Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 5 Preview

The penultimate round of the European Rugby Challenge Cup pool stage will provide a better picture of who will be quarter final bound in April. A round which is critical for several teams to make a push for qualification. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Falcons primed for home quarter-final berth

Newcastle Falcons play host to Ensei-STM this weekend at Kingston Park knowing that a bonus point win will pretty much guarantee home field advantage in the quarter finals.

After a sensational 28-20 win over Exeter Chiefs last weekend, confidence will be high in Dean Richard’s camp and unfortunately I do not see Ensei-STM posing many problems for the Aviva Premiership outfit.

A bonus point try point will be secured well before the final whistle with the relentless offloading game of the Falcons proving too much at times for the Russian outfit.

The other fixture is in this pool sees the Dragons travel to Bordeaux-Begles. With both sides locked on eleven points, the objective is simple this weekend. Win to progress to the final pool game to determine their destiny.

It remains to be seen how serious Bordeaux-Begles will take this fixture. The word indifferent comes to mind given their performances back in December.

Dragons are facing an incredible injury crisis at present and given that their youthful squad were dismantled with ease by Scarlets last time out, it is hard to see how Bernard Jackman can lift his troops ahead of this crunch fixture. Home win.

Pool 2: Evenly poised

This destiny of this pool will be more clear come Sunday evening as the four teams in the pool still are well in the hunt to top the pool.

Cardiff Blues and Toulouse once upon a time was a marquee fixture in the Heineken Cup. How things have changed? Both sides are in transitional phase with the French giants in danger of missing out on a quarter final berth.

Blues had a terrific road trip victory over Toulouse earlier in this pool but the results and form since then have being a little inconsistent. This is a fixture where the Blues pack need to front up against a physically imposing Toulouse front five.

Toulouse’s approach to this fixture will be interesting. A team who have embraced European Cup competition historically. The Pro 14 league campaign has being mediocre to say the least; issues from last season where the pack have being overpowered in second halves of games still apparent.

This is an intriguing fixture for the neutral and one where home field advantage could prove crucial. Cardiff Blues mobility in the pack and breakdown skill set looks superior to Toulouse. Josh Navidi to be a prominent figure. Home win. Toulouse to crash out of Europe.

In the other pool fixture, Sale Sharks minus AJ McGinty face Lyon. Yet again, the approach of the French outfit will be interesting ahead of this game. I expect their squad will be mostly fringe players with some first team players who require further game time as they focus on Pro 14 title ambitions which has dipped in recent weeks.

The injury to McGinty is a bitter blow for Sale Sharks as the USA International has progressed well this season providing assured game management and kicking game but James O’Connor can transition into the position and expect fireworks if that happens.

Such an important game for Sale Sharks and expect the likes of de Klerk, McGuigan and Beaumont to lead from the front. Home win again as Lyon’s experimental squad selection will lack the cohesion to win the contest.

Pool 3: Pau and Gloucester to win

This is a two horse race to see who wins this pool. It will all come down to the final pool game at Kingsholm when Gloucester Rugby host Pau.

Both sides should have too much for their opponents this weekend. Gloucester Rugby will be keen to right the wrongs of last weekend and the careless manner of their defeat to Northampton Saints at the death.

A road trip to France is never easy but Agen have shown zero interest in this competition. Even with a first team selection, they are in serious danger of being thumped by a pacy Gloucester outfit. Bonus point road trip win for the Aviva Premiership side.

Pau entertain Michael Bradley’s Zebre Rugby who will look to compete for long periods of this fixture. Pau will know the strengths of Zebre given their road trip scare earlier to the same opposition in the pool phase last year.

Buoyed by recent domestic form upturn, Pau’s pack will build the necessary platform to secure a bonus point try win over the Italian outfit.

All roads lead to Gloucester Rugby on game day six. Both Pau and Gloucester will qualify but in which order remains a uncertain right now.

Pool 4: Edinburgh vs. Stade Francais is the standout

The Friday night lights clash of Edinburgh and Stade Francais looks the marquee fixture of this competition this weekend. Both sides will look to entertain with expansive running lines.

Edinburgh Rugby under Richard Cockerill have progressed well in recent months. The home win to Glasgow Warriors, doing so fourteen players for most of the contest was a huge morale booster.

The side has played some excellent rugby. The South African Guinness Pro 14 road trip saw the side played well against the Cheetahs and a bonus point try win over the Southern Kings highlighting the skill set of Hidalgo-Clyne.

The hope is that Stade Francais will field a strong outfit in this fixture. Murrayfield under the lights deserves two well matched sides going at it.

The French side have plenty of threats with the likes of Parisse, McLeod, Bosman in their ranks. Geraghty may get the nod at ten and the former London Irish fly-half has played well in this competition.

The proverbial cracker beckons, hard to call but Edinburgh’s hunger and appetite for this competition should just see them over the line but Stade Francais cannot be written off.

The other fixture is a dead rubber. London Irish who have disappointed this season on all fronts play Krasny Yar who may fancy an upset but I do not see that happening. London Irish’s pack to provide the platform for a morale boosting victory.

Pool 5: Connacht look to secure home quarter-final

Connacht Rugby’s decision to rest Aki, Dillane and Marmion last weekend was primarily because of this upcoming fixture away to Worcester Warriors. Put simply, Connacht Rugby victory guarantees potentially a top two quarter final seed and a home tie.

Worcester Warriors are seven points behind the Irish province but they know that victory here will reignite their European Challenge Cup ambitions.

A side stacked with talent and experience. O’Callaghan continues to provide leadership and work rate in the front five. Denton at eight is a superb ball carrier. Josh Adams has being a revelation on the wing; his try haul immense. Connacht beware!

Kieran Keane’s charges endured a miserable second half performance to lose 39-13 to Munster last time out. The performances in the other festive period Irish interpros were excellent so a repeat and the road trip win required is achievable.

A marquee fixture in this competition. Connacht Rugby to be realistically considered a top contender for this competition need to produce a performance and road trip win.

Yes, they will more than likely beat a much changed Brive side the following weekend but it is weekend’s like this that define teams and success. Slight edge for Connacht Rugby here in an entertaining contest, the front five battle will be interesting.

The other fixture here is a dead rubber. Oyonnax are destined for Pro 14 relegation and this competition has continued in the same abysmal fashion. Brive if interested in this fixture should win but this is a French fixture, anything will go, who cares? Both are out of this competition. Toss of a coin. Brive to win.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 5 Preview

It is the make or break round in the pool phase of the European Rugby Champions Cup for a host of teams. For others, the European odyssey is already up but they could play their part in upsetting the form guide and denying their opposition a playoff berth. Intriguing stuff. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Pool 1: Do or die for Ulster Rugby. Wasps have bonus point on their mind

Before the fourth round of pool games, La Rochelle were the standout team of this pool. Their direct running, uptempo, free flowing offloading game had their pool rivals in a tailspin until Wasps pack shut down the French side with a victory built from the pack which has opened the pool into a three horse race.

La Rochelle travel to Belfast to face an Ulster side who have endured contrasting fortunes in recent Guinness Pro 14 games. After a road trouncing away to Connacht Rugby before Christmas, it did not look good for Les Kiss’ charges as they trailed Munster Rugby 0-17 on New Years Day but a spirited fightback coupled with Munster Rugby discipline issues resulted in a bonus point win.

The victory should have boosted confidence and with the international contingent in place to play Leinster Rugby, what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Ulster Rugby were taken to the cleaners by a rampant Leinster Rugby. Larmour continuing to earn media plaudits with a brace while McFadden impressed with some eye-catching line breaks.

Ulster Rugby’s video analysis of the RDS massacre should be binned as it was a video nasty for all units. Line speed defensively was slow and the unforced error count with ball in hand gave Leinster Rugby easy field position to score. A must win game for Ulster Rugby, one would hope for a response from the Irish province but they are coming up against La Rochelle who have plenty of weapons in the arsenal.

La Rochelle’s pack will look to the Munster Rugby fixture for their primary objective; build set piece dominance which will yield scores. The Ulster pack have at times looked extremely vulnerable and the arrival of Marty Moore in the front row cannot come quick enough next season. The scrum has creaked and the line-out has being inconsistent at times. The Ulster pack need to front up this weekend.

However, Ulster Rugby also need to contend with the offloading play of La Rochelle from anywhere on the field. Any loose kicking will end in disaster and La Rochelle will relish the promised dry weather on tap for Belfast this weekend.

I feel for Les Kiss this season. A squad well capable of competing has being wholly inconsistent in game time execution and then you add the legal problems of Jackson and Olding, leadership has being exposed when the international contingent have not featured.

Hoping for an Ulster Rugby win (heart over head) but there is so much amiss at the club (playing / managerial side) that La Rochelle enter this contest as firm favorites. If the visitors can stifle Ulster Rugby early doors, a bonus point try win is not out of the question and could prompt talks of a reshuffle in the Ulster Rugby managerial ticket.

In the other fixture of this pool, Wasps realistically need to secure a bonus point try win to put pressure on La Rochelle and Ulster Rugby. Wasps have secured Dai Young’s services for an extended period but the performance against Saracens yesterday was disappointing. Saracens are coming back to their old self but Wasps failed to stifle in the pack to cause the upset, flat performance.

Quins enter this contest with little to play for. A squad who have massive upside with ball in hand but have being exposed by their line speed defensively. It will be interesting to see how Quins approach the next two European Cup fixtures.

Do they play a full hand this weekend or do they allow fringe squad players to increase their game minutes? I think the latter and if that is the case, expect Wasps to come away with a bonus point try win. The pool to still in the melting point come the final pool of games. Ulster Rugby hopefully will be there for a winner take all contest at Wasps but that is a big if. Prove me wrong Les Kiss and Ulster Rugby!

Pool 2: Liberty Stadium showdown. Clermont poised to secure QF spot.

The key fixture in this pool is the clash of Ospreys and Saracens. After their second round fixture, few would have expected this specific fixture to take top billing but so it has due in part Saracens injury list resulting in back to back losses to ASM Clermont and Ospreys securing ten points from the hapless Northampton Saints.

Ospreys warmed up for this fixture with a 28-27 victory over Cardiff Blues, a strange fixture as the Ospreys had the game well in hand going into the final quarter but a couple of tries for Cardiff Blues setup a nervy ending. The contest saw Webb and Biggar in sublime form. Webb at scrum-half was his industrious best, probing for line breaks and his quick ruck ball to BIggar had Blues defensively in trouble.

Saracens will be happy to see the back of December. January has started in ominous fashion for all their opposition. A road trip win to Leicester Tigers arrested the losing streak and they have not looked back since. Their demolition of Wasps on the road was season defining. The manner in which they physically imposed their will on Wasps was sensational.

The usual suspects are starting to come back to their first team. Billy Vunipola is a monster with ball in hand and sets a massive platform for the likes of Farrell to exploit. It will be interesting to see how Ospreys look to offset the influence of the number eight but the pack possesses other threats with George, Kruis looking back to the form of last season.

Ospreys need to stifle at the breakdown so the focus will be on Tipuric to control proceedings. It is an intriguing contest, plenty on the line. The vanquished are certain to be eliminated from European Cup action so nerves could play massively.

Ospreys’ form has improved in recent weeks but I fear for them against Saracens given yesterday’s performance and win. They will soak up the early promise of the Ospreys, keep the scoreboard ticking over and when Ospreys are forced to chase the game pounce for try scoring opportunities. Saracens to win but this will be a close encounter.

ASM Clermont. An enigma for me personally. It will be interesting how the side react from their 58-6 thumping to Racing 92 last night. Yes, ASM Clermont named quite a number of fringe players for the fixture but they were destroyed in all facets of play at the U Arena.

The good news for ASM Clermont is that they travel to Northampton Saints who assisted by sheer incompetency from Gloucester Rugby to close out a rugby game arrested the losing streak which cost Jim Mallinder his job last month.

Northampton Saints despite the victory last weekend are a club in crisis. The team lack confidence, leadership all over the park. Hartley is unconvincing at best right now and ASM Clermont should target the set piece where the scrum could be a key weapon.

Alan Gaffney has being brought into the Northampton Saints club to put structure and order in place but the season is finished, time for shrewd recruitment both on and off the pitch. The lack of energy in the side over the festive period beggared belief and ASM Clermont have little to worry about here. Bonus point try win on the cards. QF berth and home fixture secured with a game to go.

Pool 3: Leinster Rugby in control. Montpelier in must win territory

The key fixture in this pool is at Sandy Park. Exeter Chiefs have the potential to eliminate Montpelier with a win here. Their shock road trip in France will boost confidence in the Exeter Chiefs ranks who performed well against Leinster Rugby.

Montpelier Rugby need to produce a performance this weekend to show their intentions for the rest of the season. Their road trip win over Glasgow Warriors was a good starting point but it needs to continue here with another road trip win to give the French side an opportunity to secure a playoff berth.

Nadolo will be expected to pose the threat out wide and his presence and line breaks in recent weeks will mean that Exeter Chiefs will have to double / treble cover the Fijian, meaning more space for his inside colleagues potentially.

This is a fixture where Rob Baxter’s team selection will be key. There is an outside chance of securing a playoff berth and with a 28-20 reversal to the Newcastle Falcons fresh in the mind, perhaps the head coach will throw his first team out to right a few wrongs.

Too close to call. Exeter Chiefs have learned plenty in this European Cup campaign and I think they may hit the fatal blow in Montpelier’s European Cup aspirations this season. Exeter Chiefs to win by seven points thanks in no small part to their pack.

Glasgow Warriors are out of Europe. What a statement given their Guinness Pro 14 campaign to date. They travel to the RDS to face a Leinster Rugby side who will look to secure the home quarter final berth with a bonus point try win.

Both sides come into this contest with excellent Guinness Pro 14 outings under their belt. Glasgow beating Edinburgh and Zebre Rugby with ease, their expansive offloading play if given time and space will cause Leinster Rugby problems but here lies the problem. It is against Leinster Rugby.

Leinster Rugby are probably the form side of the competition this season. Their Guinness Pro 14 league campaign over the festive period oozed class and showcased their squad depth putting Munster Rugby to the sword with ease. Connacht Rugby did pose problems but still a W in the result column before they dismantled Ulster Rugby with the minimum of fuss.

Glasgow Warriors will look for an open contest but Leinster’s defensive line speed is excellent. The hosts pack will also look to assert platform dominance buoyed by their performance against the Warriors early in the competition. The Glasgow Warriors pack were second best, set piece was dismantled and Leinster Rugby secured the bonus point try win.

1pm Sunday kickoff at times can be labored affairs but the Leinster Rugby faithful will be up for this fixture from minute one. Glasgow Warriors will contribute massively to this contest but again team selection from the visitors will be interesting. Leinster Rugby bonus point try win for me here.

Pool 4: U Arena showdown. Castres look to extend Tigers misery

No guesses where the key fixture of this pool is. The U Arena looks an amazing venue to play rugby. The roof clad venue only adds to the atmosphere and there will be fireworks on Sunday afternoon even more so due to Racing 92’s 58-6 demolition of ASM Clermont last night.

The pace and speed of play from Racing 92 in this performance will have focused Munster Rugby minds last night. The breakdown area is one where Munster Rugby will need to stifle and slow down as ASM Clermont were blown away in this facet of play. Quick ruck ball and with Nakarawa relishing the dry track and weather conditions, it was one way traffic.

Teddy Thomas has emerged as a real back line leader for Racing 92 this season. His ball carrying in recent weeks has being on point and his try last night showed the physicality, footwork and composure of the player. A fixture which Munster Rugby will need to perform at a high level to get anything from the contest.

Munster Rugby have had a shaky number of weeks. The loss to Leinster Rugby on St.Stephen’s Day was a jolt to the system and the fringe side that took to the park against Ulster Rugby were unerring for the opening period only for indiscipline and an upsurge of Ulster Rugby back line form to loss. The Connacht Rugby win was welcome, but discipline was still an issue, plenty to work on this week.

Where can Munster Rugby hurt Racing 92? The pack set piece has being on point this season and it is imperative that the front five start well. The fast track conditions will take time to adjust but if the front five can provide a platform, this game is pretty much in the melting pot.

The breakdown point has being mentioned and then it is down to the half backs to provide leadership and game management when necessary. Murray and Keatley’s partnership continues to blossom. Keatley at ten has being the story of the Munster Rugby season, pivotal figure given the injury and form issues of his other colleagues vying for the ten jersey.

The three quarter line will look to vary the game plan. Chris Farrell looking to bring the game to Racing 92. Rory Scannell looking to vary the game plan with some deft kicks behind for the likes of Earls, Zebo and Conway to exploit.

Munster Rugby will be focused. Discipline will be on point. Racing 92 will need to produce a stellar performance to win this encounter, sense that this will be close and if Munster Rugby can come away with a loser point, then their destiny is in their own hands ahead of the Castres home game.

Racing 92 performance at the weekend has focused minds of everyone associated with Munster Rugby. It was as impressive a display seen all year but Munster Rugby love a challenge. Expect fireworks at the U Arena!

Leicester Tigers on the other hand cannot wait for this European Cup campaign to be over. A promising start to the pool has evaporated due to back to back Munster Rugby losses. Management calling foul of different officiating crews but this is one element of the issues facing the club. The pack has being overpowered in recent weeks by the likes of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs.

The back line have shown potential but unforced defensive lapses have allowed opposition easy scores. George Ford and Ben Youngs have looked to stem the tide but there has being too many issues in the game plan to arrest the losing streak.

Castres at home are a different animal to the side who go on European Cup road trips. Given that they were hammered by the Tigers in round two of this pool, suspect that the French side will look to name a first team full of regulars to right a couple of wrongs.

With a vulnerable Leicester Tigers pack arriving, Castres should shade this encounter to extend the misery for Leicester Tigers who will look to more recruitment in the pack to increase competitiveness next season.

Pool 5: Recreational Ground winner take all. Toulon to take big step in playoff berth race.

Friday night should the potential game of the weekend. Bath and Scarlets look that loss will mean elimination from Europe this season. The pressure will be massive and it will be interesting to see the approach both sides take to the game.

Scarlets probably enter this contest with more pressure on their shoulders. Their loss to Bath Rugby in round two was a hammer blow and exposed issues in the pack. The expansive style of play was stifled by an efficient Bath Rugby back row who slowed down ball along with the nasty weather conditions. Scarlets were unable to get their expansive style of play going.

Yes, they have recovered well to secure ten points from Benetton Rugby but this is the real acid test. Is this Scarlets side capable of performing and securing a road trip victory? Can their front five build a platform in a hostile environment? Result over expansive play is required this weekend.

Bath Rugby enter this contest with a decent festive period under their belt. Their victory over Worcester Warriors showcased their undoubted pace and tempo in the back line while the pack were competent in setting up try scoring opportunities. Loew is such a key player on Friday night. If available, his breakdown work could be decisive.

The proverbial cliffhanger at the Recreational Ground. Bath Rugby to shade this contest with a composed, pack focused performance creating penalty scoring opportunities for Priestland to convert. Scarlets will have their moments but this is a fixture where it is all about the front five and the hosts edge it for me.

Benetton Rugby took the notable scalp of Toyota Cheetahs last weekend. A key morale booster ahead of a daunting trip to the South of France to face a Toulon side who are due to score heavy in this pool. I sense this could be the fixture.

Toulon got out of jail in Italy and will not make the same mistakes as before. The pack and back line cohesion issues is for another day but this looks like a bonus point try win for Toulon despite the best efforts of Benetton Rugby who will look to remain in contention until the final quarter but the three quarters look ominously placed. Nonu rampage. Toulon bonus point win to get them tantalizingly close to a quarter final berth.

European Rugby Champions Cup – Round 2 Preview:

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.

Sunday’s Best

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.