With La Rochelle on the brink of a home quarter final berth, the attention in this pool is whether Ulster Rugby can summon back to back wins against Harlequins to setup an intriguing January attempt to secure their own passage to the last eight of the competition.
Last weekend was a key victory for Ulster Rugby. A road trip played under extremely inclement weather conditions, Ulster’s pack led superbly by Ian Henderson set the platform and with Cooney on point in penalty kicking duties in the second half, this win should provide a much needed confidence booster after a mixed set of results in recent weeks.
The key point for Ulster Rugby is consistency. Can they produce a cohesive, efficient performance for the second week in a row. They face a Harlequins who are now out of European reckoning. A side who have nothing to lose. A dangerous prospect and a side who will look to redeem themselves after a subdued performance last weekend.
John Kingston has rung several changes. Danny Care’s absence is massive and his game management and ability to create line breaks from unstructured game is a threat that Ulster will be grateful not to have to face. Furthermore, Visser and Brown are consigned to the bench. This is a game for Ulster Rugby to grab by the horns. BP win for Ulster.
La Rochelle have being the standout team of this pool. Their quick tempo, offloading rugby style has had many neutrals salivating at the mouth. They face a Wasps side who like Harlequins will look for redemption but if played on a fast track, this could be an arduous fixture for Dai Young’s men.
Wasps could not be faulted for their perseverance or fight but last weekend, they were simply outgunned by a La Rochelle whose meters gained of 682 was an incredible stat but reflected the purpose of the side to run from deep with the back row particularly effective in breakdown and offloading duties.
This fixture provided that conditions suit could see yet more tries. Wasps to be more competitive but La Rochelle have embraced this competition and expect another road win. Wasps team selection may suggest that Aviva Premiership is the priority; if this plays out, La Rochelle will have a home quarter final locked in by the end of the weekend. BP win La Rochelle.
Pool 2: ASM Clermont look to consolidate top spot
After an emphatic 14-48 road trip over reigning champions Saracens, ASM Clermont will look to build a decisive lead at the top of this pool over the same opponents this weekend. The Monday game was bizarre in the extreme with Saracens uncharacteristically off the pace defensively. Raka, Fofana, Toeava reveled in the open space and the results were for all to see.
Saracens have an incredible arduous task ahead of them this weekend. They realistically need to win this encounter but given key injuries in the squad and the way the side folded so quickly does little to suggest that a win is on the cards. A loser point is not good enough for the reigning champions to top the pool so the focus will be to look at maximizing points return in their last two pool fixtures.
ASM Clermont this time of year are a joy to watch in this competition. Their abrasive pack, coupled with a cohesive back line is a joy to watch but trophies are not handed out this time of year. ERC disappointments too many and they need to put a performance like they produced last Monday at the business end of the season. Clermont to win but no bonus point as Saracens will produce a better cohesive defensive display. Both should emerge from the pool.
The other pool fixtures sees Northampton Saints start life without Jim Mallinder. The Director of Rugby was given his marching orders after ten great years of service but results in the last two seasons have being disappointing. The final straw was the humbling loss to Ospreys who entered the game with minimal confidence given their wretched Guinness Pro 14 campaign to date.
Ospreys piled on the misery at Franklin Gardens where the back line unit played probably their best cameo of the year. Evans at full back was superb in entering the line. Hasler was also prominent as well. The pack was abrasive and setup quality ruck ball for the back line to explode. This performance has being well overdue and Northampton Saints had simply no answers despite scoring five tries in the contest.
Northampton Saints will look to this fixture as an opportunity to run the rule over certain fringe or academy talent. Their European odyssey is over so it is time for the interim management to give the squad maximum game time in this competition to stake a claim for squad places in domestic league where they have faltered massively. Ospreys to continue their good run, a bonus point win here to make Pool 2 somewhat interesting.
Pool 3: Leinster look to take control of the pool
Aviva Stadium on Saturday will see Leinster Rugby look to seize total control of this pool. Their performance at Sandy Park last weekend was impressive and on another day, the Irish province could have had more than the two tries scored. The first twenty minutes in particular caught the eye, pack dominant with some excellent back line moves.
Exeter Chiefs refused to back down during the contest but apart from Scott, there was little in the way of back line creativity. The pack had their moments before and after half-time but they lacked game management and finesse to unlock a resolute Leinster defensive line. Pack driving consistently for the line, only to be pinged at the breakdown for holding on.
This fixture potentially could see Leinster Rugby explode into life. Aviva Stadium is a fast track and well suit Leinster Rugby perfectly. If the hosts pack can assert dominance again, then no reason why a bonus point win cannot be secured before the final quarter. Exeter Chiefs will be game and determined but there was distinct difference in levels last weekend. The manner in which Leinster seized control of the game in the final quarter to score ten unanswered points was devastatingly good and expect more of the same this weekend.
Glasgow Warriors travel to Montpelier in the other pool fixture. A case of what might have being last weekend only for incredibly petulant off the ball behavior to derail a superb opening period cameo. 22-5 up when Turner had the red mist moment and the French side’s pack were not to be asked twice to establish the platform. Two sin bins for Warriors in that opening period opens issues on discipline for Dave Rennie to address.
The mindset of Glasgow Warriors will be interesting to see. They are out of the competition (pretty much) and their approach to the contest will be key, hope they bring their expansive game plan to the contest but with Guinness Pro 14 league ambitions shining bright, will management decide to rest first choice stars. Nadolo looks poised to have another keynote cameo and I think the hosts will win with a bonus point albeit hard fought til the end.
Pool 4: Backs to the wall for Leicester Tigers
An intriguing fixture at Welford Road for Leicester Tigers. A week where Matt O’Connor has not being shy about his thoughts on Munster’s game plan and physicality, Tigers are in must win territory. They were horrendously off the pace again in Thomond Park this year like last season. Munster were much more cohesive and their bonus point win was well merited.
This is a fixture where Munster Rugby will look to learn plenty on how far the side has matured. They were in a similar position last year, a shutout win against Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park then followed a quite flat, subdued performance ending up in a narrow loss. The last gasp kick that won the game for Leicester Tigers was not the issue, it was the performance levels which worried Munster management on that day.
Leicester Tigers’ pack will look to impose their will on this fixture and the Munster Rugby front five need to embrace the challenge, something that they struggled with in this fixture last year. The half-back tussle is fascinating. Youngs and Ford will look to unleash the likes of May in the back line but they will be the first to realize that their game plan has to vary considerably compared to last weekend. Ford’s restarts beggared belief, first four restarts hit Stander, enough said.
This is going to be an arm wrestle. Munster Rugby have a glorious opportunity to seize control of this pool but given the comments of the O’Connor, think perhaps discipline may become an issue again. A narrow win for the Tigers but Munster Rugby to leave with a loser bonus point. A win for Munster Rugby and the pool is in firm control, a superb fixture to look forward to.
The other pool fixture sees Racing 92 look to avenge a surprising loss to Castres last weekend. Team selection will be interesting. Castres have had a tendency to field second string squads for ERC road trips and I do not suspect this policy will change thus allowing Racing 92 to secure a bonus point win. The loss last week to Castres is damaging. A pool which could be evenly poised heading into the New Year.
Pool 5: Bath and Scarlets look to make lost ground
A massive fixture for Bath Rugby at the Recreational Ground. Given their late loss to Toulon, this is a massive opportunity for the West Country side to exact revenge and potentially top the pool heading into Christmas. Toulon showed the good, the bad and the very ugly (Ashton kick clanger) but credit where credit is due, they were patient at the end to create the game winning try.
Bath Rugby must face Toulon without the services of Toby Faletau who looks destined to be on the sidelines for the next couple of months. His impact last weekend was missed when withdrawn as his work rate, breakdown and ball carrying were on point. Loew and other players in the pack need to step up given this injury blow. Priestland at ten and Joseph at thirteen need to provide the game management and line break expertise to unlock a Toulon defense who were shaky in their opening road trip to Benetton Rugby.
Bath Rugby and fans will have earmarked this fixture since the start of the season. An incredible atmosphere should be generated in the Rec and I expect the home side to win this game in a tight encounter. Toulon to show all their brilliance and inconsistencies in this fixture again, a team who have undoubted star quality but the cohesion is a serious issue.
Scarlets need to produce a performance on the road at Benetton. The display last weekend at home had flashes of brilliance but then serious lapses in defensive and attacking play allowed the Italians a foothold in the game with fourteen players. Sloppy performance and Pivac surely read the riot act during video analysis at the start of this week.
Benetton Rugby are progressively improving. Their defensive structures were on point even down a player and they scored four excellent tries to keep themselves in the game. Their home performance needs more pack platform and the half-backs need to provide some variety in their kick game to unsettle and unbalance this Scarlets side. They cannot force the issue deep in their own half, otherwise with the breakdown threats of the visitors, points will be leaked.
I said at the start of this series of games that Scarlets needed ten points to seriously get back into pool contention. Given the enormity of the five points, Scarlets will produce an efficient performance to achieve this goal. The fixture against Bath at the Rec looks fascinating already; winner potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition.