Champions Cup Round 6 Preview, Panel Picks

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DUBLIN, IRL – After five thrilling rounds of group stage European rugby the stage is now set for the final round of pool fixtures before the knockout stages: Round 6 of the European Rugby Champions Cup. Leinster, Clermont, Saracens, and Munster i’ve already qualified through to the quarterfinals, Saracens the only of which yet to officially win their group. With the historical importance of home playoff matches on every team’s mind, much will be at stake as the leaders jockey for pool playoff positions. Below the group winners (and Saracens) are Connacht, Wasps, Toulouse, Glasgow, and Toulon, all looking to snatch up the last knockout spots for their chance to play for European glory. Check out the previews for each of the weekend’s fixtures below and see who our Expert Panelists sided with in the final week of our ERCC Expert Picks Panel. With so much at stake this weekend it’s sure to be a thriller.

EXPERT PICKS PANEL:

 

POOL 1

Glasgow vs. Leicester

Welford Road

Kickoff: 1230 EST

Glasgow

Glasgow’s Finn Russell

Glasgow travel to Welford Road in a campaign defining that could skyrocket the Scottish side into the playoffs. Gregor Townsend has been adamant that the Warriors reach the knockout stage is this season and overcome the hump that has played his side for the past several seasons. After losing to Munster was a blow to Glasgow’s chances as well as morale, but even with that loss Finn Russell and Ali Price reform there scrum-half, fly-half partnership. The Warriors have had to make a few changes in the wake of injury replacement needed, most notably with WP Nel’s absence warranting Zander Fagerson to step in at hooker. Even with their Lost last week, there were plenty of positives to bring into their last pool match of this European season, and they will have to pull out the stops against Leicester, a team that has been spotty at times but brilliantly when they are in form. On the other side of the ball, the Tigers have already been eliminated from playoff contention following their 3-34 Route at the hands of Racing 92. Four changes have been enacted by head coach Aaron Mauger in what will be in attempt to stop Glasgow from reaching the next stage. The most notable addition to Leicester’s matchday squad is the inclusion of Dom Barrow to the bench after 3 1/2 months out due to concussion protocols. Welford Road is never an easy place to play, and Glasgow will have to work for 80 minutes to get the bonus point they so desire.

Racing 92 vs. Munster

Thomond Park

Kickoff: 1230 EST, Saturday

These two sides played only two weeks ago in Paris and a match that was scheduled after the untimely passing of Anthony Foley. The poignant displays of support from the French supporters for the Irish club were a true spectacle to watch and a symbol of the tradition of Rugby. Unfortunately for those French supporters, their team was absolutely annihilated by Munster by a score of 7-32. A full 26,200 person crowd is expected at Thomond Park in Limerick for the return match, and atmosphere that can be unlike any in the world. Munster rugby director Rassie Erasmus has gone ahead and made three changes to his team with Ronan O’Mahoney, James Cronin, and Tommy O’Donnell all being re-introduced to the starting lineup. A win for the Irish province would guarantee a home quarterfinal, meaning that for the first time since 2012 two Irish teams could host home quarterfinals and potentially home semi finals. Standout player CJ Stander once again starts for the province, looking to put forth another massive performance for his team. For the French visitors, do you the match will be a test of mental fortitude and belief, belief that they can end the season on the high.

 

POOL 2

Connacht vs Toulouse

Stade Ernest Wallon

Kickoff: 1115 EST, Sunday

connacht-v-toulouse

The Rematch: Connacht won in round 1 at the Sportsgrounds

Win and you’re in. Connacht are in control of their own destiny play off destiny as they travel to France to take on the four-time European champions in a rematch of Round 1’s thrilling match in Galway. The Irish province won their last match against Toulouse in France back in the 2013-14 season, ending what had been a dismal run of form in France. Connacht surprisingly has been able to surge in European matches this season even though they’ve had their fair share of struggles in the Pro12. Tiernan O’Halloran has been an absolute star for the province, leading the competition in meters made it with 525, the only player to make it over 500 m gained. Trinity Rugby product Niyi Adeolukon he has also made waves with his performances this season both the domestically and continentally, carrying 56 times this European season and currently sitting in fourth in the team’s try total. As for the French giants, Toulouse final pool matches have been an Achilles’ heel, having only one once in their last six attempts (Zebre 2013-14). However, the French side are finally looking as though they’re rediscovering hi-caliber form. The 14-17 road loss to Wasps still showed the strength of the French side and gave the once-champions a huge impetus to leap into the knockouts (at least with a bonus point win). Pool 2 is still the only pool yet to be won outright, so expect fireworks for the entire 80 minute match.

 Wasps vs. Zebre

Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Kickoff: 1115 EST, Sunday

Many get superstitious about talking about teams making the playoffs before the team has officially solidified a spot, but all Wasps need is a one point victory over hopeless Italians Zebre to make it to the quarterfinals. For Wasps, James Haskell finally returns to the starting lineup after seven months on injury reserve. Joe Launchbury captains the side as he has throughout the campaign, and will push the team towards a bonus point victory necessary to win the group. If Connacht don’t get a bonus point result in France, and Wasps earn their bonus point against their Italian opponents, then Wasps will win the group and have better seeding in the knockouts. As for Zebre, another dismal European campaign will come to an end and we can finally get away from the rhetoric that Wasps coach Dai Young perpetuated this week saying, “We will pay them the respect they deserve.” Yes, they do reserve respect, but it’s more likely because they continuously get back up after repeatedly getting trounced.

 

POOL 3

Scarlets vs. Sale

AJ Bell Stadium

Kickoff: 1015 EST, Saturday

Scarlets and Sale will take to the pitch on Saturday evening in a battle purely for pride. Both sides have been mathematically eliminated from reaching the knockout stages, but both want to finish the season’s European campaign on a high note. Winless Sale have been hit by their fair share of injuries this season, but have continuously struggled to put in a full 80 minute performance where it counted. Traditionally, Manchester has been a better place for the Sharks to play than on the road, and they will use that to their advantage to try and score their first group points of this European Rugby Champions Cup. American international AJ MacGinty makes get another start in the #10 jersey alongside Welsh #9 Mike Philips, a pairing that has only gotten better since the absence of Peter Stringer. Scarlets have enjoyed their fair share of success this season with victories over Sale and Toulon during this European campaign. Instead of fielding a full side, the Welsh side have decided to sit Scott Williams, Lee and Williams, and Ken Owens for the match to maintain their national-side ambitions. however, British and Irish Lions Center, Jonathan Davies will make the return to the Scarlets midfield to partner up with Hadleigh Parker. Will be completely absent of big names, though, as Rob Evans and Samson Lee will feature.

Toulon vs. Saracens

Allianz Park

Kickoff: 1015 EST, Saturday

In a rematch of the 2013 European final, Saracens will only need one point from the match to secure a spot in the knockout stages. Head coach Mark McCall has led his team to and unbeaten Champions Cup and will look to replicate his side’s victory against the three-time champions 31-23 in the first round. Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell will command the Home side with their #9-#10 partnership, while Itoje and Hamilton take up their usual places in Saracens’ back row. Toulon comes into the match needing a victory at the least to make it to the next phase of the competition. The former champions has failed to find that special tick that drove them to championships in 2013, 14, and 15, but still have a side filled with international superstars. Bastareaud and Nonu join up to form one of the most intimidating center partnerships in world rugby, while Australian international Matt Giteau finally returns to the scene. His absence was a huge loss for the French club, so his return will no doubt be a big piece of Toulon’s game plan. Game excitement level: top-notch.

 

POOL 4

Castres vs. Leinster

Stade Pierre Antoine

Kickoff: 1445 EST

Castres and Leinster have become regular opponents in Europe over the last four seasons, and this will be the third time in those four seasons that the three-time European champions make the trip down to southern France. Leinster have been in booming form lately in both the Champions Cup and in the Guinness Pro12, most notably with very strong defense of performance is against Ulster and Monpellier at the RDS. Isa Nacewa, Devin Toner, and Jamie Heaslip have been putting in consistently strong outings all season, and with the burgeoning success of Gary Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Rory O’Laughlin, and Adam Byrne in the backs, the Irish province have become one of the clear-cut favorites to win the competition. On the other side of the ball, Castres have struggled throughout the tournament with several fizzling performances along the way. Head coach Christophe Urios post one of the best home records in French rugby and has been able to show (mainly in the top 14) that his side can’t kick to life when they need to. He has rung in nine changes overall from the side that narrowly lost to Northampton 21-28 last weekend in an attempt to somehow make it into the quarterfinals (there’s a slim mathematical chance still left for them). It will be an uphill battle against Leo Cullen’s men, but hey homestand is exactly what Castres need if they are going to baffle the odds.

Montpellier vs. Northampton

Altrad Stadium

Kickoff: 1445 EST

After getting trounced 57-3 in Dublin last week, Montpellier return home to face a Northampton side coming off the back of a tight victory against Castres. Calls have been ringing out throughout French rugby media and the Montpellier Rugby community for the team to amend for their atrocious performance last week. The French side’s winger Nemani Nadolo made headlines this week remarking on their performance in Dublin saying, “We have to play for the Jersey, because we were ashamed last week. We did not give a true image of what our club is all about. We must redeem ourselves on Friday…. I do not think that Friday’s result reflects the gap between us and the European level. The Frenchman are not the only side in the group to have received a hiding at the hands of Leinster, though, as Northampton experienced a record 60-13 loss to the Irish province back on December 17. Scrum-half Lee Dickson takes over the captaincy for Saints after nine changes from the side that beat Castres last weekend. George North returns to the wing once again for Northampton a move that many have criticized on social media considering North’s recent string of concussive controversies. Either way, it will take a miracle for either of these teams to make it through, but when pride is at stake rugby matches easily get very exciting.

 

POOL 5

Bordeaux vs. Ulster

Kingspan Stadium

Kickoff: 0800 EST

Whereas the other three Irish provinces have been enjoying a fair amount of success in this European campaign, Ulster have been subjected to a relatively bad outing. A 31-19 loss to Exeter has all but pushed the northern province out of the competition with very, very slim hopes of making it through. Les Kiss has decided to make six changes, four of those coming in the forwards due to a front row injury crisis that has struck the province. The usual names of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, and Franco van de Merwe are in the squad to bolster the new names in the pack. The back line is unchanged from last week and have had a particularly strong record at home in Belfast. With only three losses in the last 25 European matches at home, Ulster will have to put up a big homestand for a chance at European glory. For the French visitors, qualification is also impossible meaning that they will be playing for pride on their trip to Ireland. Ian Madigan has been a utility player for Bordeaux, and will hope to put on a good performance on his first trip to Belfast since he’s days with Leinster.

Exeter vs. Clermont

Stade Marcel-Michelin

Kickoff: 0900 EST, Saturday

Clermont ran away from this group from the very beginning and have already won the pool by a longshot. The Chiefs, however, still have a chance at making it to the next round, albeit a very slim one. The Homeside has gone with seven changes to that beat Ulster last weekend, with Tomas Francis, Jack Yeandel, and Kai Horstmann moving into the forwards while James Short and Ollie Devoto move into the backs. As for the French visitors, the only thing that they need to do in this match is put in a good, competitive performance to both ensure a home quarterfinal and that their men stay fit for next weekend’s top 14 match day.

That’s all for now, please feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: @RugbyWrapUp, @Junoir Blaber, @Ronan Nelson, @JamesOnRugby, @JonnyLewisFilms, @HarpinOnRugby, @DrivingMaul, @MeetTheMatts, @Luke Bienstock, @Ronan Nelson, @Brian C Cole and @Declan Yeats.

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Irish-American Ronan Nelson is from California, is a new UCLA Bruin and is a rugby lifer. Plus he's got two passports. But that's just scratching the surface. He's got more courage and resolve in his thumbnail than most of us combined. Le Wolf of Wheelchairs is a man amongst men. Check him out in this video: https://www.facebook.com/PrayForRonanNelson/videos/vb.377373885627475/995548307143360/?type=2&theater and follow him on Twitter: @ronan_nelson

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