In stark contrast to the European Challenge Cup, the Heineken Champions Cup has provided endless moments of skill, controversy and suspense. This fifth round of the pool phase will be no different and I think there could well be twists and turns in the playoff picture by Sunday night. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the fixture list.
Round 2. The round which provides contrasting emotions. A round where the stronger teams will gain momentum and look with confidence to the December fixtures. A round where teams are in make or break territory knowing that December will define their European season. A round where several teams will be effectively knocked out of contention in the tournament prompting December team selections which will allow their opposition to eye bonus try point territory. Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints some key talking points ahead of this weekend.
Must Win Games
Two prominent Guinness Pro 14 teams are in must win territory this weekend. Scarlets entertain Bath Rugby tomorrow night. A game which the reigning Guinness Pro 12 champions have to win to realistically have any chance of quarter final progression. The Toulon game tempo was exhilarating and one wonders what the short turnaround (fixture played last Sunday) will effect the Welsh region. Scarlets showed massive upside after a very shaky opening against Toulon.
Scarlets of a couple of years ago would have rolled over but this squad with Pivac are a different animal. Scarlets showed their customary expansive style of play with excellent efforts from Halfpenny and McNicholls but can they improve their defensive line speed which was so static early doors in this encounter? Bath Rugby come into the fixture with a professional win over Benetton Rugby; no bonus point secured. This is such an intriguing fixture; both sides will look to go wide at the earliest opportunity but with inclement weather conditions called, this will be a night for the pack and with Louw banned, one would give the nod to the hosts to win a close encounter.
Glasgow Warriors have hit a pivotal point to their season and pinpointed their Achilles heel. It will be interesting to see how Dave Rennie and coaching staff remedy the front five issues seen in full effect against the Exeter Chiefs last weekend. The loss will have hurt massively; superb opening and two tries on the board but the pack were gradually put under the cosh and the second half was a demolition derby of their pack.
The scrum dominance of the Chiefs was incredible. Leinster Rugby will fancy their chances of turning Glasgow Warriors over in the set piece so it is up to the front three aided by their second row to compete and look to go at least 50/50 in the set piece to give the team some form of platform. The attacking intent is evident in the number of tries scored in the Guinness Pro 14 league this season but ERC Cup is a step above and Glasgow Warriors need to send out a statement to everyone that they are a true contender for European honors this season.
Leinster Rugby come into the game with minimum pressure with the hosts in must win territory. Leinster Rugby’s win against Montpellier was a hard earned win. Superb work rate defensively and clinical execution in the red zone. Glasgow Warriors need to provide early impetus to get their home crowd involved. If they can, then a result is possible but Leinster Rugby have several weapons in the pack and back line and the nod goes to Leinster Rugby particularly if Johnny Sexton returns to the first team fold. Glasgow Warriors at Saturday 3pm may face an insurmountable battle to get to the last eight. Expect fireworks!
French Team Road Trip Approach
Saturday sees Castres, Racing 92 and Toulon on their opening road trip of the ERC season. While Toulon should have enough to stave off a determined Benetton Rugby in Italy, question marks on the squad selection of Castres and Racing 92 for their games at Leicester Rugby and Munster Rugby will continue until official press releases. Castres have being notorious for giving the opening European Cup home game a rattle only to then name squads on the road with mostly fringe and academy players resulting in opposition bonus point wins.
Leicester Tigers will look to secure a bonus point try performance on Saturday; the omens look good for the hosts who showed good moments in their loss to Racing 92 last weekend. May on the wing continues to show good form with another try. Good expansive play setup the opening Hamilton try. The negative points were how Racing 92 got back into the contest; the team were unable to stem the offloading play of Nakarawa and three tries were conceded quickly in the opening period. Tigers did make adjustments to stem the tide but the damage was done and significantly their attacking threat was negated as well. Ford at ten needs to provide an efficient performance to launch a pacy back line against a Castres side who should have beat Munster Rugby last weekend.
Castres will look again to their pack to secure a solid platform, the back line showed moments but it was mostly due to Munster Rugby defensive lapses. Leicester Tigers for me hold all the aces here; a first team selection versus an opponent who will rotate their squad members who impressed last weekend. Tigers with a five point haul. Racing 92 on the other hand have unfinished business with Munster Rugby at Thomond Park. The side failed to deliver a significant blow against the Irish province last season in either pool phase fixture and when you consider the squad assembled, that is simply unacceptable. The Fiji second row will be an interesting side-note to the fixture but Racing 92 have other superb players who given their opportunity will punish Munster Rugby inaccuracy.
Will Dan Carter play? Nyanga. Rokocoko, Lambie and Machenaud are players who could turn this game with decisive game winning moments of brilliance. Munster Rugby have points to prove this weekend. The front row squad depth chart is weak. The mere fact that Dave Kilcoyne played the full eighty minutes spoke volumes. The second row options are thin off the ground too. Kleyn looks likely to miss out again so Billy Holland’s partner in the second row remains uncertain. Copeland has attempted to fill the void as well as debutante Mark Flanagan. Options are limited until Kleyn, O’Shea and Grobler come back into the squad.
There are question marks around the ten position. Bleyendaal looks unavailable so it is between Keatley and Hanrahan. Keatley probably will start but Hanrahan’s cameo in the second half could be absolutely pivotal in closing out the contest. The center partnership of Farrell and Scannell has not fired at all cylinders yet; this weekend would be a good time to start. Farrell needs to take up more ball into contact to vary his game; inclined to skip pass too often and was picked off by Castres last weekend. Zebo, Earls and Sweetnam will look for ball to work with but with inclement weather conditions, a game of the packs and there is a genuine concern with Munster’s pack. Heart ruling the head here, Munster to edge this encounter but the pack and the set piece cohesion is a concern particularly if Racing 92 field a strong side.
Give Me Wins
No disrespect to the Ospreys or Northampton Saints but this weekend spells serious danger. Ospreys travel to face a Saracens side who demolished Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens. The dominance was emphatic on all facets of play; tries were created at ever increasing frequency. Farrell received time and space courtesy of the pack to unleash the likes of Barrett, Williams to hit the line with pace.
Ospreys continue to make progress and improvement but Saracens are playing at a different level of rugby that very few teams can live with. Saracens dare I say have evolved even further than last season. They have scored tries early doors this season where as in previous seasons, they would have worked the scoreboard with penalties. There is genuinely no weak link in this side. Ospreys have stars of their own with Jones, Tipuric, Webb and Biggar but the pack will eventually get worn down to breaking point. Saracens will win with a bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. Steve Tandy’s job becomes ever precarious.
Northampton Saints go from home humiliation to having to venture to Clermont Auvergne. Best of luck there. Saints were incredibly passive early doors and Saracens made them pay with 50+ score. Clermont ominously for the Saints will be unhappy with how they played for periods of the Ospreys win. Early tries set the platform to push on but they gave momentum and impetus back to the Ospreys, a better side would have punished this lapse. Clermont the nearly team of Europe will have too much for the Saints; fear another hammering for Northampton. Clermont with a five point haul.
I am really looking forward to seeing La Rochelle play Ulster Rugby on Sunday afternoon. Ulster Rugby will look with confidence with the fixture; safely negotiated a tricky opening home fixture against Wasps last weekend. Wasps had nothing to lose. Massive injury problems, ask Ulster Rugby to set the tone and posed problems early doors. Ulster Rugby game management key and Jacob Stockdale emerged as a leading light; imposing performance and superb individual try to boot. The front row issues at scrum time were seen and La Rochelle will target the Ulster Rugby front five to build a platform in front of an excited home support.
Atonio, Forbes and Priso look a solid front three to achieve scrum dominance. Ryan Lamb was in superb form at ten and with Geoffrey Doumayro prominent in several eye-catching attacking plays last weekend, La Rochelle are well setup to win but I expect Ulster Rugby to provide stiff opposition. Ulster Rugby will need to be on point with defensive line speed, cannot allow La Rochelle’s big ball carriers get momentum. If they can do that, then they will be in contention but given this is the first ERC Cup home fixture, a massive occasion for La Rochelle, cannot look further than a win. Ulster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point.
Exeter Chiefs travel to Montpellier. A fixture where Montpellier will look to bounce back from a narrow loss to Leinster Rugby. The try machine Nadolo was pivotal in earning the loser bonus point and who knows if Wayne Barnes had officiated the Adam Byrne yellow card differently, the French outfit could have had a penalty try and 24-24 ball game. Exeter Chiefs had a great win against Glasgow Warriors but their opening twenty minutes was not good enough. The French side will look to exploit the Chiefs outside defense at every opportunity. Chiefs will need to be solid in defensive line speed and first up tackling, otherwise Nadolo will run riot. Montpellier to win with a bp point to boot.
Wasps and Harlequins finish off the round two fixtures. A game where Wasps need a nail on win here but with injured bodies everywhere, Quins will arrive to the Ricoh Arena in confident mood despite a home loss to La Rochelle. Quins attacking play at times is excellent but all too often this season, there have being serious defensive and forward pack lapses which have led to easy point concessions. Wasps will do well to win this contest; huge onus on Daly, Haskell and Wade to provide leadership. Inclement weather could wreck havoc for any expansive style of play; squad depth on the bench could be key and Quins have the fitter group so a road win is on the cards.