Glouces­ter and Ex­eter to serve up real dog­fight

As the Cham­pi­ons Cup re­turns this week­end, Will Green­wood as­sesses the cru­cial games in the next two rounds

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Champions Cup -

POOL 1

Toulouse sit at the top of the ta­ble, cour­tesy of a gift from Bath’s Fred­die Burns at the Rec, and then some true bril­liance back in France against Le­in­ster.

But Euro­pean glory is not built on eight-day bursts, and I think Toulouse’s un­beaten run will come to an end against Wasps to­mor­row, the French re­turn­ing the favour at home next week.

Le­in­ster, mean­while, will pick up nine points against a strug­gling Bath. The cham­pi­ons had a dis­ap­point­ing de­feat in France, where they were un­usu­ally rat­tled for 20 min­utes, but they will not panic.

One note of cau­tion: Le­in­ster love their two- or three-phase set-plays, look­ing to win yardage up the mid­dle with sim­ple hit-up balls. Off these dom­i­nated col­li­sions in the mid­dle of the field, Luke Mc­grath likes to use plays with run­ners and de­coys around the fringes and send play­ers back through holes on the edge of the ruck, try­ing to iden­tify and iso­late tight-five for­wards. Toulouse were hav­ing none of it. They sim­ply filled the space where Le­in­ster wanted to move the ball. Turnovers and in­ter­cepts were picked off, with the key one lead­ing to a match­win­ning try for Maxime Medard.

Le­in­ster must be wary of sides who find dif­fer­ent ways to stop their points of dif­fer­ence.

POOL 2

The Ir­ish seem to be dom­i­nat­ing ev­ery­where. Mun­ster were hugely im­pres­sive in round one at Ex­eter, com­ing away with a draw and punc­tur­ing the Chiefs’ Euro­pean ex­pec­ta­tions.

Peter O’ma­hony and CJ Stander did much of the dam­age, but there were two other no­table per­for­mances. Fly-half Joey Car­bery, who moved from Le­in­ster to get game time, is look­ing com­fort­able be­hind the mon­strous Mun­ster pack, while Tadhg Beirne (be­low), who joined from Scar­lets, was ev­ery­where: steal­ing line-outs, putting in big tack­les, show­ing soft hands, run­ning like a cen­tre and steal­ing ball.

Mun­ster have Cas­tres home and away next, and while the French side will be buoyed by a home win against Ex­eter, they do not have what it takes in Europe.

There is a real bat­tle be­tween the two English sides. Ex­eter must travel to Mun­ster in round six, and if they lose ei­ther game against Glouces­ter, one of the ex­pected top dogs may be out.

I re­ally felt this could be their year to push on, so they have to earn their corn. Their start­ing XV against Har­lequins last week sug­gested they had one eye on Europe, with key play­ers rested. They will face a con­fi­dent Glouces­ter who are ready to crank it up, but I back Ex­eter to get the job done and keep their slim chances alive.

POOL 3

Sara­cens lim­ited Glas­gow – a team who av­er­age 32 points a game in the Pro14 with what is ba­si­cally the Scot­land back line – to three points in round one.

Sara­cens rel­ish a dog­fight and they will get one next week in Cardiff, but I do not think they will strug­gle at home against the Blues this week­end. Their pack looks fear­some, and quiet en­forcer Michael Rhodes will not give up on try­ing to se­cure a spot on the plane to Ja­pan with Eng­land’s back row. Be­hind the pack, Alex Lo­zowski can play any­where and last week kicked goals from ev­ery­where, too.

So, this is a race for sec­ond place. Glas­gow rolled up their sleeves in Wales after tak­ing their medicine against Sara­cens. They can ex­pect more of that in round six, so they must make hay against Euro­pean novices Lyon in rounds three and four.

Glas­gow will kick them­selves if they do not find a way out of this pool. The adage still stands: if you want to do well in Europe you have to win in France at least once. Now is that time.

POOL 4

This is a huge two weeks for Le­ices­ter. Hum­bled by Bris­tol, the Kyle East­mond send­ing-off may have made the score worse, but it would take even the most one-eyed Tiger to say that it was the dif­fer­ence.

I could get shot for heresy, but an early exit from Europe may be a bless­ing when you con­sider the num­ber of in­ter­na­tion­als Le­ices­ter pro­vided dur­ing the au­tumn, and will do again in the Six Na­tions.

The trip to Paris on Sun­day may make up Ge­or­dan Mur­phy’s mind. Win and they fight on. Lose and they get the ice baths and cot­ton wool ready for the first-choice XV and risk the wrath of Welford Road with a sec­ond XV in round four, to fo­cus on the league games over Christ­mas.

Scar­lets are holed be­low the wa­ter line and must go un­beaten from here to es­cape the pool, which leaves Ul­ster. If, when they go to Welford Road in round six, Le­ices­ter have al­ready de­cided to fo­cus on the league, they will have a sniff.

POOL 5

My cyn­i­cism about French teams play­ing each other in Europe has hit an all-time low. So, with apolo­gies, there is noth­ing more cer­tain than home wins for Toulon and Mont­pel­lier when they go head to head in rounds three and four.

They are likely to be mis­er­able, low-scor­ing af­fairs, in which the ball will hardly en­joy any oxy­gen as the play­ers try to out­mus­cle each other and prove who is the big­gest dog in the play­ground.

So, that leaves New­cas­tle and Ed­in­burgh go­ing toe-to-toe to see who can start the new year in pole po­si­tion. New­cas­tle may have to be aware of the prob­lem of fight­ing on two fronts, given they are bot­tom of the pile in the Premier­ship.

The clear and ob­vi­ous way they both win is to com­mit to throw­ing the ball about. High-scor­ing af­fairs are needed, with bonus points ga­lore. Do that and they can both es­cape the pool, in what would be the most un­likely bet of the tour­na­ment. I sus­pect Mont­pel­lier may be the fly in the oint­ment, but that will wait un­til Jan­uary. In the mean­time, New­cas­tle have the chance to find them­selves in the strangest of places – the box seat in a tough Euro­pean pool, and the toi­let seat back in Eng­land.

Play­maker: Le­in­ster scrum-half Luke Mc­grath had a wake-up call against Toulouse

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