The short side: Big games and Pat Lam’s Connacht return

Colin Newboult

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the European Champions Cup.

Champions Cup games to watch

Clermont Auvergne v Munster

Two giants of the European game collide on Saturday when Munster visit the Marcel Michelin looking to boost their qualification hopes with another victory.

The Irish province were not at their best in the opening encounter, struggling to put away a physical, if rather ill-disciplined, Harlequins team, but they deservedly emerged 21-7 triumphant at Thomond Park.

Clermont will be an entirely different proposition, however, with the Frenchmen showing their quality with a stunning demolition of Bristol Bears in the opening round. Franck Azema’s charges were absolutely superb as they touched down seven times in a dominant 51-38 victory.

Some of the rugby they played at Ashton Gate was simply spellbinding and no doubt the visitors will be wary of the threat behind the scrum. There is a nice mix in the Auvergne backline, from the brute strength of George Moala and Alivereti Raka to the subtlety and balance of Kotaro Matsushima, and they will look to repeat their effort from last weekend.

Munster will not be quite so naïve as the Bears, though. Johann van Graan’s men displayed all their experience and nous in defeating Quins and they will bring that nuisance value to France this weekend.

The Limerick-based side may not have the star quality in the backline, but there is plenty of rugby intellect throughout the 23. They will ask the questions Les Jaunards did not face in the West Country, which means the hosts have to prepare properly and particularly sort out their scrum.

It was an issue in their previous Top 14 match and creaked in the second half against Bristol. Should that happen again, Munster have the quality to take advantage but, all being equal up front, Clermont will expect to make it successive victories in the 2020/21 Champions Cup.

Harlequins v Racing 92

With Toulouse’s clash against Exeter Chiefs unfortunately being cancelled due to an outbreak of Covid-19, we look towards another Anglo-French clash this weekend.

A Virimi Vakatawa-inspired Racing 92 just about did the job in their opener, overcoming Connacht with a bonus-point, but it ended up being much tighter than the Parisians would have liked and they will be without the France star for this game. The Irish side were spirited and, under pressure, the Frenchmen made mistakes which allowed their opponents back into the contest.

Minds will need to be more focused when they head to London to take on a Harlequins team which seem better equipped this time around. Paul Gustard’s men have started the Premiership well and were in the contest against Munster, only for the aforementioned discipline to let them down.

If they can cut out the yellow cards but maintain the intensity they showed in Ireland then the hosts could well cause last season’s beaten finalists a number of problems.

Racing would perhaps have counted themselves unlucky to lose the 2019/20 showpiece event to Exeter Chiefs, but they have this penchant for brain fades. It was evident in that game, conceding some very avoidable tries, and their concentration rather deserted them in last weekend’s contest.

Ultimately, they should have enough against Quins, especially behind the scrum, but the English outfit do have talent throughout the XV to potentially stun one of the pre-tournament favourites.

Player to watch – Louis Carbonel (Toulon)

France’s age-grade system is currently thriving and this talented playmaker has only added to the long line of exceptional fly-halves coming through and excelling at professional level.

Once a problem position for France, with the national team coaches regularly changing the pivot due to their inability to perform in the Test arena, they now have a plethora of options.

Carbonel certainly added himself to that list with an assured performance after coming off the bench during Les Bleus’ narrow Autumn Nations Cup defeat to England.

The youngster then continued his fine form with a classy showing against Sale Sharks in the Champions Cup, kicking 16 points and setting up Gabin Villiere’s try with a stunning piece of skill.

However, this may well be a tougher assignment for the playmaker. Despite a difficult start in the PRO14, the Scarlets were mightily impressive in their European opener and managed to overcome a fully-loaded Bath squad.

With their Wales internationals returning, the Llanelli-based side were a completely different proposition and that result will have given them huge confidence heading into this encounter. Carbonel certainly has the talent to match the occasion but he will come under more pressure than he faced against Sale. How he handles it could determine the outcome of Friday’s clash.

One-v-one battle to watch – Alfie Barbeary (Wasps) v Louis Picamoles (Montpellier)

The Champions Cup always throws up thrilling individual duels as the best in Europe go head-to-head, but we’ve perhaps gone for a slightly left-field choice here.

Many around the world – and perhaps even in the northern hemisphere – may not have heard of the Wasps forward, but Alfie Barbeary is a real talent and showed that in their victory over the Dragons. After coming to the fore following rugby’s restart, helping the Midlanders to qualify for the Premiership final, he has continued that form into the 2020/21 season.

Barbeary played for the England U20 side at hooker but has also featured in the centres at school and is now plying his trade in the back-row. Head coach Lee Blackett stated that it was to take the pressure off the set-piece work but, either way, the youngster has shown his immense physicality in whatever position.

Many consider him to be the most naturally gifted athlete to come out of the English system for some time and you can see why. Powerful and quick, Barbeary continually makes it over the gain line, but he also has an impressive skill set.

This will be an opportunity for him to come up against a player who used to be one of the best in the world. Louis Picamoles is not the force he once was, where the number eight regularly sat down defenders and dominated opposing teams with his strength and off-loading ability, but he is still an outstanding forward.

Montpellier were disappointing in their Champions Cup opener last weekend and have made a number of changes as a result. This is a chance to get back on track and for Picamoles to prove a point to those who have perhaps written him off.

Subplot to watch – Pat Lam returns to Connacht

Pat Lam is an immensely popular figure in Bristol, having guided them to the play-offs in the Premiership, but he is perhaps held in even higher esteem in Galway.

The former Samoan international took over Connacht in 2013 and revolutionised the team, changing their culture and altering their playing style. Without the financial clout of their Irish neighbours, Lam had to produce something distinctive to challenge the more illustrious sides and he did just that.

It didn’t happen overnight for him or the squad but over the years there was obvious improvement before the defining 2016 campaign. They were magnificent throughout that season and eventually claimed the PRO12 title with a superb triumph over Leinster.

Lam would leave for Bristol a year later but his work is still well remembered and it will be a special occasion on Sunday. It would have been even better with supporters in attendance, but it will nevertheless be a great day as the 52-year-old returns to his former home.

Best of the rest

Although two Saturday games have been cancelled – Glasgow Warriors v Lyon and La Rochelle v Bath – as well as Sunday’s Toulouse v Exeter Chiefs fixture, there are still several highly anticipated encounters set to take place.

Saturday’s action kicks off at the RDS Arena in Dublin where Leinster host Northampton Saints in their Pool A encounter. The Irish province will be hoping to continue with their impressive start to the campaign, after claiming a deserved victory over Montpellier in their opener, while Saints will be keen to bounce back from their loss to Bordeaux Bègles.

That triumph was a tremendous boost for the French outfit, who return to action against the Dragons at Stade Chaban-Delmas. Elsewhere, Sale Sharks and Edinburgh will also be eager to get their first victories when they face off at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford on Saturday, and it will be a similar situation at Kingsholm earlier in the day when Gloucester and Ulster go in search of their opening wins.