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European Champions Cup: Opponents preview – Round Four

After a superb third round for the Guinness PRO14 teams in the European Champions Cup, this weekend the sides must prepare for the backlash.

Victory for the likes of Munster, Leinster and Ulster would put them in very strong position to qualify for the knockout rounds while the Ospreys are firmly back in contention after their superb showing at Franklin’s Gardens.

Here is a quick look at each of the Guinness PRO14 sides’ opponents in the second of the back-to-back festive fixture list.

FRIDAY

Ulster v Harlequins
Kick off: 19:45
Venue: Kingspan Stadium

Harlequins are effectively out of contention in the Champions Cup after Ulster outmuscled them at a snowy Stoop last weekend.

The omens are not good ahead of their trip to the Kingspan Stadium for the reverse fixture, Quins have won just twice on eight previous trips to Ireland.

They did beat Ulster in Belfast back in the 1996/97 season and downed Connacht in Galway back in 2012 but John Kingston has shuffled his side to reflect their priorities for the rest of the campaign.

That means that internationals like Mike Brown and Tim Visser are on the bench on Friday while Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care are all injured.

Jamie Roberts will start in the centres however, and Ulster would be foolish to underestimate a Quins side that still has the likes of Kyle Sinckler and Marcus Smith involved.

SATURDAY

Montpellier v Glasgow Warriors
Kick off: 13:00
Venue: Altrad Stadium

Glasgow Warriors’ chances of making the knockout rounds came to an end last Friday night at Scotstoun.

Montpellier’s win in Scotland reinvigorated their campaign and they welcome Dave Rennie’s side to the Altrad Stadium desperate for another bonus point win.

Louis Picamoles is the top metre making forward in the competition after three rounds while no-one has beaten more defenders than the giant Fijian Nemani Nadolo on the left wing.

But the Warriors have never lost in Montpellier on two previous visits and will be desperate to end a three-match losing run in this year’s competition and build momentum back into the Guinness PRO14.

Leinster v Exeter
Kick off: 15:15
Venue: Aviva Stadium

Leinster produced a classic European away performance at Sandy Park last Sunday to beat the Exeter Chiefs at their own game.

They now welcome the Chiefs to the Aviva Stadium looking to make it four wins from four in their pool for the first time since the 2004/05 season.

The Chiefs have never won a top-flight European game in Ireland but they did beat Connacht in the Challenge Cup back in January 2015.

And in flanker Don Armand they have won of the top tacklers in the competition, with 45 in three games, and the best lineout operator from any side.

And Leinster will know they must fear a backlash from across the Irish sea after Northampton Saints were beaten in ruthless fashion at Franklin’s Gardens back in 2013 but came roaring back to steal victory at the Aviva Stadium in the return fixture.

SUNDAY

Ospreys v Northampton
Kick off: 15:15
Venue: Liberty Stadium

Northampton Saints’ defeat to the Ospreys was the final straw as director of rugby Jim Mallinder was given his marching orders.

While a new supremo will be appointed in due course, the Saints players will be hurting and arrive in Swansea desperate for a response.

Each of the last five meetings between these sides have been decided by a margin of less than ten points so expect another tight one at the Liberty Stadium.

And in Ahsee Tuala, the Saints have the player who has made the most successful offloads in the competition with seven and counting.

The Ospreys are aiming to win successive matches in the same European season for the first time since the 2009/10 campaign while Saints are looking to stop an eight-game losing run in the league and Europe combined.

Leicester v Munster
Kick off: 17:30
Venue: Thomond Park

The home side tends to win this annual Christmas clashes between Leicester and Munster.

So the Guinness PRO14 side, who comfortably dispatched the Tigers at Thomond Park last weekend, will need to upset the formbook this weekend.

Munster last won at Welford Road back in the 2006/07 season but the Tigers have only lost two of their last 36 home games in Europe.

Matt O’Connor’s side will be without Telusa Veainu who broke his jaw last weekend but Sione Kalamafoni has racked up over 50 carries in the competition already.

They could also be boosted by the return of Manu Tuilagi, the England international was close to returning last weekend and might be unleased on Munster on Sunday in a bid to match their physicality.