Key storylines ahead of the Champions Cup

Date published: January 20 2017

French fortunes and a key missing defender for Saracens are the storylines worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

1) Little hope left for the French

Currently leading pool five by ten points, Clermont are the only French team guaranteed to make it to the quarter finals of the Champions Cup. Other than that, it’s not looking good for the Top 14 clubs.

Racing 92 are definitely out, regardless of what happens over the weekend. Toulouse are in an unfortunate position: their survival depends on Zebre beating Wasps- never something you want to pin your hopes on.

Making it past the pool stages is also a big ask for Castres who need a bonus-point win over Leinster. Last time they took on the Irish side Castres lost 33-15, so this is a big ask.

Unfortunately, qualification for the other three French clubs depends on their compatriots being knocked out of the competition. Bordeaux-Bègles can advance if Castres and Toulon miss out, Montpellier will go through only if Toulon do not and Toulon’s chances of qualification greatly improve if Toulouse lose.

The Clermont team named for Saturday contains a quarter of the French Six Nations squad, maybe it’s time for Les Jaunards to share that talent around.

2) Barritt’s absence against Toulon

Few centres have copped as much as stick over the years as Barritt for what he doesn’t do well rather than what he excels at, the latter being his work as a defensive mastermind who now has multiple Premiership titles and a European Cup to his name. And there’s no other way to put it, when Barritt is not around, Saracens miss him.

His combinations with Duncan Taylor or Marcelo Bosch or Nick Tompkins work perfectly when Barritt’s defensive qualities are paired with creativity. He is also a roadblock for big ball carriers.

Which is why Toulon’s visit to Allianz Park feels like a big test for the defending champions after the Scarlets posed plenty of problems last weekend.

Tompkins and Bosch of course are good defenders, but then again you need to be when Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud are licking their lips looking to pound forward. Not to mention Duane Vermeulen, Mamuka Gorgodze… you get the idea.

Barritt might not be the greatest attacking centre in the world, but there’s a reason Saracens love him as a captain and a defender. And they will miss him this weekend, win or lose.

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3) All eyes on Fagerson at Welford Road

WP Nel’s Six Nations-ending neck injury before the tournament has even kicked off is a hammerblow for Scotland, to an extent. What will soften the blow somewhat is the hot form of tighthead Zander Fagerson of Glasgow Warriors.

The former Scotland U20 product has just turned 21 and continues to make huge strides, so with Nel out the way Fagerson is primed for a start on the opening weekend of the Six Nations against Ireland.

Nel’s scrummaging work is phenomenal but where Fagerson pops off the page is with his work-rate, making 13 carries and 11 tackles last weekend in the loss to Munster.

Saturday’s battle with Ellis Genge, once the England prop comes off the bench, might also be a preview for the scrum battle to come in the Six Nations after Genge’s recall by Eddie Jones on Friday.

4) A turning point for Sale

Discussion of Sale this week has centred on the investigation and subsequent sacking of Tom Arscott following an alleged information leak to Bristol.

A shame, as we should have been talking about their performance against Toulon last Sunday which looked set to produce a David-and-Goliath style victory. Unfortunately, a controversial yellow card for Kieran Longbottom made life easier for the French side who scored two tries in quick succession to secure the win.

Scrum-half Mike Phillips reinforced his confidence in his team in comments on the Premiership website, “We’ve got a talented team and a talented squad we just need to click and I’m sure wins will start coming. We’re looking to build on last week and fine tune a few things.”

Although last weekend marked Sale’s tenth loss in a row, putting on such a strong show with a squad of very young players could be a sign of hope on the Shark’s horizon.

The northern side cannot progress in Europe, but will hopefully use Saturday’s game against Scarlets to gather momentum for their return to the Premiership. Given that they won’t lose any players to the Six Nations, Sharks may hope to move further away from relegation.