Champions Cup: Five storylines to follow this weekend including the England fly-half race, Ulster’s response and the fightback from the French

Planet Rugby

Ahead of the upcoming round of the Champions Cup, Planet Rugby takes a look at some of the main storylines to watch out for as the race for play-off places heats up.

Will the Bulls bust after B team gamble?

Bulls head coach Jake White took the gamble of fielding two understrength matchday squads in the opening rounds of the Champions Cup. While this is a common theme this season, due to the format, the Bulls were the only South African side to field a nearly entirely different squad as they looked to ease the playing load on key players.

Hedging his bets looked to be paying off at first when a youthful side downed Lyon 42-36 at Loftus, but a hefty 44-14 loss to Exeter quickly unravelled that result. And the loss to the Stormers in a replay of last season’s United Rugby Championship (URC) final, a game that did see all the first-choice players feature, made the gamble look even worse, as did the subsequent URC loss to the Sharks.

The Bulls ended their losing streak by defeating the Dragons 29-14 last weekend, but the next fortnight will determine if the gamble was a bust or break even.

The Pretoria-based outfit may need to win their next two fixtures to advance to the Champions Cup play-offs, and if they can defeat Exeter at Loftus and back that up with an away win in Lyon, they will settle with that as a fair break even on their bet.

Can Ulster turn things around against La Rochelle?

It has been a particularly poor few weeks for the Irish province, and their fans are getting rather restless. Head coach Dan McFarland is a man under pressure and desperately needs a result to prove that he is the person to take them forward. They have lost five of their previous six matches, culminating in a shock 31-29 reversal at the hands of Italian outfit Benetton.

That run includes successive Champions Cup losses to Sale Sharks and La Rochelle, leaving them in danger of exiting Europe’s top-tier competition at the round-robin stage. It does not get any easier for Ulster as they face the French team at the imposing Stade Marcel-Deflandre, knowing that another loss would put them teetering on the brink.

On current form, it is difficult to see them overcoming Ronan O’Gara’s men, who are the defending European champions and reside in third position in the Top 14 table. They are one of the leading clubs on the continent, and it will take a mammoth effort from Ulster to deny them this weekend. However, the Kingspan Stadium-based side are stacked with talent and are desperate to end their barren streak, which they hope will give them an edge on Saturday.

Marcus Smith’s chance to steal a march on England fly-half role

According to Harlequins head coach Tabai Matson, Smith is ready and available to play in this weekend’s clash against Racing 92 having recovered from injury. He was touch and go for the Sale Sharks encounter on Sunday, but they decided against risking him for that match with big European games on the horizon.

Ordinarily, the 23-year-old would be the automatic first choice going into the Six Nations, but Eddie Jones’ sacking and Steve Borthwick’s appointment has rather opened the door for other players. Smith also doesn’t especially ‘feel’ like a Borthwick type of fly-half, with his fancy footwork and off-the-cuff thinking not necessarily a trait which is in line with the new head coach’s approach.

The former Leicester Tigers boss is equally a massive fan of George Ford, having worked with him during their run to the Premiership title. Ford was the primary factor in the Tigers’ outstanding 2021/22 campaign, with his game-understanding, kicking ability and playmaking skills absolutely vital in their triumph.

However, he has not played since the 2022 Premiership final in June and is unlikely to feature before the Six Nations starts, while the other genuine alternative, Owen Farrell, is banned following a high tackle. Farrell’s first game back will be England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland, so that lack of game time could count against him. Smith therefore has a chance to stake his claim over the next two weeks, and a pair of good performances will make it very difficult for Borthwick not to pick him.

Opportunity for Ospreys to go back-to-back against Montpellier

The Swansea-based outfit produced one of Welsh rugby’s greatest-ever results on the continent when they overcame the French outfit 21-10 away from home. It was a stunning performance to match a superb result, which saw them show control, skill and no little power to deservedly defeat a fully-loaded Montpellier in Round Two.

It was not ‘comfortable’ as such, but it certainly wasn’t lucky as they controlled much of the encounter, with the hosts struggling to find a way to hurt the Ospreys’ defence. After the disappointment of the Leicester Tigers loss, it put them back into qualification contention going into the final two rounds.

They have since built on that result, claiming impressive victories over the Scarlets and Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship before narrowly going down to unbeaten Leinster last weekend. Considering they had only won one match this season going into the Montpellier encounter, it is an impressive turnaround and, on form, the Ospreys could well make it a double against last season’s Top 14 champions.

Fightback from the French?

Four French sides enter Round Three of the Champions Cup with no wins from their opening two games.

Racing 92 were crushed by Leinster and picked up a point against Harlequins, while Bordeaux were within a score of Gloucester and the Sharks. Lyon grabbed two bonus points against the Bulls but got nothing from the loss to Saracens, while Castres are yet to accumulate a point after succumbing to Exeter and Edinburgh.

While Racing have openly expressed their desire to win the Champions Cup, they have hardly landed a punch, and with a change of guard occurring next season, one has to wonder if they will or instead turn their focus to the Top 14.

The sacking of Christophe Urios has spurred Bordeaux on in the Top 14, but that form hasn’t translated to the Champions Cup. However, with the side playing in front of their incoming head coach, Sharks scrum guru Yannick Bru, could that further inspire them to turn their fortunes around?

Castres are infamous for fielding weakened sides in the competition, a perspective they have tried to resolve in recent seasons, but injuries have hurt the side this term, and they have fallen just short in both of their matches. Another loss this weekend would end their hopes of progression, but will they field their best side to knock over Edinburgh?

Finally, there were high hopes for Lyon after their triumphant Challenge Cup success last season, but they have failed to impress, losing back-to-back matches. Toppling Saracens could kick their campaign back into life.

READ MORE: Champions Cup: The nine stat leaders heading into Round Three, including most metres, turnovers and tries