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European Champions Cup feast on the menu

So after that explosive weekend of Premiership rugby we are hit by a quick one two from Europe with some juicy back to back games over the next fortnight.  The European Rugby Cup is the big one and I am sure many a team would sacrifice winning their home league to get their hands on this particular trophy.  I feel it is getting so much harder to win both Europe and your league which is a reflection of what a good place northern hemisphere rugby is in.  The massive influx of southern hemisphere players hasn’t hurt but standards have risen across the board with even the Italian teams finally looking as if they can cut it at this level.

Kicking off proceedings is a home fixture for Glasgow against the heavyweights of Montpellier.  Hard one to call as Glasgow, somewhat against the form book,  have failed to gather any points so far and are in a tough old pool.  However,  back to back wins against Montpellier could well see them clinging in there with an outside chance of qualification.  So Glasgow with their team stuffed with  Scotland internationals, who will be brimming with confidence,  should take this round.

Bath will be flying down to the Med this weekend hoping for a bit more than a sun tan.  Toulon are definitely not firing and from what I have heard there is plenty of drama behind the scenes and some less than stellar coaching going on.  Toulon will still have their power game and have alighted upon a try scoring machine in Chris Ashton but I can’t see any structure to their game and they look vulnerable.  Bath have been very good in the league apart from the first 60 minutes against Exeter this weekend!  They will get talisman Faletau back for this and with that back line of theirs could definitely trouble Toulon. 

What a horror season Northampton Saints are having so far however this weekend could be a way to start re-building confidence.  Their opponents are the woeful Ospreys who managed to get thumped last weekend at home by a Glasgow team full of young academy lads.  Jim Mallinder however will be wary of the fact that irrespective of how bad Ospreys have been in the league they have shown teeth in Europe.  Ospreys have three points which they gathered against double champions Saracens and multi finalists Clermont.  Saints have lost their last 5 games and need to give the Franklins Gardens faithful something to sing about.  Home advantage and opponents on an equally wobbly run should allow Northampton to chalk up their first points.

Thomond Park is not for the faint hearted and Munster have a proud old record at the stadium.  Leicester Tigers also have a proud record and have tasted success against Munster in Europe on a few occasions over the years.  The two sides are both on 6 points so there will be a pretty intense battle to to decide who will come away from these next two rounds with the spoils.  Tigers are missing the quite magnificent Matt Toomua but there are rumours of the return of Manu Tuilagi.  They almost did a job on Wasps at the Ricoh this weekend in a titanic game so if they play with that intensity they have a good chance out in Limerick.  Even a losing bonus point will be a good return if they can then turn over Munster the following week and prevent the Irish side from gaining their own.

Ulster have not been playing well but when it comes to European rugby it has a very special place in Irish hearts.  They will travel to the Twickenham Stoop to face a Quins side fresh from downing last year’s European Champions Saracens.  It was a niggly and ferocious match in which Quins seemed fired up and they deservedly sneaked the win.  John Kingston will hope he can fire up his men and get the same intensity against Ulster. However,  Quins record shows an inability to put in back to back performances so quite how the coaching team handle this one I am not sure.  Danny Care was quite magnificent against Saracens as was Captain James Horwill and the ever reliable Chris Robshaw.  If the key men can keep it going they need to inspire the rest of the team to follow suit.

Wasps have a tough assignment against the leaders of the Top 14 La Rochelle.  It is an amazing story for this French club who have risen ‘Exeter like’ from the lower leagues to dominant the Top 14.  The atmosphere is also very, very special at their ground so Wasps will need to be focused and mentally strong.  The talented Mr Cipriani is back from injury and boy did he make a difference this weekend.  Wasps just look so good with him at 10 and Jimmy Gopperth at 12 especially when you throw in Dan Robson at 9.  I worry about the pack with Wasps and their missing guys such as Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury will not help.  But to be fair they are still competing well and with that superstar backline there is always the option to run La Rochelle off the park.

Back to Allianz Park for the Men in Black to lick their wounds and prepare for their favourite competition.  The bad news is Saracens will be have to do without the wonderkid Maro Itoje who picked up a serious facial injury this weekend plus they are still missing big Billy Vunipola, Shalk Brits, Liam Williams, Mike Rhodes and Duncan Taylor.  The good news is Clermont also have their own worries with injuries to two fly halves and their new replacement fly half Luke Mcalister suffering a hand injury this weekend.  Not only that - their form in the Top 14 has been not very Clermonty and they sit in 6th place after a grisly draw against the basement team Oyonnax.  You would have to back Saracens to pick themselves up after what is for them uncharted territory – a losing streak – and bounce back to winning ways.

The final big game is mouth watering.  Exeter take on Irish royalty Leinster down at their fortress Sandy Park.  Exeter have been outstanding this season so far and to me it looks as if they have taken the next step up to be a serious player on the European stage.  They had a quite magnificent win out in Montpellier in the earlier rounds which puts them in a good place in the pool - second only to Leinster.  Bag the win this weekend and Rob Baxter will be looking at that Euro trophy and be thinking – why not us?