San Diego, California – #TGIERT?…Thank God it’s European Rugby Time. Okay, it’s admittedly not as catchy as #TGIF, but Fridays are certainly more exciting when the home and away series rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup stages are upon us. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and it all starts off with a high profile clash between Ulster and Toulouse that only serves as an appetiser for an amazing weekend of cracking rugby! Before we get into your guides to this weekend’s action, here are our Expert Panel’s Pick:
The Expert Panel Picks The panel this year is a group of seven rugby experts from all over. Back is the “Rugby Rain Man,” Junoir Blaber, the “Fan’s 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 and Expert Picks Panel analysis below was compiled by Junior Blaber.
The Experts Panel:
Ulster v Toulouse
Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
Ireland International, Rory Best, will see his return to the captaincy as his Ulstermen take on French heavyweights and current Top14 third place holder, Toulouse. After a disappointing thrashing at the hands of Saracens in Round 2, Ulster has been under heavy speculation and criticism concerning their struggling attack and ability to put points on the board. Winger Craig Gilroy and fly half Paddy Jackson were adamant that their side would return to winning ways in Europe after a two week break and positive performances in the Pro12 against Leinster and Edinburgh. Les Kiss, the Ulster director of rugby, was also keen to define his team’s current situation, explaining that, “it would be remiss of anyone to define a competition after two games. I don’t think anyone’s being defined after aRound 2 in this competition before.” Head coach
Neil Doak has named Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall to form a new partnership in the centre while winger Craig Gilroy is recalled for duty, and brings back Rory Best at hooker and Robbie Diack at lock to provide needed experience for this high-profile clash. As for Toulouse, head coach Ugo Mola has retained his core forward pack led by Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles and added hooker Corey Flynn in at hooker. Mola has gone ahead and made the decision to swap Luke McAllister in for Toby Flood at fly half, with Flood moving out to 12 to pair up with Gael Fickou in the centre. With one win under their belts already, Toulouse will be ready to suppress the ruckus Ravenhill crowd and look to go to the top of Pool 1.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
The Ulstermen’s home field advantage against Toulouse has gotten them the support of four of the panel members with Blaber and Nelson being the only hold outs. Saracens have yet to lose a match this fall but Yeats, Frechette and Blaber see it happening in France’s Plastic City.
Exeter Chiefs v ASM Clermont Auvergne
Sandy Park, Exeter
The odds will be stacked against the Chiefs as they look to defend Sandy Park from French invaders Clermont Auvergne. It’s been a mixed bag for the Chiefs’ European season, splitting the first two games between a rough lost to the Ospreys in Swansea and a win at home against Bordeaux-Begles. But, in the Aviva Premiership, Exeter currently sits in second only to Saracens, improving their record to five wins from six after dominating a powerful London Wasps team last weekend. For the Chiefs, fly half Gareth Steenson and lock Tom Johnson will look to their teammates for the
continuation of their league form into the European Rugby Champions Cup. Chiefs number eight, Thomas Waldrom, had a massive match last week, scoring three commanding tries before the final whistle blew to ensure a five-try bonus point before the half. If Waldrom and his teammates can continue their superb form from last week, it will be hard for Clermont head coach Franck Azéma’s men to maintain their top form. Azéma vigourously demanded that his side maintain top form earlier this week. The Clermont boss, saw his side well and truly tested by the Ospreys in Round 2, nearly succumbing to the onslaught of Welsh attacks before finally holding firm for the last 10 minutes of the game. He again saw his side tested by local rivals, Brive, in domestic play last week, but his side’s 26–21 victory ended up being a huge morale boost after being smashed 9–35 at home at the hands of Toulon. With so much talent among the likes of Abendenon, Parra, and Cudmore, and few to no injuries, Clermont will need to steady the nerves if they are to remain top of the group after their trip to Sandy Park.
Ospreys v Bordeaux-Begles
Liberty Stadium, Swansea
Despite the narrowest of losses in the clash against Clermont in Round 2, the Ospreys have many positives to look towards and to build off in the run-up to their clash against Bordeaux in Swansea on Saturday. The Welsh outfit currently sits atop Pool 2 with six points from two games played, a position they sat in during the 2011–2012 Heineken Cup. Back then, though, the Ospreys ended up scrounging one win from four after Round 2, finishing third in the group and failing to qualify for but the knockout and automatic qualification for the next edition of the competition. Wary of the situation at hand, Ospreys forwards coach, Chris Gibbes, insisted that his side would not fall to the same fate of the 2011–12 squad, asserting that, “We have a massive assignment of us, but we are clear on what we need to do to win this game.” As for the French side, Bordeaux-Begles, head coach Raphael Ibanez recently signed a contract extension that runs until 2019, a sign that Bordeaux’s upper management believe in his ability to bring the region to rugby’s greatest heights. Bordeaux has won only one from five away games in the Champions Cup, but they will look to a 100% success rate at the line out to get them over the try line.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
In a rare clean sweep, Ospreys is expected to win at home against Union Bordeaux-Begles. In the other group match Exeter is expected to hold serve at home against the always hard to stop ASM Clermont by Blaber and Frechette while the remaining panelist expect Clermont to roll on.
Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets
Scotstoun stadium, Glasgow
After a brave performance against Northampton in Round 2, Glasgow will be looking to return to winning ways in Europe against Pro12 rivals, Scarlets. Head coach Gregor Townsend’s side last encountered the Scarlets during the World Cup, losing 16–10 to the Welsh region in the absence of several key international players. Looking back on their performance in Round 2, the Warriors will look to play with more ball in hand and put forth a better defensive effort around the fringes, two key areas of the game that they failed to impress. Considering their poor 40% kicking record, Glasgow will also be looking to score tries to avoid the uncertainty posed by a kicking battle. As for the Scarlets, the
injury tally has skyrocketed in the past two weeks and left the Welsh side scraping for replacements and hoping for the best. Welsh internationals Ken Owens, Jake Ball, Rob Evans and Aaron Shingler, Scottish flanker John Barclay, and Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe will all miss the trip to Scotland due to injury. Wayne Pivac’s men have already lost to two European games on the bounce and a third would spell out European exit before Christmas for a side that enjoyed so much success in the Pro12 and certainly must have hoped for a better European Rugby Champions Cup campaign thus far. The Scarlets are winless in their last four Champions Cup matches, but they have managed to win nine of the last 10 matches against teams from Scotland in the Champions Cup, they’re only lost coming against Edinburgh in last years edition of the competition.
Racing 92 v Northampton Saints
Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Paris
Thankfully for Racing fans, New Zealand legend, Dan Carter, seems to be in line to make his debut for the French side, his first stop sent the World Cup final against Australia. His timing could not be much better as his Top 14 club has sagged of late, most recently in a 15 all draw against Pau that ended up being a lacklustre affair. If Carter does start, he will replace Remi Tales at 10 and start a new partnership with scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and centres Alexandre Dumolin and former
Munster-man Casey Laulala, a combination that could bring about the explosive offence Racing have been looking for. As for the forwards, the French club will likely continue with flanker Bernard le Roux and hooker Virgile Lacombe leading the proceedings at the scrimmage, while Yannick Nyanga will try to slow down a powerful Northampton offence at the breakdown. On the other side of the ball, head coach Jim Mallinder and his Northampton Saints are confident that they will not repeat the mistakes they made against the Parisians in the last year’s group stage proceedings where they ended up losing both at home and away. Boosted by ferocious backs (who have scored 70% of the Saints point this year), yet maligned by an out of form scrum, the Saints will need a more rounded performance to ensure dominance around the park. Northampton have won their last four in a row thanks in part to big performances by George Pisi, Ah See Tuala, and Alex Waller, and are going to need even better performances around the pitch if they are to be the star-studded Racing cast.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
The defending Guinness Pro 12 Champs, Glasgow Warriors, are expected to get a big win at home against the Scarlets. Meanwhile in another shocker Racing 92 with the million dollar man Dan Carter are expected to win against Northampton by all the panelists.
Benetton Treviso v Stade Francais
Stadio Communale di Monigo
Less than a year after claiming top honours in the Top 14, Stade Francais has nearly hit rock bottom. The Parisian outfit currently set 11th in the top 14, two spots lower than they were before Bordeaux-Begles inflected a narrow three point defeat last weekend. In the European Rugby Champions Cup, Stade are third place in Pool 4 after a heavy defeat to Leicester in England. Fate has intervened on
the part of the Parisians and handed them back to back fixtures with the battered, bruised, and helpless Italians from Treviso. Stade captain and Italian international, Sergio Parisse, is relishing the moment he returns to his childhood home and his former club (2003–2005), saying that, “It’s going to be great. I know they’re a team that technically is definitely not at our level but which, in terms of spirit and commitment will be present. They won’t give an inch.” Treviso head coach, Umberto Casellato, spoke earlier this week about his side’s chances against the French champions, addressing the outstanding number of mistakes his team has made over the last three games in all competitions and diffusing tension surrounding captain Alessandro Zanni‘s lack of leadership. He has added hooker Roberto Santamaria into the mix in replacement of Angelo Esposito who leaves the squad with hamstring issues. Recent times have not looked favourably upon Treviso, and Saturday’s fixture looks to be the same. Expect yet another Treviso loss
Munster v Leicester
Thomond Park, Limerick
Saturday culminates with a class clash between two of the finest clubs in Ireland or England, arguably the day’ finest and maybe the weekend’s biggest fixture. Leicester have been in blistering form over the last four weeks, storming their way past Treviso and Stade Francais in two massive European Rugby Champions Cup performances and a solid win over Worcester in the Aviva Premiership. Leicester are certainly a team on the ascendancy, where as Munster are running on the opposite track. After a solid start to the Pro12 and a 32–7 victory over Treviso in there one and only European Rugby Champions Cup match thus far, the southern Irish province have turned to shocking
form, dropping their last two Pro12 games to Connacht at Thomond Park and a humbling loss to Newport Gwent Dragons away. Head coach Anthony Foley has warned his side that they cannot afford to continue the massive run of errors they have put on display in the last two performances, mistakes that will easily be capitalised on by a class Leicester side. One thing the Munstermen can look forward to is the form of the backline, form that former All Black coach Aaron Mauger has improved since he signed on to the club two years ago. As for Leicester, the performances from Kiwi Brendan O’Connor have inspired his team to unrivalled form in Pool 4. Having scored three tries in the competition so far, his addition to the English club has sparked what had previously been a lacklustre group into roaring form. Telusa Veainu and Thomas Bell need to regain the form they showed against Treviso and Vereniki Goneva on the left wing will be key to opening the ball wide for Leicester in order to break down a thin Munster backline.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
Sweeps seem to be the theme this week as Stade Francias are expected to trounce Treviso in Italy, such is the little respect people have for the Italian side. In arguably the biggest game of the weekend, Munster is expected to defend their recently unreliable fortress Thomond Park and repel Leicester by all the panelists, bar Nelson who holds out on supporting the Munstermen.
RC Toulon v Leinster
Leo Cullen will be hoping that the phrase “third times a charm” applies to his Leinster side as they take on Toulon for the third time in three years in the European Rugby Champions Cup. The spoils thus far have gone to Toulon, starting off with a 24–19 victory in the 2013–14 campaign quarter-finals and most recently with a 25–20 heartbreaker in last year’s semi-finals that saw Leinster bring the champions all the way to extra time. Despite a shocking performance against London Wasps in there first European Rugby Champions Cup and a nailbiting loss to Bath at the Recreation Ground in Round 2, Leinster captain Isa Nacewa and head coach Leo Cullen both assured there squad’s chances for their fixture at Stade Felix-Mayol. The Irish province has named a strong first side that sees Isaac boss return to duties at scrum-half, while Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock both retain their starting XV positions after credible performances against Bath. Leinster will hope that the extra week of preparation (their game last weekend in the Pro12 v Glasgow was postponed due to weather) will help them to, as Shane Horgan said, “hit them where it hurts. They need to come out and play with agility and strength.” For the home side, Toulon head coach, Benard Laporte, has demanded that his side play to the same acuity and precision that has to find his side’s style for the last three years. New Zealand centre Ma’a Nonu is set to make his European Rugby Champions Cup debut alongside Mathieu Bastarearud in midfield, while Samu Manoa Will represent the American colours amongst one of the most diverse, yet powerful forward packs in Europe. Toulon has a fantastic record against Irish teams in their last 10 games as well, winning eight from 10 in the last eight years. It will take a monumental effort for Leinster to win, but Toulon will have to be prepared to play a team that, at this stage, has everything to lose.
London Wasps v Bath
Ricoh Arena, Coventry
In my book, wasps have been the most surprising and exciting team in the European Rugby Champions Cup this season, especially after demolishing Toulon in Coventry during Round 2. Director of Rugby, Dai Young, has played to his team strengths with perfection, utilising the high paced intensity of his backs led by fly half Ruaridh Jackson and the experience of his forwards led by captain François Louw. After last weekend’s loss to Exeter, though, he made sure to address the status of his team saying, “The defeat last week to Exeter shows when people start talking about you and saying nice things, it can end up kicking you where it hurts.” Young makes few changes to the squad that faced Toulon, with Max Lahiff and Matt Banahan returning to prop and winger, respectively. As for Bath, debutante forward David Denton will make his first saw both for Bath and in the European Rugby Champions Cup. Speaking with the BBC earlier this week, Denton remarked on his side’s inconsistent form shown throughout the domestic and European seasons, but also addressed that the team is just a few steps away from becoming to the formidable side they put on display as last year’s Aviva Premiership finalists. Head coach, Mike Ford, also remarked on the leadership qualities of captain Stuart Hooper, restating his belief in the England International as well as his side’s ability to play in consistently good form. George Ford once again gets the nod at fly half and will have to command his side with precision if they are to win this battle of Britain.
Expert Panel Thoughts:
In pool 5, The Irish heritage duo Nelson and Yeats hold out hope for Leinster and expect them to somehow pull off a victory against Toulon in Toulon. The all Aviva Premiership battle between Wasps and Bath split the panel. Blaber, Yeats and JWB go with Bath while Harrington, Nelson and Frechette lean towards Wasps.
That’s it for now! 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, Kyle Phillips, Rocky Brown and Declan Yeats, respectively.