Key storylines ahead of the Champions Cup

Date published: December 16 2016

Big games across the board this weekend in Europe’s top competition as the race for the knockout stages starts to heat up.

Big wins for the three Irish sides last weekend mean the spotlight will be on Leinster, Munster and Ulster to do the double one week on, although they face tough tasks.

Here are the major narratives to follow this weekend.

1) How will Ross Byrne fare at fly-half for Leinster

Watching on at Franklin’s Gardens, Leinster flew out the gate and then noticeably stuttered once Joey Carbery departed, and Ross Byrne entered the fray. What stood out about Byrne initially was his size, tall for a fly-half at 188cm, and even with Northampton reeling, Leinster lost the momentum they were enjoying with Carbery directing things.

Now Byrne, 21, will start for Leinster on the grand stage of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. This is a step up and even though Northampton have left top stars at home, the role is Byrne’s until Johnny Sexton or Carbery return.

2) Could another big defeat mean the end for Richard Cockerill?

Cast your eye over various reports involving Leicester this week and the news for their long-term director of rugby isn’t pretty.

Cockerill’s days are reportedly numbered, with some stories this week suggesting we would be sacked before the weekend – instead the club today were wishing him a happy birthday – but when your club’s coaching culture is described as ‘toxic’, as the Daily Mail alleged this week, then surely the days are numbered.

Leicester, currently fourth in the Premiership, have won three titles since Cockerill took over in April 2009 and reached last season’s Champions Cup semi-final, raising the question where a 38-0 thumping – and a dire one at that – is leading to more a knee-jerk reaction that there should be. Lose like that again however, and there will be trouble.

3) Can Ulster pull off a historic double?

Say what you want about the advancement of the Champions Cup in recent year, but there is still room for famous stories of away triumphs that live long down the year, and this is Ulster’s time to step up. What better ground to see just how much talent Les Kiss really has at his disposal than the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Franco van der Merwe returns just at the right time at lock to bulk up an engine room that needs all the power it can muster against Clermont at home, a more ferocious beast than even the competitive pack who descended on Belfast last weekend.

There are encouraging signs though; the good form of Iain Henderson and Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson’s growth at fly-half, and the threats of Tommy Bowe and Charles Piutau capable of magic out wide. Winning at Clermont is certainly a tall order. But not impossible…

4) After the off-field brouhaha, Denny Solomona’s Sale debut

Another week, another cross-code debutant on the wing for Sale Sharks, this time in the shape of high-scoring former Castleford sensation Denny Solomona. The 23-year-old from Auckland knows how to finish, no doubt about that, but then does so does Josh Charnely, who spent last weekend’s thumping away to Saracens chasing kicks all afternoon in a thankless afternoon’s shift.

Packing the wings with talent is great, but if Charnely is only getting five touches again in limited space, as he did against Saracens, then miracles more often than not will not happen.

The onus therefore is on AJ MacGinty, still settling at fly-half, and centre Sam James, more than crash-ball midfielder Johnny Leota, to get the ball into Charnley and Solomona’s hands both quickly and in space. Otherwise Sale’s season is going to keep drifting nowhere.

5) Toulon’s need to keep pace with Saracens

Three rounds in and last season’s champions, Saracens, hold a handy five-point lead over the side who the title three years in a row before them in Toulon, all thanks to that 23-31 away win for Saracens at the Stade Félix Mayol back in October.

Denying Toulon a bonus point was massive, no question, and if Mike Ford’s side have hopes of topping the group as opposed to finishing as one of the best runners-up, and facing a tricky draw in the last eight, then coming away with a maximum against the Scarlets is of huge importance.

There were signs though last Sunday that Toulon are beginning to click. Factor in the lack of James Davies in the back row for the Scarlets to frustrate them at the breakdown following his suspension, and there are few excuses.