Leinster and Ulster spearhead Champions Cup charge

Charlie Bennett
05 December 2019

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The Christmas trees are going up, the nights are getting shorter and shorter, and for rugby fans it can only mean one thing: The Champions Cup December double-header.

The next two weekends will make or break many sides’ Europeans forays, and as Round 3 approaches there are number of matches sure to catch the eye.

The temperatures may be dropping, but the heat will most definitely be on across the continent. With crunch clashes galore we’ve taken a look through the fixture card to provide you with the lowdown on the PRO14 teams in action.

SATURDAY

Northampton Saints v Leinster, 1PM, Franklin’s Gardens

There’s no better place to start than what promises to be one of the matches of the tournament, never mind the weekend.

With Saints top of the Premiership, and Leinster leading Conference A, this one is sure to be ferocious. The hosts will be buzzing after their 36-13 East Midlands Derby victory over Leicester last weekend, with Chris Boyd’s men playing some of the best rugby seen at Franklin’s Gardens in some time.

But we all know what Leinster will bring; resilient in defence and efficient going forward, there’s a reason they’re still unbeaten domestically and in Europe this season.

A 23-10 victory over Glasgow Warriors last Saturday was a feather in the Irish side’s cap, as they secured a first victory at Scotstoun in seven years.

With both sides unbeaten at the summit of Pool 1, the first of the two meetings between these sides will prove crucial in the race for top spot.

Player to look out for: Only one? Well, you’re spoilt for choice! Ross Byrne has been kicking for fun, Ronan Kelleher has more tries than Christmas cards and Will Connors will tackle anything that moves, without fail. Take your pick.

Fast Fact: Leinster haven’t lost to an English side in the Champions Cup group stage since a 51-10 defeat at the hands of Wasps in January 2016.


Lyon v Benetton, 1PM (UK), Stadium de Gerland

The other match in Pool 1 sees two sides who are still scrambling for their first victory in this season’s competition.

With just two victories in the Guinness PRO14 this campaign, Benetton are having a difficult year to date, compounded by a last-minute 31-28 defeat to Cardiff Blues last weekend.


In contrast, Lyon are going great guns in the Top 14 and sit top of the table, despite a recent humbling 33-8 defeat at the hands of Montpellier.

It’s essentially win or bust for these two, with a defeat all but ending either side’s European foray for another season.

Player to look out for: Three words: Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara. Albeit in defeat, the Fijian winger was a steam train personified in the Cardiff clash. Get his pistons pumping again this weekend, and the Italians could pick up the points.

Fast Fact: This will be the first time these two sides have faced off in European competition.


Ulster v Harlequins, 3.15PM, Kingspan Stadium

After two narrow victories over Bath and Clermont, Ulster are riding high at the top of Pool 3 and have the knockouts within their grasp once again.

One defeat in seven sees the Irishmen competitive on all fronts, and the welcome return of Robert Baloucoune from an early season injury has added even more firepower to the squad, capped off by a try in a 29-5 defeat of Scarlets.


Quins, meanwhile, are streakier than a pigs in blankets bacon rasher. Their current run of two wins in a row was preceded by three straight defeats. It’s hard to look past the home side in this one, as the Ulstermen look to get qualification wrapped up before the year is out.

Player to watch: Baloucoune gets a doff of the cap, but John Cooney gets the nod for this one. The scrum-half has scored a try in each of his last three matches, can he make it four out of four at Kingspan?

Fast Fact: Quins haven’t won an away group stage match in Ireland since 2012, when they returned from Connacht with a 30-22 success.


La Rochelle v Glasgow Warriors, 3.15PM (UK), Stade Marcel Deflandre

Exeter Chiefs may be their usual impenetrable selves, but second place looks to be up for grabs in Pool 2 and a Warriors win here would give them the edge over their rivals.

They may have lost their last two but going down to the Chiefs and Leinster is nothing to be sneered at. If the Scottish side can regain the form that saw them dispatch Bath in the opening round, and a 50-0 victory over Southern Kings, they could come back from France victorious.

The hosts’ lowly stature shouldn’t have people writing them off though, as they sit third in the Top 14. If they can summon the spirit of their 2017/18 European escapades to the last eight, the French side could have the edge. It’ll be tight.

Player to watch: Matt Fagerson. He might be young, but he’s got plenty of experience under his belt. The 21-year-old back rower leads by example on the pitch and is always willing to get the ball in hand. If he’s on his game, Warriors are on their game.

Fast Fact: It’s a toss of a coin for the Warriors in France, there last six matches across the channel have resulted in three wins and three defeats.


Ospreys v Racing 92, 5.30PM, Liberty Stadium

It doesn’t get any easier for Ospreys in Pool 4, after back-to-back defeats against Munster and Saracens, they welcome a Racing 92 side who sit atop the pile.

The French side aren’t setting the world alight domestically, sitting 11th in the Top 14 with just three victories. In Europe it’s a different story, a 30-10 win over Sarries and that enthralling tie with Munster in the last round see the French side unbeaten against the two behemoths.

In truth, Ospreys haven’t had much to cheer about for a while, with an 18-13 home defeat to the Cheetahs making it a miserable six games without a win for the Welshmen.

If it isn’t over already, defeat here will almost certainly be the final nail in the coffin for their Champions Cup jaunt this year.

Player to watch: It was a 34-30 defeat for Racing last time out against Bordeaux, but Virimi Vakatawa was the one taking all the plaudits. The French international crossed twice while leaving a trail of defenders in his wake throughout the game. Ospreys better bring their A-game to stop him.

Fast Fact: Racing haven’t lost a European match in Wales since a 36-30 defeat to Cardiff Blues in January 2012, with two of their last four trips to the country ending in draws.


Munster v Saracens, 5.30PM, Thomond Park

Let’s be honest, this is the one we’ve all been waiting for since the draw was made. A replay of last season’s semi-final, as the two heavyweights butt heads once again.

Despite both looking as imperious as ever, both have seen a little bit of a wobble in recent weeks. The hosts fell 18-16 to Edinburgh last time out in the Guinness PRO14, possibly with one eye on this monster clash.

Sarries can’t afford that luxury domestically, with their well-documented points deduction to overcome. They’re in fine fettle in the league after four consecutive wins, but the aforementioned defeat to Racing has left them needing the points in Pool 4.

This won’t be one to miss, and neither side will give an inch.

Player to watch: Irish international after Irish international. Keith Earls, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony. Take your pick.

Fast Fact: They may have met in two of the last three years in the semi-finals, but this will be the first time the two teams have met in the group stage since 2014/15. It ended one win apiece that time, with the home side victorious on each occasion.


SUNDAY

Gloucester v Connacht, 1PM, Kingsholm Stadium

Pool 5 is still wide open, and after getting two losing bonus points in their first two games, Gloucester are far from no-hopers at the bottom of the pile.

It’s a case of same story different week for the hosts though, after five consecutive losses all by less than nine points.

Connacht know they are a match to anyone on their day and will be confident of getting something from Kingsholm. If their impressive forward line can get going they could overpower the hosts to grab a priceless win.

Player to watch: After penning a new contract which will see him at the club until then end of the 2022/23 season, Bundee Aki will no doubt be on a high as the weekend approaches. The fan favourite never lets the team down with his performances, expect much the same on Sunday.

Fast Fact: Gloucester hold the edge in this one, with the Cherry and Whites never tasting defeat against their Irish counterparts.


Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!

General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.

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