European Champions Cup – Preview

Round three of the European Champions Cup promises to be an action packed affair, with teams looking to cement their places in the stop spots as well as those looking to make a surge for any chance of making the knockout stages. Either way, there’s no doubt we’re in for a treat.

Munster v Leicester (Pool 1)

Thomond Park will be all fired up for the visit of Leicester Tigers this weekend, as the Irish side look to build on their phenomenal result against Glasgow Warriors earlier in the campaign. The Tigers’ resounding win against Racing in round two will give the visitors much needed confidence if they are to mount an attack on the summit of pool one. Freddie Burns has been electric for the Tigers in the Premiership of late and director of rugby Richard Cockerill will be calling on his fly-half for another stand out performance. However, Munster’s strong Pro 12 form could be the prevailing factor in Saturday’s clash, having won their last four league fixtures.

Prediction: Munster by 4.

Racing 92 v Glasgow (Pool 1)

Racing are yet to get off the mark in this year’s campaign. Losing to the Tigers and a postponement with Munster will be added pressure on the French side to secure the win. But Glasgow look a solid outfit and will be sure to push Racing all the way. A Warriors win will see them leapfrog Munster, depending on how other results go. With Dan Carter at the helm for the Parisian club and a pack full of power, the home team may just take the spoils – a big game for the Scots though and it could make or break their chances of progression.

Prediction: Racing by 5.

Zebre v Toulouse (Pool 2)

Italian side Zebre felt the full force of a clinical Wasps team in the opening exchanges of the competition. However, in Toulouse they have an entirely different opponent. The French giants will provide a more direct approach, unleashing the power of their forwards to gain control. The Italians’ defence has looked especially vulnerable so far this term, particularly having not won at home in all competitions since May. However, a win for Zebre will catapult them above Toulouse to get off the mark in the pool. Toulouse, on the other hand, currently sit mid-table in the Top 14 and have found it difficult to string together a recent run of form. A victory here and it could get Toulouse back on track.

Prediction: Toulouse by 12.

Wasps v Connacht (Pool 2)

Wasps could be set to unleash their big-name signing in Kurtley Beale after a lengthy injury. A win for the Premiership side, will hand Connacht their first defeat of the European campaign. But the Irishmen have looked comfortable in their opening exchanges and Sunday’s clash at the Ricoh could be their first real test. Wasps will be looking to quell the surge of Bundee Aki who’s looked lively this season in all competitions. Wasps’ strengths lie in attack, so turning their defensive duties into platforms to attack could see them over the line.

Prediction: Wasps by 8.

Toulon v Scarlets (Pool 3)

Toulon have looked out of sorts during their opening fixtures in the Cup. A loss to Saracens that sensationally tarnished their home European record and a stumbling win away to Sale could give Scarlets the perfect opportunity to come away from the South of France with vital points. Providing the Scarlets have done their homework, there are vulnerabilities in the Toulon defence and the Scarlets have a team that could expose them. Toulon on the other hand are a force to be reckoned with and their home loss to Sarries aside, they have an exceptional record in a competition they know so well, having won on three occasions.

Prediction: Toulon by 4.

Saracens v Sale(Pool 3)

A return to action for Maro Itoje following his hand injury sustained in the second round against Scarlets, will be a confidence boost for Sarries. With two wins already under their belt, a third today could open up even more breathing space on second placed Toulon. Sale’s hopes could be left in tatters if they lose out and will remain at the bottom of the pool with points hard to come by. The Sharks will need to draw upon their full 23 if they are to come away as victors. Saracens will be keen to defend their excellent European run – unbeaten since the 2015 semi-final against Clermont and eyeing Munster’s record European unbeaten run of 13.

Prediction: Saracens by 10.

Northampton v Leinster (Pool 4)

Bottom side Northampton take on pool leaders Leinster, in what should be a must-win game for the English side. With contrasting league form, Leinster will be favourites – the Saints’ poor run of form could be their downfall. But fortunately for the Premiership club, their returning England Internationals will be vying to change their fortunes and get their season back on track. Picamoles will certainly be one to watch, having impressed immensely in his early Saints career. For Leinster, a mix of youth and experience has worked dividends this campaign and with Joey Carberry at the helm, he’ll be looking to lay down the marker in his quest for Leinster glory.

Prediction: Leinster by 6.

Montpellier v Castres (Pool 4)

The Pool 4 all-French clash could have a significant bearing on who finishes the weekend in top spot. With both teams currently on five points, only two points separate bottom side Northampton and pool leaders Leinster. Top 14 flyers Montpellier haven’t lost at home since August in all competitions and overcame Castres in their corresponding fixture in the Top 14. Last season’s Challenge Cup winners have built up good form in the league, sitting only second in the Top 14 to Clermont. Castres will need a powerhouse display to keep Montpellier at bay, but the home side should have edge.

Prediction: Montpellier by 9.

Ulster v Clermont (Pool 5)

Clermont have looked the complete team so far in this season’s competition with two bonus point winning opening rounds. It’s difficult to see the French Top 14 leaders not in the final come May, but Ulster at the Kingspan may prove to be their first real test of the competition. Ulster’s defence will need to have their wits about them as Clermont’s attack has been rampant – especially with the likes of David Strettle and Nick Abendanon in the back line. A win will be huge for the Irishmen, especially in a strong pool featuring Bordeaux and Exeter who have both shown they are capable of progressing.

Prediction: Clermont by 5.

Exeter v Bordeaux (Pool 5)

The despair of losing both of their opening fixtures should give Exeter the impetus to overcome a Bordeaux side that have only won twice on the road since May in all competitions. A heavy defeat against Clermont and the narrowest of losses to Ulster gives this fixture more of a significance than the Chiefs would have wanted. With a strong pack and a level head in Gareth Steenson, the Chiefs should have the firepower to pick up this campaign’s first win. But Bordeaux’s former Wallaby flyer Adam Ashley-Cooper will want his team to give him the best platform to attack and mastermind an opportune away win.

Prediction: Exeter by 8.

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