Key storylines ahead of the Champions Cup

Date published: January 13 2017

Time for the Lions full-back-in-waiting to shine, plus the different needs for two French giants – here are the narratives to follow this weekend.

1) Stuart Hogg’s time to shine

After a rest for Glasgow’s win over Cardiff Blues last week Hogg returns for the Champions Cup, and the stage feels set for him to deliver a match-winning eighty minutes.

Lions selection calls have been contentious across the board for all positions, apart from full-back, where Hogg’s run of form this season and especially in the November Tests has convinced supporters and critics from all four nations to pick him as their man at full-back.

Few players in the Northern Hemisphere are as gifted as the man who was the youngest Lion on tour in 2013. Expect him to back up that high praise at Scotstoun.

2) Toulon’s ‘opération cinq points’

Toulon’s hopes of making the last eight are hanging by a thread, which is quite extraordinary when you consider that they haven’t missed the knockout stages since 2012, when they weren’t even in the tournament, participating in the Challenge Cup and losing in the final to Biarritz (whose glory days seems far longer ago than that).

Results don’t lie, and Saracens’ win at the Mayol along with Toulon’s slip up away to the Scarlets underlined what Mike Ford said the other day about Toulon’s glory days being behind them.

Admittedly not the most motivational of messages, but then again, Toulon’s pack have been shunted about at will over the last few seasons while Matt Giteau has spent months on the sidelines.

That all said, five points at home to Sale is very much achievable given the inconsistency Steve Diamond’s side have shown all season, and the fact that Denny Solomona, their cross-code finisher who looks a smart bit of business, has been de-registered. Toulon are desperate. And that makes them interesting.

3) Will Racing win in the Champions Cup this season?

No, we wouldn’t have believed you after last season’s Champions Cup final if you told us by January that Racing would be bottom of their pool with no points after four matches.

A distinctly old European campaign having come so close to a first European title in Lyon is mercilessly almost over for the two Laurents, Labit and Travers, whose jobs as joint head coaches aren’t in question after winning the Top 14 last season.

But the drop-off has been a surprise. Signing Leone Nakarawa was meant to turn Racing into a super force. Instead they have long been out of Europe, mentally if not mathematically, and are ninth in the Top 14, a whole 15 points behind leaders Clermont. It’s a copycat campaign in many ways to how Stade Français fared last season in their own plummet off the pedastal.

One trophy wonders rather than a dynasty; which might actually be a reflection of the Top 14, given in the last decade there has only been one instance of back-to-back winners (Toulouse in 2011 and 2012).

As for this weekend, taking on injury-depleted Leicester seems like a good chance to get off the ropes, with Dan Carter back at fly-half and Leicester still adjusting to life post-Cockerill.

4) Connacht’s need for five points

Speaking of injuries tearing a squad to pieces, here is Connacht’s “Injured / Unavailable” list for this weekend’s match with Zebre: Ronan Loughney, Conor Carey, Ivan Soroka, Conan O’Donnell, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Ben Marshall, Andrew Browne, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Jake Heenan, Eoghan Masterson, Jack Carty, Marnitz Boshoff, Shane O’Leary, Peter Robb, Stacey Ili, Bundee Aki, Eoin Griffin, Cormac Brennan, Cian Kelleher, Darragh Leader.

Yes, all clubs struggle with players lost to injuries, but this is a disastrous exception to the norm. John Cooney, a scrum-half by trade, will make his first start at number ten against Zebre.

Pat Lam’s message to his players will be as simple as this, without five points from this game at home to a Zebre outfit who shipped 70 points a week ago in Dublin, Connacht’s chances of making the last eight become exceptionally tricky given their three-way tie at the top with Wasps and Toulouse, and a trip to France to come.

Pull that off even with an overcrowded physio’s room, and that will be some achievement.

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