Two weeks left…the end of the group stage is near. There’s tension and excitement in the air, can you feel it? Now it’s truly make it or break it, do or die. For some clubs the end of the road is near, but for others it’s just another step towards European glory. So far we’ve been treated to five weekends of encapsulating European rugby, and this weekend’s Round 5 of the European Rugby Champions Cup is shaping up to be another cracker of a weekend. Prepare yourself for the penultimate round of group stage European championship action with our Expert Pick Panel predictions and previews of each Round 5 fixture below…(Thanks to Junior Blaber for the Panel Picks chart)
Ospreys vs ASM Clermont Auvergne
Liberty Stadium, Swansea
Friday, January 15, 2016
On Friday evening, the Ospreys will play host to two time European Rugby Champions Cup runner-up Clermont Auvergne in what is shaping up to be the most decisive game in Pool 2. The winner of Friday’s fixture will be put in the drivers seat of the group with a victory, making a win all more vital in both sides’ quests for European survival and advancement. For the Ospreys, fly half and Welsh international Dan Biggar will man the ropes, and the inclusion of fellow Welsh international Daniel Evans at full-back will add a dual threat in the Ospreys kicking game. For Franck Azema’s Clermont Auvergne, the majority of the squad that beat out Bordeaux last weekend is healthy and fit and will remain unchanged albeit Canadian international Jamie Cudmore who misses out on selection because of injury. Clermont looks strong heading into today’s match, but it will still be a huge challenge considering the play-off potentials and that they’ve gone 5–5 in the last 10 games in all competitions and have never beaten the Ospreys on Welsh soil.
Munster vs Stade Francais
Thomond Park, Limerick
Saturday, January 16, 2016
For Munster, there is little left to play for in this European Rugby Champions Cup campaign; the dream of European glory has quickly vanished and their European record has been somewhat tarnished. Stade Francais have never won in Limerick before, but we can’t help but wonder whether or not Munster is strong enough to defend their territory against an ascending Parisian outfit. Munster’s Head coach, Anthony Foley, demanded his players play with clinical urgency and pace if not anything but to salvage pride and enter out of the Champions Cup with dignity. For Stade Francais, a win will guarantee them a spot in the knockouts as the best placed second place team in the competition. Both sides again remind largely unchanged following last weekend’s fixture in Paris, except for the replacement of Josaia Rosique in the Parisian backs as he is banned following an eye gouging incident last weekend.
Bordeaux-Begles vs Exeter Chiefs
Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Rounding out the “lower half” of Pool 2 are Bordeaux and Exeter, and considering that third placed Exeter are only four points behind Clermont in first, the stakes are extremely high. The Aviva Premiership side needs to figure out ways of scoring tries if they are to continue their journey, especially considering that only Olly Woodburn and Thomas Waldron have scored for the Chiefs in the European Rugby Champions Cup. Unfortunately, the Chiefs are strapped with injuries at the moment, forcing out of Thomas Waldron and Gareth Steenson. They’ll have to compete with a feisty Bordeaux side that has valiantly defended its home turf throughout this competition, seeing off the Ospreys in a thrilling Round 3 fixture and winning their last two domestic games at home. The seven French club have lost the last 15 of 17 European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures, and are extremely motivated to put this “record” on hold.
Leinster vs Bath
RDS Arena, Dublin
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Looking at Leinster’s European championship record this season, I can’t help but wonder which face they will put on as they heading to Saturday’s fixture against Bath. They have to measly points to show from and have long been rendered far from knockout advancement, and maybe it is the talking point Head coach Leo Cullen will use to rally and fire up the troops. Regular captain Jamie Heaslip is out with injury, pending the captains band over to Isa Nacewa. The Irish province has a good amount of promising news like centre Gary Ringrose and forward James Tracy, but youth may not be enough to counteract a Bath side feeling hard done after leaving France last week as the 12–9 loses to Toulon. George Ford played masterfully as did most of the rest of his squad, and they bring in and unchanged roster against Leinster as a way to feed off last week’s relative success. Although there are chances are more of a long shot, Bath will see this picture as a way to springboard back to back victory is that, with a little help from the Wasps, could propel them into the knockout stages in marvellous fashion.
Saracens vs Ulster
Allianz Park, London
Saturday, January 16, 2016
The last time Saracens and Ulster played each other, the latter were smacked around on their own territory, submitting themselves to one of the worst home defeats in their European history in Belfast. Les Kiss‘ Ulstermen welcome back Jared Payne at fullback after injury during the World Cup, and the return of Luke Marshall in the centre and the combination of Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar will add experience and strength to a side looking to call their way back into Europe. Of course their challengers will not be easily toppled. Despite a loss to Harlequins last week in domestic play, Saracens have been one of the best sides in Europe and have dominated the pool both at home and away. American Chris Wyles has been absolutely stellar on the wing and Owen Farrell has played exceptionally well considering the departure of his father and head coach, Andy Farrell. Both sides coming to this game having won their last three Champions Cup matches, and a win for either team will put them on the front foot going into a vital round 6.
Oyonnax vs Toulouse
Stade Charles-Mathon, Rhone-Alps
Saturday, December 16, 2016
After a second-half implosion last week, Oyonnax look to maintain a rather good run of form as they take on Top 14 rivals Toulouse. They will fancy themselves at home after playing Ulster so tightly last weekend, and should so considering the dismal run of form Toulouse have been in. The previous for time champions have crashed out of yet another European Rugby Champions Cup, barring what might maybe turn into a miracle, and Head coach Ugo Mola has been feeling the pressure from the club organisation and fans alike. Toulouse’s only when in Europe this year was against Oyonnax in round 2, and even that was a hard fought 24–18 victory. I’m pretty sure this will turn into a brutal dogfight, and even though neither team are squared up for knockout qualification, it may just turn out to be one of the best games of the weekend.
Leicester vs Benneton Treviso
Welford Road, Leicester
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Coaches always stress the importance of perform well against lesser teams, and the Leicester Tigers will be stressing that ahead of their clash with Italian outfit Treviso. Leicester have been on a steamroll in the European Rugby Champions Cup, and that doesn’t look likely to change going into Saturday’s picture. It’s been a good week for the Aviva Premiership club, who welcomed England centre Manu Tuilagi back into the fold during their domestic defeat of rivals Northampton Saints. Subsequently, the Tigers announced an incredible signing in South Africa wing JP Pieterson and supported new contracts to Tongan Telusa Veainu, centre Matt Smith and wing Adam Thompstone. They are obviously they’re heavy favourites leading into the match and can wrap up automatic qualification for the knockouts with a victory. As for Treviso, the abysmal run of form they’ve been subjected to has ramped up to 16 straight losses, a point that is glum but could spur them to something spectacular if they find it within themselves. This is European championship rugby, there has been crazier things that’ve happened.
Racing 92 vs Scarlets
Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Paris
Sunday, 17 January 2016
Racing, one of Europe’s best in form teams, host the Scarlets in a vital Pool 3 match up that could see the French side secure automatic qualification to the knockouts and would be a win away from attaining home advantage. The Scarlets have played rather poorly in their last three rounds, losing all three by large margins and failing to put out a good performance. Sitting in last place in the pool with only two points to show from four games, the Scarlet will have nothing to lose, a fact that will pose a huge challenge to hosts Racing. For the French club, Dan Carter has been sublime, and the form of the forwards has single-handedly secured winning bonus points in their last two matches. With home advantage on the line, Racing will once again rely on those forwards and the performance of their fly half to attain another bonus point victory and leave no doubt in anyone’s mind is that they are here to win a championship.
RC Toulon vs Wasps
Stade Felix Mayol, Côte d’Azur
Sunday, January 17, 2016
The last time these two sides battled each other, the London Wasps walked away as deserved victors, thrashing the champions in a fantastic display of defensive ferocity and attacking genius. Dai Young’s men also storms through Leinster on route to the top of pool 5. Wasps’ success is not guaranteed in France, though, as the fortress that Toulon have set up in the South has absolutely bombarded, but has yet to be broken. Having lost five of six over the Christmas period, the Wasps squeaked out a victory against Worcester last weekend, a confidence booster much-needed heading into Sundays match. As for the French side, familiar faces return to the lineup after players were rested in domestic games last weekend. For both the Wasps and Toulon a win is necessary considering the calibre of teams in the group. The do or die situation at hand will make this game in absolute thriller, one that I predict will be the best of the weekend.
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