The year’s internationals are over but it’s straight into important European Cup matches from Friday onwards.
Test stars have returned to their clubs and Round 3 of the Champions Cup offers up a number of mouthwatering clashes worth parking yourself in the stands or on the couch for.
Leinster’s trip to Franklin’s Gardens to face Northampton in Pool 4 kicks the weekend off nicely, with Leicester’s visit to Munster and Clermont’s trip to Ravenhill also set to be blockbuster contests.
Let’s see who will come out on top.
First things first, make sure you sign up for our excellent Champions Cup Fantasy game with our friends over at SuperBru.
Northampton Saints v Leinster
So much attention on Northampton all week following the concerns over George North’s health but all their focus has to be directed towards coping with a dangerous Leinster outfit, or Saints’ European hopes could be over. The classic final these two sides served up in 2011 feels some time ago and the youthful look to Leinster’s backline suggests the three-time champions are on the verge of winning another title down the line.
Pairing together a midfield axis of Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose is of interest from a national Irish perspective as well as a boost for Leinster, while Northampton welcome back key internationals including the in-form Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood. These kind of matches are also the reason why Northampton splashed out on Louis Picamoles, and the France behemoth needs to deliver if Saints are to win, even at home.
Factor in Leinster’s record against Northampton- four wins out of the last five – and victories on their last two visits to Franklin’s Gardens, and it’s the PRO12 franchise who have our backing. Leinster by nine.
Munster v Leicester Tigers
This fixture is no longer a rarity, with both two-time champions squaring off frequently in recent times, and while Thomond Park remains some fortress Leicester will make the trip to Ireland with little fear given their standing as the only club to have visited Munster in Europe at their famous ground and to have come away with two victories.
One of those of course was last season’s 31-19 win, holding off a late surge from the hosts to win by a healthy margin. Almost a year on to the day Munster feel like a stronger outfit, and the prospect of an early Lions audition with Conor Murray going up against Ben Youngs makes this worth tuning in for alone.
A win this weekend for Leicester ahead of the return leg at Welford Road the following week would end up having a huge influence on the outcome of Pool 1 come the end of the group stages, and Munster cannot afford to slip up. Home advantage wasn’t the decisive factor last year, but one season on… Munster by three.
Racing 92 v Glasgow Warriors
Having picked up nothing on their trip to Welford Road and then having their first home match against Munster postponed following the tragic passing of Anthony Foley, the French champions find themselves bottom of Pool 1 and needing to make up ground on the rest of the group – making Saturday’s visit of Glasgow Warriors one of vital importance.
Coming into Round 3 sitting in mid-table in the Top 14, dual coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will be targeting Saturday’s game as a potential season kickstarter. Glasgow’s Scotland internationals can’t come back soon enough after three losses during the November internationals to Scarlets, Ospreys and Munster, the first two by some margin.
Gregor Townsend’s side however were outstanding in that Round 1 demolition of Leicester, when they thrashed the visitors at Scotstoun by running up more than 40 points, and it’s that same attacking instinct and the threat posed by Stuart Hogg and Mark Bennett, although sadly not the injured Leonardo Sarto, that Townsend will hope to see more of in Paris. The hosts’ pack however should hold sway. Quick fact: Jonny Gray, the Glasgow lock (and future Lion), is the top tackler in the competition with 31. Racing by eight.
Wasps v Connacht
Two rounds in and ahead of one of the more fascinating double headers this December, the PRO12 champions have the edge at the top of Pool 2 following their wins over Toulouse and Zebre. Wasps though are hot on their heels following that draw away against Toulouse in Round 2, which seems destined to play a major factor in the outcome of the group come the final round.
Connacht’s focus this week has naturally been on the impending departure of Pat Lam, with the head coach delivering an emotional press conference in which he said the offer from Premiership club Bristol was too good to turn down. Lam’s legend in Connacht will live on for decades after last season’s fairytale run to the PRO12 title, and while some of his players are no doubt disheartened by his eventual exit, the likes of Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O’Halloran, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion are all in excellent form.
They will need to be too at the Ricoh Arena, with Wasps having won their last three European games and also having never lost to Irish opposition at home in the competition, a record that includes sevens wins and a draw. Add in a fit Kurtley Beale into the mix, and Wasps should have too much firepower on their own turf. Wasps by six.
Other Champions Cup predictions:
Ulster v Clermont Auvergne: Clermont by 6
Saracens v Sale Sharks: Saracens by 14
Zebre v Toulouse: Toulouse by 20
Montpellier v Castres: Montpellier by 5
Toulon v Scarlets: Toulon by 18
Exeter Chiefs v Bordeaux-Bègles: UBB by 6
Lyon v Newcastle Falcons: Lyon by 5
Bayonne v Treviso: Bayonne by 8
Enisey-STM v Brive: Brive by 12
Timisoara Saracens v Harlequins: Harlequins by 35
Cardiff Blues v Bath: Bath by 10
Worcester Warriors v Newport Gwent Dragons: Warriors by 7
Edinburgh v Stade Français: Edinburgh by 6
Bristol v Pau: Pau by 8