LOS ANGELES, CA – The second round of the European Rugby Champions Cup kicks off today with Ulster v Saracens in Belfast. This weekend will certainly be even more competitive than last, and the tournament’s knockouts are already on the horizon. We hope for yet another exciting weekend of European championship action and maybe, just maybe, for a classic or two (please). The events of this weekend will put some teams one step closer to European glory and others on the brink of utter disappointment. Before we get into the game specs, here are our Expert Panel’s Picks:
The Expert Panel Picks
The panel this year has changed a bit. Back is the “rugby rain man” Junoir Blaber, the “face of RWU” Johnathon Wicklow Barberie, the “dirtiest player in rugby history” Declan Yeats, and our man in France, “the Top 14 expert“, James Harrington. New to the panel are the Philly fanatic of stats, Jake Frechette and “Le Wolf of Wheelchairs,” Ronan Nelson. The chart below was compiled by Junior Blaber.
The main highlight is that Yeats is backing Treviso, a very bold move making him the first to do so int the history of the panel. Everyone has chosen Bath over Leinster, and no one has any faith in Oyonnax or the Ospreys
Storm Barney has been battering Ireland over the last week, and with weather at kickoff expected to be characteristically Irish (rainy in the low 40s), it will make no exception for the monumental clash between Ulster and Saracens at the Kingspan in Belfast. Saracens captain Brad Barritt will lead the English side to Ravenhill for the first time in a year and a half, the last fixture being a 17–15 win for the Aviva Premiership side that saw Irish international and Ulster fullback Jared Payne sent off by Jerome Garces for a seemingly reckless in-air challenge on his opposite number, Alex Goode. Ulster will have
to be in top form to beat a strong Sarries side coming off the back of a 32-7 victory over Toulouse that saw all-around domination by the north Londoners and two tries from American international Chris Wyles. As for Ulster, they will play their first Champions Cup game of the season after their tie with Oyonnax was postponed following the Paris attacks. Irish international Iain Henderson will make his first start of the season for the province in the back row alongside Nick Williams and Chris Henry, rounding out a strong forward pack that will look to quell their opponent’s success at the scrummage.
Ugo Mola’s Toulouse suffered a shocking defeat last week as they were trounced by Saracens 32–7, but they will focus on a brilliant defensive effort in the second half to mentally prepare themselves for Top 14 rivals Oyonnax. Oyonnax makes their first ever Champions Cup appearance after qualifying through a sixth place finish in the Top 14 last year, and despite a lack of good form in their domestic competition this season, will look for guidance from players like George Robson and Nicky Robinson to guide them through the increased stakes of the European championship. The team from the French Alps will also have experience in the form of summer signings Fabrice Metz from Racing 92 and 2011 World Cup winner Piri Weepu to ensure a good challenge against their opponent. This will be the first European match up against debutants Oyonnax, and Toulouse will have to everything in their power to avoid losing four consecutive matches in Champions Cup play for the first time in their history. Captain Thierry Dusautoir will again line up alongside fellow Frenchman Louis Picamole and try to empower his team to a victory that could re-spark their prominence in the pool.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
This week everyone has put their support behind Toulouse in their class against Top 14 rivals Oyonnax. The panel is split 50-50 on pool 1’s other fixture, with JWB, Jake Frechette, and I looking for Saracens to march out of Ravenhill with a victory while Mr. Blaber, Mr. Harrington, and Mr. Yeats are back in the Ulstermen at home.
Ospreys forwards coach, Chris Gibbes, daringly came out this weekend said that his team has been preparing for Clermont “like any other game.” Considering that the Ospreys will face a monumental test against one of Europe’s perennial giants, the Welsh side will most definitely have a lot on their hands as they travel to Stade Marcel-Michelin. Dan Biggar undoubtedly starts for the Ospreys after a solid kicking performance last weekend that provided his team with their first victory of the campaign. He, along with Josh Matavesi, will have to play exceptionally well in defence to stop the highflying attacking prowess of Clermont’s Camille Lopez, Nick Abendonan and Wesley Fofana. In the forwards, Osprey’s captain Alun Wyn Jones and Canadian Tyler Ardron must use the same assertive pressure they used at the breakdown against Exeter to slow the ruck ball distributed to the powerful Clermont forwards Jamie Cudmore and Vincent Debaty. It is going to be a stiff challenge for the Ospreys, but if they play away from Clermont’s strengths they might…just might…have a chance.
The Chiefs return to Sandy Park to play a Bordeaux side playing their first Champions Cup game of the season. Last weekend Exeter were beaten single-handedly by Dan Biggar, allowing the Welsh flyhalf to score 15 points on penalties, three from a drop goal, and two from a conversion, highlighting the need to cut out penalties and needless mistakes. Winger James Short and fly half Gareth Steenson will lead the Chiefs in an effort to create quick ball and push the Bordeaux defence to try and find gaps for forwards like English International Tom Johnson to run into space through. Head coach Raphael Ibanez asserted that Bordeaux sees the opportunity and potential to start the campaign off properly. After fairing rather well in the Top 14 last season, Bordeaux beat Aviva Premiership side Gloucester in the play-off earlier in the year to secure their spot in Europe’s premier tournament for the first time in several years. Bordeaux have already played against French, Irish, and Welsh opponents in European competition before, but this marks the first game against English competition in Europe’s first tier championship.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
Once again, everyone has sided with Clermont Auvergne to beat the Ospreys at Fortress Stade Marcel-Michelin, a place where they haven’t lost since the 2012 semi-final versus Leinster. In the fixture between Bordeaux and Exeter, Mr. Yeats and I are the only ones who believe in the Bordeaux’s ability to win away in England, the rest of the panel backing the home side to claim their first victory of the tournament.
Head coach Gregor Townsend and his Glasgow Warriors start their European Rugby Champions Cup campaign this Saturday as the take on the Northampton Saints. Having been scheduled to play against Racing 92 last weekend the game was postponed after the Paris attacks, but Townsend asserted earlier this week that the similar style of play between Racing 92 and Northampton has allowed his players to be fully prepared to beat yet another English team in Scotstoun. Jonny Gray and Finn Russell will start for the Scottish side as they try to make Northampton the sixth Aviva Premierhip team in four years to lose in Scotland. The Warriors have picked up their form ever since the return of their World Cup players, winning two of their last three in the Pro 12 and finally finding the momentum they had at the end of last year’s domestic campaign. On the other side of the ball, Northampton will use this game as a way to nullify the mistakes they made against the Scarlets in a narrow 15-11 victory at Franklin’s Garden. Despite the win, the performance from the Saints was choppy at best, and they will need players like JJ Hanrahan and George North to spark a backline that wasn’t able to penetrate the Scarlets defence. Northampton flanker Tom Wood leads the hard-charging Saints forwards into what could be a gruelling test at Scotstoun.
Saturday night’s clash between the Scarlets and Racing 92 at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli should be a star-studded affair as the mainly Welsh filled Scarlets take on the hodgepodge of Racing’s international stars. Former New Zealand international, Cardiff Blues and Munsterman Casey Laulala will step into his new role at Racing after signing with the French club from Munster over the summer. Argentine international Juan Imhoff is back for the French club after solid performances in this year’s World Cup. His speed will complement another dangerous attacking option on the left wing in Joe Rokocoko. The Scarlets will benefit from the return of Welsh international Samson Lee, especially having already seen the positive impact of other experienced internationals like Gareth Davies and Jake Ball. Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac stated on Tuesday his belief that this weekend’s game is a must win, emphasising his team’s need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. If the Scarlets can stop Racing’s set piece play, then they will have a good opportunity to claim a decisive home victory and reinvigorate the chances in the Champions Cup.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
Moving onto Pool 3’s fixture between the Scarletts and Racing 92, the panel is once again split down the middle with James Harrington, Mr. Frachette, and I backing the current Pro 12 leaders, Scarlets, while JWB, Blaber, and Declan Yeats all are looking for Racing to win away at Parc y Scarlets. In the other fixture, JWB and I believe that Northampton’s convincing performance last week will edge them in the contest at Scotstoun while the other four are all backing the home side.
After a convincing 33–20 win over Stade Francais last weekend, the Leicester Tigers will make the trek to Stadio Comunile di Monigo in northern Italy on Saturday looking to claim a victory that could be a real boost for the club, especially considering how close past games with Treviso have been. Since 2010 the two clubs have played each other three times, all of which saw Treviso leading the Tigers after the 50th minute mark. Leicester will continue to start Kiwi
Brendon O’Connor along with fly half Matt Smith and winger Vereniki Gonover, a trio that were arguably the stars of the Tiger’ s round one performance. Treviso’s Alessandro Zanni will look to replicate his side’s first half performance against Munster last week where they showed quality defence and moments of brilliance in attack. Unfortunately for Treviso the odds are highly stacked against them having not won a game against an English opponent since 2004. Treviso need to try and use their home ground to their advantage if they are to at least walk away with a losing bonus point.
Unfortunately due to increased concerns over security and safety, the game between Stade Francais and Munster has been postponed to a later date.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
In an astonishing high risk, high reward move from Mr. Yeats, he has chosen to back Treviso at home over Leicester, the first pick for Treviso in panel selection this year. The rest of us were not so daring in our pics, siding with Leicester to leave Italy with the victory.
The Recreation Ground will be packed for Bath’s round two match up against a struggling Leinster side on Saturday evening. With their game against RC Toulon postponed last weekend due to the Paris attacks, Bath will be ready to start their Champions Cup campaign with a win. They’ll head into the game with a wide array of attacking options across the field, even without the hard-running likes of Sam Burgess to bolster the midfield. George Ford and Rhys Priestland offer scrum-half Chris Cook two distinct attacking approaches at fly half and winger Anthony Watson alongside utility Ollie Devoto provide the English side with speed and power around the vulnerable Leinster fringes. On the other hand, Leinster were at their worst during last weekend’s drubbing at the hands of the Wasps. On the other hand, Leinster are already looking at a must win situation if they are to keep their champions cup hopes alive in such a difficult pool. Fly half Jonathan Sexton and number eight Jamie Heaslip have already come out pronouncing the book importance of this fixture, and Leo Cullen’s side will feel the pressure of 12 Irish counties’ worth of fans looking for European success. Fortunately for Leinster, the return of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Ben Te’o, and Isa Nacewa could invigorate a backline that was unnoticeable last week.
The Wasps will be relishing the opportunity to play their second Champions Cup game of the year at home against a relatively green RC Toulon side that did not play last week due to game postponement. After trouncing Leinster 33-6 in Dublin last week, the Wasps look to use the same attacking and defensive formulas to quell the three-peat champions. Wasps head coach Dai Young should be optimistic going into this game considering that his side has a reasonably good record playing at home in Coventry, that the French giants have been beaten in the pool stages at least once in each of the last four years, and that the experience from last week’s game will have helped to run their patterns. As for Toulon, they come into the game looking to reassert their European dominance, but they can’t think they are going to face a soft Wasps side or else they’ll be majorly surprised. Then again, when you have tried and tested names at your disposal (Halfpenny, Mitchell, Giteau, Nonunion, Michalak, Stevens, Guirado, Ma’Afu) and a head coach that has been amazingly effective over the last few years, it’s tough not to see Toulon winning on any given day.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
In pool 5, The panel was unanimous in its belief in Bath over Leinster. Surprisingly, though, we were split in half an hour support for Wasps or Toulon, Mr. Blaber, Mr. Harrington, and Mr. Frachette backing the home side in Coventry whereas Mr Yeats, Mr Barberie, and I have chosen the champions.
Thanks everyone Feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Nick Hall, DJ Eberle, Jake Frechette, Scheenagh Harrington, Jamie Loyd, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Ronan Nelson, Kaitlin McCabe, Rocky Brown and Declan Yeats, respectively.