Our rugby scribe takes a look at three of this weekend's European Rugby Champions Cup fixtures.
So, we’re a week into the competition and Saracens have already laid down a marker. The defending Champions became the first team to travel to ‘Fortress Stade Mayol’ and come away with a European Rugby Champions Cup win. Another team who fired an early warning shot was Clermont. The in-form French giants put in a mesmerising shift against Exeter in the final game of the weekend running out 35-8 victors at Sandy Park. There was also a big win for the London Wasps who ran in an incredible 11 tries during their dismantling of Zebre.
This week’s action gets underway on Friday with Toulon making the journey across the English Channel to take on the Sale Sharks. Then Ulster and Exeter go head to head in an Anglo-Irish derby in Saturday’s headline clash. The round closes out with a tie between the Leicester Tigers and Racing Metro.
Before we move on, however, we have to touch on some extremely sad news that has hit Irish Rugby. Legendary Irish eight and Munster head coach Anthony Foley tragically passed last week. While Munster were offered a postponement of their game against Glasgow, the team declined and instead will use the match to pay tribute to a true legend of the game.
Sale Sharks v Toulon | Friday 21 October | AJ Bell Stadium | 20:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Sale 4/1 | Draw 25/1 | Toulon 1/6
Sale (+11.5) 9/10 | Toulon (-11.5) 9/10
As mentioned earlier, Toulon suffered their first ever home Champions Cup defeat last Saturday. While the French giants did manage to stage a comeback during the second stanza, their goose was well and truly cooked by the time the two sides went in for the half-time break.
So how do Toulon bounce back from that 31-23 defeat? Well, it’s rather simple. Start this week’s game like they started last week’s second period. This means – and I’m going to single Ma’a Nonu out here – keep the ball in hand instead of kicking it whilst on attack. The All Black legend killed off some very promising phases of play with hit and hope grubbers. The French giants have so much attacking prowess among their backs that kicking the ball away is simply letting the opposition off. Yes, Saracens really put in a solid defensive shift with former Natal Sharks man Brad Barritt making more hits than the Rolling Stones, but you just got the feeling that they weren’t pushed to their limits during the majority of the 80 minutes.
Sale also come into this one off the back of a rather disappointing weekend which saw them go down to the Scarlets by 17 points. Last week’s loss compounded the Sharks poor start to the season that has seen only two victories from their opening six Aviva Premiership games.
Verdict: Toulon (-11.5) 9/10
Toulon really looked a different beast during the second half of last week’s game, and I reckon that momentum will be retained and see them through to a victory at the AJ Bell.
Ulster Rugby v Exeter Chiefs | Saturday 22 October | Kingspan | 20:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Ulster 4/10 | Draw 20/1 | Exeter 2/1
Two sides who suffered defeats in the opening round square off at the Kingspan this Saturday. Ulster, for all their doggedness, couldn’t hold out against a rampant Bordeaux Begles outfit, who really ramped up the intensity during the final 20-minutes of last week’s clash between the two sides to run out 28-13 victors.
Exeter were also humbled by French opposition last weekend with Clemont running out 35-8 victors at Sandy Park. To make matters worse for the Exeter Chiefs, talismanic hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie sustained an ankle injury and is sidelined for the game. While Cowan-Dickie is the only player ruled out through injury, Rob Baxter has hinted at making more changes to his starting fifteen. One man who is likely to come into the run-on XV is Henry Slade. The young utility back will bring some much-needed x-factor to proceedings.
Baxter’s opposite number Neil Doak is also set to make sweeping changes for this one, with former Golden Lions man Louis Ludik and former All Black Charles Piutau set to return to the Ulster backline.
Verdict: Ulster 4/10
Having Piutau back is a massive boost for Ulster. The former Auckland Blues man was immaculate for the London Wasps last season, taking to European rugby like a fish to water. I reckon he’ll have the same impact for Ulster this weekend. Get on the Ulster win at 4/10.
Leicester Tigers v Racing Metro | Sunday 23 October | Welford Road | 18:30
To Win (80 Mins)
Leicester 11/10 | Draw | Racing 15/20
Leicester | Racing
The final game we’ll take a look at this week is between the Leicester Tigers and Racing Metro. The Tigers come into this one off the back of a heavy defeat to the Glasgow Warriors while this will be the first game Racing play as their opening round fixture against Munster was cancelled.
Racing haven’t enjoyed the most positive of starts to their 2016/17 domestic campaign and sit eighth on the French Top 14 standings with four wins from eight games. Leicester have enjoyed a much more positive start to their Aviva Premiership season and currently lie fourth on the log having won four of their opening six games.
In terms of team news for this one, Leicester will be bolstered by the returns of skipper Tom Youngs and Springbok winger JP Pietersen while Racing are yet to announce their squad at the time of writing.
Verdict: Racing 15/20
Racing ran out 19-16 winners when the two sides met last season. I reckon we’re in for a similar result this time around. Get on the straight Racing win.