LOS ANGELES, CA — The European Rugby Champions Cup has had its fair share of incredible pool stage rounds – let’s call them power rounds – over it’s illustrious history. Even so, these next two weekends are bound to be unlike anything recently seen in the European championship. Every match has consequences and every team has shown what it takes to win in the competition.
Yes, even Treviso.
Even the final three matches of the round are monumental. Sunday’s culmination showcases three former European champions against three of Europe’s best clubs. No team is safe. There are no cakewalks.
Current pool toppers Saracens, Leinster, Leicester, Bath, and upstarts La Rochelle will all put themselves in excellent position to win their pools with victories this weekend, but will have to power through staunch opposition this weekend to do so.
Get ready for all of the weekend’s action with our match previews below. Also, see which teams you should pick at the punter’s with our Expert Picks Panel.
Glasgow vs. Montpellier
Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow
Despite getting off to one of their best starts in domestic competition, the Glasgow Warriors have had a tough running in the Champions Cup this season, having dropped their first match to Exeter and their second to league rivals, Leinster. How Jones is set to make his debut for the Warriors, having previously played for the Western Province in South Africa. He earns his first start for the club after an incredible autumn series with Scotland where he scored a try in each of his country’s three matches. Glasgow will have more help with big men like Zander Fagerson and Jonny Gray in the forwards and the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg in the backs.
On the other side of the ball, French club Montpellier are looking at the same outcome as Glasgow – a loss would end their hopes in Europe. Head coach Vern Cotter needs a famous victory to keep his side’s hopes alive, and he has named a similar team to the Montpellier that has performed run-of-the-mill in the Top 14. The big Georgian ,Mikheil Nariashvili, returns to prop after putting in positive performances against Wales and the United States in the international window. Frenchman Louis Picamoles captains the side in his normal role at #8, while former New Zealand international Aaron Cruden starts at fly-half outside Enzo Sanga. The Fijian flyer, Nemani Nadolo resumes his place on the wing after what has been a lackluster Champions Cup so far.
With both teams desperately needing victory, Friday night’s clash at Scotstoun should produce more fireworks than their pool positions suggest.
Scarlets vs. Treviso
Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli
Scarlets currently sit second in the Guinness Pro14 with eight wins from 10 matches, good enough to sit atop Conference B. Their opponents this weekend, Treviso, are having one of their better league seasons of recent, having scored three big victories and three bonus points (enough to put them ahead of Dragons and Southern Kings in Conference B as well as Ospreys in Conference A. Both sides have lost their opening two matches to Bath and Toulon, both sides only losing out by a single point to the latter. Both matches against Toulon were vibrant displays of strength and agility, and we can only hope that some semblance of those matches will carry over into Saturday’s showing. The two have come against each other four times previously in European championship play, the Scarlets having won three and Treviso once. Although the Italian outfit are coming off a victory over Irish province Connacht in the Pro14, Scarlets seem to have the personnel and form advantage going into the match, making the challenge for Treviso and uphill battle even before the match starts.
Toulon vs. Bath
Stade Felix Mayol, Toulon
A two-weekend doubleheader against Aviva Premiership side, Bath, awaits three-time European champions, Toulon. Bath, currently fourth in the English league, have gone 4-3 in their last seven matches of Premiership play, a tumultuous ride that hasn’t exactly spelled much hope for the club. Toulon haven’t faired too much better in French domestic play either, currently sitting seventh behind other Champions Cup sides Castres, Racing, Montpellier, and La Rochelle. Bath will be without powerful flanker Sam Underhill for Saturday’s match as he is still out with a concussion protocols having suffered an injury playing for England against Australia in the Autumn internationals. The limited success of both clubs only plays into the hand of spectators this Saturday. Both sides need something to spur them into a European run, and with Toulon looking fallible at home for the first time in years, the English side will be hopeful to come away with a famous victory. Oppositely, Bath’s poor performance against Exeter at the weekend will give the French side plenty to be hopeful for come Saturday.
Saints vs. Ospreys
Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
The big news circulating around this match today comes in the form of an injury report on Ospreys fly-half, Dan Biggar, Who will be out for the Clash following HIA protocols. To make matters worse, head coach Steve Tandy will be without Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric, and Sam Cross who are out with knee, thigh, and rib injuries, respectively, sustained during their time with Wales in the autumn internationals. Thankfully they will be captain by talisman Alun Wyn Jones Who will drive the Osprey pack alongside Dan Lydiate and Nicky Smith. In the back’s, full-back Dan Evans is set to make his centurion appearance for the Welsh he is so club having only made his debut on the first day of the 2014-15 Pro12 season. It will certainly be an uphill battle for the Ospreys, currently second to last in all of the Pro14.
The Northampton Saints come into Saturday’s match with eight changes from their Aviva Premiership match over the weekend. Luther Burrell highlights the changes made and will line up outside Ben Foden on the left wing at #11. Tuala and Horne Paris resume their partnership in the center once again. In the forwards, Courtney Lawes commands a scrum that has experience its fair share of troubles all season, and aspect of the match they will need to dominate to beat a deflated Ospreys pack.
Ospreys currently set third in the group on three points while the Saints sent last with no points, making this match an absolute must-win for the Saints.
Castres vs. Racing
Stade Pierre Fabre, Castres
The only all-French meeting of the weekend pits Castres Olympique and Racing 92 in the south of France. Both sides currently have 33 points in the French Top 14 With Castres currently sitting two spots ahead of Racing in third thanks to point differential. Both sides lost their second round matches and will be hoping to rebound to reignite their European hopes.
Racing have put massive bulk into their front row, joining together Eddy Ben Arous (117 kg), Ben Tameifuna (133 kg), and Camille Chat (99 kg) to make a near 350 kg front row. Leone Nakarawa retains his #8 position to command the forwards. In the back, Maxime Mechenaud Lines up at scrum-half inside fellow French international Remi Tales. And explosive back line is rounded out by Chavancy and Rokocoko in the center and Brice Dulan at full-back.
Castres have a naturally large set of forwards thanks to the likes of Thibault Lassalle and Rodrigo Ortega, and have forced Racing to match their strength. However, the southern French club have had to place Armand Batlle at full-back and Afusipa Taumoepeau (say that five times fast) on the wing to counteract the explosive potential of the Parisian club.
Munster vs. Leicester
Thomond Park, Limerick
These two sides have played each other eight previous times in European championship Play, and the two have developed a fierce rivalry dating back nearly a decade. The Tigers, currently first in the group, have not beaten the Irish province since a 17-6 victory at Welford Road in December 2015. That’s streak extends farther back for matches played in Limerick. Munster, currently second in the group, have not lost a pool match yet but tied Castres in a bizarre 17-17 draw in France in the first round.
Munster head coach Johann van Graan is that the coaches first ever match in the European Rugby Champions Cup and has brought about six changes from the side that won in the Pro14 last weekend, five of them being returning Irish internationals. Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Conway, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer find themselves in the starting XV. Ian Keatley beats out Tyler Blyendaal for the #10 jersey once again after a great showing during the Irish autumn series. Although they don’t display the most explosive offense in the championship, Munster I have the ability to wear teams down with persistence and precision.
Leicester will be boosted by the return of Jonny May on the wing and Scottish flanker Luke Hamilton after injuries sustained during the internationals. Tom Youngs once again captains the side from hooker alongside Cole and Traynor. George Ford will command the backs from fly-half with Matt Smith and Mathew Tait outside him in the center. Despite their first round last to Racing, the Tigers enjoyed a seven try thumping of Castres in the second round, proving their explosive ability. That performance alone should be enough to keep the Munster backs thinking.
Harlequins vs. Ulster
The Stoop, London
Sunday’s first clash between Harlequins and Ulster will be a battle of two sides desperate for more points in their pool. Harlequins have only scored one point from two losses thanks to a losing bonus point against French upstarts La Rochelle, and have been outclassed at every turn this championship. Ulster, currently second in the group, earned a victory over Wasps in the first round before getting trounced by La Rochelle in the second round.
Despite their European form, Quins were able to pull out an incredibly impressive performance against Saracens in domestic play over the weekend, winning at the death thanks to an impeccable defensive display. Mike Brown will captain the side from full-back despite a rare form of mediocrity in European play. Tim Visser, who scored two tries against Saracens, returns to the left wing opposite Charlie Walker. Danny Care and Matt Smith take charge of the 9-10 axis. In the forwards, Kyle Sinckler moves into the front row and will be backed up by English international Joe Marler on his left. Chris Rob Shaw will also make yet another appearance at flanker for Harlequins.
The Irish side will be without captain Rory Best for the first time this European season after pulling out of the squad with a foot infection. Rob Herring steps into his shoes at hooker while Irish international Iain Henderson takes the captaincy. Callum Black returns to the front row after moving up and down through the squad in recent months and will be joined by South African tight-head Wiehahn Herbst to form a solid front row unit. James Cooney takes control at fly-half outside summer-signing Christian Lealiifano. An explosive veteran backline of Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCluskey, Tommy Bowe, Chris Gilroy, and Charles Piutau will give the harlequins plenty to deal with in open play.
The two sides might not be very acquainted, but each team’s need for a victory should make the contest and open, exciting affair.
La Rochelle vs. Wasps
Stade Marcel Deflandre, La Rochelle
The weekend’s best block of matches starts Sunday afternoon on the French coast with a match up between surprisers La Rochelle and former European champions, Wasps. Rochelle, currently sitting on 10 points from two bonus victories, are also league leaders in the French Top 14 and are gunning for a mystical Cinderella story in world club rugby.
Former Australian international, Brock James, earns the start at fly-half for the French club over Ryan Lamb in a continuing battle for the starting position. Scrum-half Alexis Bales has wowed French critics with his intuitive play around the breakdown and will get the opportunity to do so once again on Saturday. Fijian fullback Kini Murimurivalu starts once again after his move from Clermont and looks likely to continue his impressive run of form come match time.
Rochelle’s power, however, comes from their high-impact forwards. 151 kg tight-head Uini Atonio is just one part of a huge forward group that has shown impressive endurance throughout the season.
Wasps are sure to be wary of Rochelle’s impressive form. The Coventry-based club earned a bonus victory over the Tigers in Premiership play last weekend thanks to the form of Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Goperth, and Willie le Roux #10, #12, , respectively. All three are set to start on Sunday once again. Joe Launchbury returns to the side after missing last weekend’s match, constituting Wasps only change for Sunday’s fixture. Ashley Johnson and James Haskell also bring plenty of experience to a forward pack that will certainly be under plenty of pressure come Sunday.
Sarries vs. Clermont
Allianz Park, London
Haves versus the have not’s. Champions versus bridesmaids. Red versus blue. Need I say more? This is a rivalry that has classified elite European rugby. Saracens are arguably the best team in Europe, while Clermont can beat any team on any day. The two sides last met in last season’s final, Saracens walking away the victors of a 28-17 performance.
The reigning champions, however, have not fared all that well in Premiership play of late having dropped their last three matches most recent of which was a one point loss to Harlequins. Even so, they retain an incredible group of starters. Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, and Vincent Koch form a solid front row in front of Will Skelton and George Kruis. Jackson Wray makes the start at #8 and will try to facilitate a strong forward pack in the absence of the injured Maro Itoje.
In the backs, Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell hold the keys to Saracens’ attack and will facilitate ball to skipper Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch in the center.
For the French visitors, plenty of injury woes have affected the struggling club. Camille Lopez is out with a broken leg forcing Morgan Parra into scrum half and half. Graig Laidlaw is also out as a back up, putting incredible pressure on Parra to stay healthy during the match. Scott Spedding and David Strettle are two important pieces of the attack and both will most likely have to fill duties outside of their normal full-back and wing, respectively. Both offer plenty of speed as well as defensive capability. French international Wesley Fofana and New Zealander Isaia Toeava offer first and second receiver abilities for scrum half Morgan Parra and Clermont to work with.
Both Saracens and Clermont need a victory to have momentum going into next weekend’s reverse fixture. Even so, both sides could eventually meet up in the Final if they finish 1-2 in the group.
Exeter vs. Leinster
Sandy Park, Exeter
The weekend’s final fixture showcases two of Europe’s best sides on the cusp of greatness: reigning Aviva Premiership champions, the Exeter Chiefs, and three-time European champions, Leinster. Both sides won their opening two fixtures this season and can put themselves in the drivers seat for topping the pool with a win on Sunday evening.
For the Chiefs, Head coach rob Baxter has made just two changes from the side that thrashed Bath in domestic play last weekend. The first change comes in the second row where Jonny Hill takes over from Sam Skinner, while the second comes with Henry Slade moving into #13 in place of Sam Hill who is resigned to the bench. Gareth Steenson, who has worked wonders for the Chiefs’ back line, starts once again at fly-half. In the forwards, the Chiefs will have Thomas Waldrom looking after the big men, a forward pack that has wreaked havoc on teams across England thi season.
Leinster will have to counteract the Chiefs’ strong forwards come Sunday. Last season, the Irish province lost just two of their 172 scrum feeds during the entire season, a feat they’ll have to mimic if they are to create spaces at the set piece. Leinster’s forwards look business as usual apart from the injection of Scott Fardy in the second row along side Devin Toner. The backs are led by skipper Isa Nacewa with Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw in toe. Garry Ringrose finally returns to the midfield with Fergus McFadden outside him on the wing and Rob Kearney behind him.
Both sides have incredible talent, so expect nothing less than fireworks on Sunday!