LEICESTER, ENGLAND – Though the first four rounds of the European Champions Cup have delivered drama, the fifth and sixth rounds are where the money is made. For clubs in the midst of disappointing domestic campaigns, including Harlequins and Toulouse, the continental campaign offers a welcome reprieve. For other sides, such as Northampton and Toulon, this weekend is about planting a marker of season-long dominance. But before we get to the nuts and bolts European Rugby Champions Cup Preview, let’s check out our Expert Panel’s ECC Picks:
Now to the nuts and bolts…
Saracens will line up at Allianz Park against Munster on Saturday. The match represents one of Owen Farrell’s last chances to make an impression before England’s squad for the Six Nations is announced. While the general prognosis assumes Farrell is England’s second choice fly-half, Danny Cipriani‘s impressive form at Sale has endangered the Saracen’s position. Munster have suffered from poor luck this campaign, losing two matches to Clermont by seven points apiece. The men in red did defeat Saracens in the second round, 14-3 in an uninspiring match. Paul O’Connell leads the troops in what may be one of his final European games in light of the captain’s cryptic comments about his potential retirement following the World Cup.
Sale will try to give a better account of themselves against Clermont, after dropping the second round fixture 34-3. Clermont’s sole loss in the pool came against Sarries in the first round. But for their slip-up, the pool would be clear sailing for the heavily favored French team. As things stand, Franck Azéma must plan to attack and go for a bonus point.
This pool has three potential quarterfinalists, but only two spots are allotted. Wasps, Harlequins, and Leinster sit within one point of one another, with domestic rivals Wasps and Quins facing off this weekend at the Stoop. Chris Robshaw’s return came at the perfect time for Quins, whose forward pack dominated in a classy display last weekend against Leicester. Wasps also appear to be peaking at the right time. The new team in the Midlands has been scoring tries in bunches, and it should be a classic battle between Wasps’ irresistible force and Quins’ immovable object.
The end of this miserable season could not come quickly enough for Castres. A glimmer of hope arises when it is remembered that they lost their last match to Leinster by a mere five points, but that hope is extinguished when looking at the French team’s away record; the team has not won on the road in the Top 14 all season. Leinster have some issues of their own, and they are a long way from the champions of 2009, 2011, and 2012. Jonny Sexton’s return in 2015 will hearten supporters, but the problems have not come from the backs. Instead, the vaunted forwards have suffered repeated injuries and disappointments, leading to some relatively disappointing results this season.
Leicester kicks the weekend off against Scarlets on Friday at Welford Road. The Tigers look for revenge against the Welsh region after a stunning loss at the Parc y Scarlets in round 2. But for that loss, Leicester would be in the running for the top slot. As things stand however, they need back-to-back bonus point victories to stand a realistic chance of progressing as a top-seeded second seed. Richard Cockerill has named a mostly unchanged side from the team that got walloped by Harlequins last weekend, including Tom Croft, whose fitness has been under the microscope. Scarlets hope to ride their stars to another unexpected European triumph, but they are missing Wales international hooker Ken Owens, along with utility back Liam Williams.
Ulster may be the ERCC’s most surprising team of the year, and not in a good way. After being touted as heavy co-favorites with Toulon, the Irishmen have garnered a solitary victory from four matches and sit without any hope of qualifying for the knockout stages. Toulon responded in typically impressive fashion to their lone defeat in this year’s group, trouncing Leicester at home after falling at Welford Road. The defending European champions may no longer have talisman Jonny Wilkinson, but their backs are probably the most dangerous unit in this season’s competition.
Glasgow entered the year with high hopes that they would finally advance in Europe after immense progress in the Pro12. Instead, they are tied with Bath on 10 points at the fringes of the second place quarterfinalist race. Fortunately, the Scots face a dispirited Montpelier side this weekend. After capitulating twice to Bath, the French team has a mere two points to show for their participation this year, and Glasgow can expect little resistance. However, Montpelier proved difficult to break down for the vital fourth try in both of Bath’s victories, so the Warriors will need to show a little more ruthlessness if they hope to take advantage of a favorable fixture.
Toulouse have struggled in the Top 14 this season, inspiring brief panic at the beginning of the year when it appeared they had assembled the highest priced 10th place team in the world. Though Toby Flood and company have steadied the ship, they need a run in Europe to justify what has been a lost domestic season. Bath, on the other hand, are ascendant in England but have yet to make a fully convincing leap on the continental stage. Sam Burgess is fresh off his first try in union, and though you may be tired of reading his name (or hearing it, given Sky’s tendency to drool over his potential) he does have the ability to make some spectacular plays and impact the World Cup for England. Bath must win to set up a winner take all showdown against Glasgow in the sixth round; all bets should be off with two exceptionally unpredictable sides facing off.
Treviso have made a strong argument against the inclusion of Italian teams this season. Though they have been competitive in past years, the continued diaspora of Italian players to England and France has rendered the domestic teams wobbly, and the Trevisians have been outscored by an astounding 141 points in four matches. The math will not improve against Racing Metro in Paris. The first game between the two teams was actually Treviso’s closest; a 26-10 affair that saw Jonny Sexton kick 16 points. Luck will not be with the Italians; betting odds are off the table at most books.
Ospreys have punched above their weight at times this season, and will attempt to do so once more against Northampton. The Saints laid a record number of points on Treviso in their last European outing, but no serious questions were asked of George North and company. Ospreys have built an impressive Pro12 season on the highest scoring offense in the league, and it could be a slugfest at the Liberty Stadium; exactly the kind of match fans love to watch.
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