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European Champions Cup: Opponents preview – Round Three

The festive fixtures in the European Champions Cup have arrived.

And with the Guinness PRO14 sides still very much in contention for the knockout stages – here we shine a light on each of their opponents for the back-to-back clashes.

FRIDAY

Glasgow Warriors v Montpellier
Kick-off: 19:45
Venue: Scotstoun

There will be a familiar feel to the coaching staff who arrive at Scotstoun this weekend – Vern Cotter and his forwards coach Nathan Hines used to perform the same role for Scotland.

The big-spending Top 14 side come to Glasgow sitting second in the league table domestically but on a two-match losing streak, including their top-of-the-table clash with La Rochelle last time out.

In Europe , Montpellier are – like Glasgow – already up against it to make it out of the pool following two defeats from two.

They did claim bonus points in their losses to Leinster and Exeter Chiefs however and there are a number of dangermen for Dave Rennie’s Warriors to look out for.

Not least Nemani Nadolo – the top try-scorer in the competition with four already – who has beaten 20 defenders in two games, which is nine more than anyone else.

All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden missed the first two rounds of action in Europe through injury but he too returns for what should be a compelling individual match-up with Finn Russell.

The clubs have met four times in the Champions Cup with Glasgow yet to lose.

SATURDAY

Northampton Saints v Ospreys
Kick-off: 17:30
Venue: Franklin’s Gardens

Ospreys and Northampton Saints find themselves in similar positions in their pool – both winless and up against it to make the knockout rounds.

The Welsh region come to Franklin’s Gardens to take on an out-of-form Saints that have lost their last five in a row in all competitions.

Saints have also lost six of their last seven games in the Champions Cup, including the last three in a row.

However, Jim Mallinder’s side have beaten the Ospreys in all four of the club’s previous meetings.

And should they cross the whitewash at Franklin’s Gardens, it will be the 250th top-flight European try for the club who lifted the title back in 2000.

The battle of the goal-kickers should be key – not least because discipline has been a problem for Saints who have conceded three yellow cards in their last two games.

Saints and Ospreys are two of just four sides to maintain a 100% kicking success rate this season.

Throw in the fact that Dan Biggar is heading to Northampton next season – and all eyes will be on the kicking tee on Saturday.

Munster v Leicester Tigers
Kick-off: 19:45
Venue: Thomond Park

Munster and Leicester Tigers, arch-rivals in Europe, will clash for the ninth and tenth times in the back-to-back fixtures with Leicester currently ahead in the bragging rights by five wins to Munster’s three.

This is the third season in a row that the sides have met in the pool stage, with Leicester winning three of the previous four meetings between the clubs.

The Tigers are the only side to travel to Munster and win more than once, having done so in both 2006/07 and 2015/16.

But Munster claimed the bragging rights last season as they beat Leicester 38-0 at Thomond Park – the Tigers’ second-heaviest defeat in Europe.

The Tigers’ attacking threat this season in a pool that also includes Castres and Racing 92 has been clear to see.

No side in Europe has gained more metres than their 502 with ball in hand while Mathew Tait has been the creative fulcrum with three try assists already.

After a storming six-match winning run in the league, Matt O’Connor’s side have just ever so slightly gone off the boil and two losses on the spin have dropped them to sixth in the Premiership.

They did however claim a losing bonus point at Racing 92 and a four-try bonus point in routing Castres at Welford Road to sit narrowly top of the pool as it stands.

SUNDAY

Harlequins v Ulster
Kick-off: 13:00
Venue: The Stoop

These two clubs have met three times in Europe but the most recent was all the way back in 2009.

 

While Quins remain winless in Europe, this season they welcome the Ulstermen to the Stoop on the back of a morale-boosting win last time out.

Danny Care inspired them to victory over defending European champions Saracens in the league to reinvigorate a season that appeared to be slipping into mediocrity.

In Europe they lost at home to La Rochelle in their tournament opener before being put to the sword by Wasps at the Ricoh.

Defeat to Ulster would be their third in a row at home in Europe for the first time since the 2009/10 season and would effectively end their qualification hopes.

But Ulster will need to be aware of their attacking threat, no side in the whole of the competition has made as many as their 32 offloads so far.

Exeter v Leinster
Kick-off: 17:30
Venue: Sandy Park

Arguably the most enticing off all the clashes in Europe this season, two in-form sides clash at Sandy Park on Sunday.

The Chiefs are making an impressive defence of their maiden Premiership crown – sitting top of the table and eight points clear this time around.

In Europe they are also breaking new ground, never before had they kicked off a campaign with two wins from two.

They battled hard to down Glasgow Warriors at Sandy Park before an incredible late win in Montpellier in round two.

Leinster are in fine form themselves but they will need to be prepared to put in a serious shift in defence.

Despite having the lowest ruck success rate (95%), the Chiefs have enjoyed the longest time in possession this season, holding onto the ball for 21 minutes and 15 seconds on average.

Gareth Steenson meanwhile needs six points to reach 200 for the tournament as the Chiefs chase a third win in a row in Europe for the first time in the club’s history.

Keep an eye out also for the battle of the hookers– Jack Yeandle has made more successful lineout throws than any other No.2 (25/28) but Sean Cronin’s 100% success rate (14/14) is the best in the competition.

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