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European Rugby Champions Cup: Selected Fixtures Preview
Our rugby scribe takes a look at the pick of this week’s European Rugby Champions Cup action.
So after a brief hiatus, due to the end of the year international incoming tours, Europe’s big name clubs will once again go toe-to-toe. This week sees the third round of the pool stage get underway, and there’s a hell of a lot to play for even at this early stage of the competition.
Below we’ll take a look at the pick of the week’s action in detail, including tonight’s European Rugby Challenge Cup game between Gloucester and La Rochelle, and also provide you with a few quick-fire tips for the rest of the weekend’s fixtures.
Gloucester Rugby v La Rochelle | Thursday 8 December | Kingsholm | 21:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Gloucester 5/10 | Draw 18/1 | La Rochelle 18/10
Gloucester (-3.5) 9/10 | (+3.5) 9/10
The first game on the menu is a rather tasty looking second tier clash between the Cherry and Whites of Gloucester and a meaty La Rochelle outfit.
The hosts have been in decent nick of late winning two of their last three Aviva Premiership fixtures. Their only loss in the aforementioned sequences of games came at the hands of Saracens, and the Cherry and Whites still managed to eek out a bonus point win in that game going down by 24 points to 20. The visitors have also fared well on the domestic front and currently sit in fourth spot on the Top 14 standings.
Both teams have taken the maximum points from their opening two Challenge Cup fixtures with Gloucester beating Treviso (37-8) and Bayonne (27-47) and La Rochelle seeing off Bayonne (51-24) and Treviso (10-41).
In terms of head to head results, Gloucester have won five of the last six games between the sides with La Rochelle’s last victory over the English club coming in 2010.
Onto the team news now and Gloucester head coach David Humphreys has opted to make 10 changes to his run-on XV. There are returns for internationals Greg Laidlaw, Ross Moriarty and David Halaifonua while former Otago Highlanders prop Josh Honeck will get his first start for the club. Humphreys’ opposite number Patrice Colllazo is yet to announce his side but I suspect he will rotate the side somewhat after last weekend’s hard-fought draw with Racing Metro.
Verdict: La Rochelle 18/10
Gloucester have an immaculate home record but I do fancy the upset here. La Rochelle have an extremely talented squad which features the likes of Ricky Januarie and Victor Vito. The weather forecast may not be great, but I reckon La Rochelle will still be able to run in a few tries from deep. Get on the La Rochelle win at 18/10.
Northampton Saints v Leinster Rugby | Friday 9 December | Franklin Gardens | 21:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Northampton 27/20 | Draw 22/1 | Leinster 6/10
Northampton (+2.5) 17/20 | Leinster (-2.5) 17/20
We move on to the adult table now where Northampton and Leinster will square off in the first Champions Cup clash of the weekend. The hosts currently sit at the foot of Pool 4 but a win here could see them leapfrog Leinster, who currently top the standings, into first place.
These two sides have enjoyed contrasting starts to their respective domestic campaigns with Northampton losing six of their opening 10 Aviva Premiership and sitting 10 ninth on the standings, while Leinster currently sit second on the PRO12 log having won eight of their ten fixtures.
The last time these two sides met was back in 2013 where Northampton managed a 18-9 home victory and Leinster ran out 40-7 in the first leg of the two-legged affair.
In terms of team news for this one, Northampton will be without talismanic winger George North who sustained another head knock in last week’s Aviva Premiership fixture against Leicester Tigers. Leinster will also be missing will be without Irish incumbent ten Jonny Sexton who is still working his way back to full fitness.
Verdict: Leinster 6/10
I fancy the away side here. They have a top-notch squad and youngster Joey Carberry is an ideal stand-in for Sexton. Leinster on the straight win is likely to prove an extremely shrewd investment.
Ulster Rugby v ASM Clermont | Saturday 10 December | Kingspan Stadium | 14:55
To Win (80 Mins)
Ulster 12/10 | Draw 22/1 | Clermont 7/10
The headline clash of the weekend sees a star-studded Ulster side take on Current Top 14 leaders, Clermont. The hosts have go off the boil somewhat, losing two of their last three domestic fixtures, while the visitors are yet to really hit their straps in the PRO 12 and currently sit 9 points off table-toppers Munster.
Clermont currently top the Pool 5 Champions Cup group having garnered bonus point wins over Exeter and local rivals Bordeaux Begles while Ulster sit six points off the pace having their opening round fixture to the Bordeaux Begles.
The two sides have met twice since the Heineken Cup was rebranded as the European Rugby Champions Cup, with each side managing a victory. The two previous fixtures were rather dour with only three tries scored in them.
Verdict: Ulster 12/10
Clermont have slowed down after a sensational start to the year but the return of Wesley Fofana from international duty should strengthen them greatly. I don’t think his return will be enough to see Clermont to victory though and my money will be on the hosts taking the win.
Exeter Chiefs v Bordeaux Begles | Sunday 11 December | Sandy Park | 19:25
To Win (80 Mins)
Exeter | Draw | Bordeaux
Exeter | Bordeaux *Odds to be added upon release
Our final selected fixture of the weekend pits the under-performing Exeter Chiefs up against Top 14 surprise package, the Bordeaux Begles. The hosts have had a horrific start to their Champions Cup campaign and currently sit at the foot of Pool 5 with only a solitary point to their names. The visitors, on the other hand, are nicely placed in second spot with five points to their names and an away trip to Clermont already behind them.
It will be interesting to see how Exeter approach this one. There is a bit of rain in south-west England at present but the extended forecast is predicting no rain for Sunday’s fixture. These leaves head coach, Rob Baxter, with a bit of a tactical dilemma. Does the Exeter mentor tell his side to implement an attacking brand of rugby and risk another heavy defeat a la the 8-35 humbling inflicted on them by Clermont in their tournament opener? Or does he opt to for more conservative approach and try and keep it with his forwards?
I suspect he may go for the latter, which could ultimately prove to be a huge error in judgement as Bordeaux are a side who are capable of feeding on scraps and launching long-range counterattacks. If Exeter simply look to their pack to milk the penalties, then they may well find themselves trailing when Bordeaux turn on the style and run if a few tries.
Verdict: Bordeaux Begles
I really haven’t been impressed with Exeter. I thought they would offer a lot more especially after signing Ollie Devoto from Bath. It’s not a game I’d put a huge heap of money on, but a 20 rand punt on Bordeaux may prove profitable.
Quick Fire Tips
Racing Metro win against Glasgow 1/10
Munster win v Leicester 1/3
Zebre win v Toulouse 8/1
Saracens win v Sale 1/50