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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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