European Champions Cup: Opponents preview – Round Five

Charlie Bennett
11 January 2018

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Most of the Guinness PRO14 teams may be set for a lengthy break but there is plenty of European rugby to keep everyone gripped this weekend as the Champions Cup heats up.

With just two rounds to go before the knockout stages, it is a case of now or never for many sides to stake their claim for a quarter-final berth, and that will only make for dramatic viewing.

FRIDAY

Bath Rugby v Scarlets

Kick-off: 7.45pm

Venue: The Rec

Scarlets will hope history repeats itself for a second time in this fixture when they travel across the Severn Bridge to take on Bath Rugby.

This will be the third meeting between the sides in Europe and both previous fixtures have been won by the away team.

But Bath have a fearsome record against Welsh opposition in Europe, winning six of their last seven matches, with their only defeat coming against the Scarlets 16 years ago.

In a tight Pool Five, this match is vital. Bath sit top but they are level on points with French heavyweights Toulon and one clear of the Scarlets.

The Welsh side have suffered a blow with Leigh Halfpenny ruled out through injury, while elsewhere centre Hadleigh Parkes starts from the bench.

SATURDAY

Ulster v La Rochelle

Kick-off: 1pm

Venue: Kingspan Stadium

It’s first v second in Belfast on Saturday lunchtime as Ulster host La Rochelle in a crunch clash that could prove decisive in Pool One.

Ulster have won three of their four matches but trail their French opponents because they have two bonus points less.

The Irish side have a score to settle after La Rochelle inflicted their heaviest European defeat in three seasons when they won 41-17 in Round Two.

However, history is on Ulster’s side. They have not lost consecutive home games against French opposition since 2000 when Bourgoin and Toulouse left Belfast with wins.

But if they are to continue that trend, then they must improve at the line-out, where they have won just 81 per cent of their own throws this season – the lowest in the competition.

Ospreys v Saracens

Kick-off: 7.45pm

Venue: Liberty Stadium

Is there a bigger game in the Champions Cup than Ospreys v Saracens this weekend?

The Welsh side could knock out the defending champion at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday night in what could be a thriller.

Ospreys are two points and one place ahead of their English rivals in Pool Two, with table-toppers Clermont Auvergne seemingly set for the last eight.

Saracens have won their previous four matches against the Ospreys but all those successes have come by a single-digit margin.

Saracens have been boosted by the return of key duo Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, while Liam Williams could also feature after being declared fit on Wednesday.

SUNDAY

Leinster v Glasgow Warriors

Kick-off: 1pm

Venue: RDS Arena

Leinster have a chance to clinch a home quarter-final with victory against Guinness PRO14 rivals Glasgow Warriors when the sides meet at the RDS Arena.

In contrast to their league form, the Warriors have endured a poor European campaign and their hopes are already over following with four defeats from four so far – meanwhile, Leinster have won all their games.

Glasgow’s European record in Dublin is poor too, with just one win in their last seven, and that came all the way back in 1999.

Leinster were in fine form with a 38-7 win against Ulster in the Guinness PRO14 last weekend, with man of the moment Jordan Larmour grabbing two tries, and they look to be improving every weekend.

A victory for the hosts would see them claim victory in their first five European games for the first time since 2005.

Toulon v Benetton Rugby

Kick-off: 1pm

Venue: Stade Felix Mayol

Benetton Rugby may be the only side in Pool Five no longer in contention for a quarter-final spot but that means they can play with freedom when they go to Toulon.

The French side need a win and, with either Bath Rugby or Scarlets dropping points, it is a good chance for the former champions to take control of the group.

But Benetton are in excellent Guinness PRO14 form and arrive in France with three straight wins to their name, including an excellent 27-21 success against Toyota Cheetahs.

This will be just the second time the two teams have met, with Toulon claiming the first earlier this season by just a single point.

Racing 92 v Munster

Kick-off: 3.15pm

Venue: Olympique Yves du Manoir

Like big rivals Leinster, Munster are sitting pretty in their Champions Cup pool but face an almighty test of character at Racing 92.

The French side are second in Pool Four and would move ahead of Munster with a win but they have only emerged victorious in one of the sides’ five meetings to date.

Munster won convincingly the last time they were at Racing but the French side have won seven of nine European home games since and have not conceded more than 18 points in any of those games.

Munster have lost two of their last three Guinness PRO14 matches but they did ease past Connacht 39-13 last time out.

The Champions Cup’s two biggest ball carriers could also come face-to-face on Sunday as CJ Stander (71) goes up against Leone Nakarawa (70).

Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie

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