The short side: Euro giants clash, key battle and Cips returns

Date published: January 10 2019

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the main talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the Chanpions Cup and Challenge Cup.

Champions Cup game to watch – Leinster v Toulouse

Unbeaten Toulouse head to Dublin to take on the defending champions in what is a mouth-watering clash at the RDS Arena. Les Rouge et Noir stunned the Irish province in the reverse fixture in October, claiming a 28-27 triumph, and they followed that up with successive wins over Wasps. Ugo Mola’s men are in stunning form and have not lost a game since going down to Castres at the Stade Ernest-Wallon in September. That included an impressive 20-20 draw at Clermont Auvergne, but this will be an altogether different challenge.

The visitors will not be as fresh as their opponents, with the rigours of the Top 14 often leaving them at a disadvantage going into Europe, while Leinster are stacked with Irish talent. They are often described as effectively being an international quality side and it is hard to argue when you see the 23 Leo Cullen can field. It is highly likely that Toulouse will qualify from the group but they are in for a tough afternoon against the holders, who will want revenge from their previous encounter three months ago.

Player to watch – Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)

Edinburgh are within touching distance of qualifying for the Champions Cup knockout stages and their form this season can be attributed to several things. One, though, surely has to be the dominant performances of wing Van der Merwe, who has been such a handful to all opposition he’s faced in 2018/19. A huge specimen who can motor, the South African has caught the eye every time he plays and, if he can replicate that form on Saturday away at struggling Toulon, Edinburgh should claim a victory that would put them on at least 19 points with one round left.

Team to watch – Saracens

Sunday provides Saracens with several opportunities which they will look to grab with both hands. Five points will be the objective against a Lyon side that occupies bottom spot in Pool 3 on zero points from their first four games. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the towel thrown in by the French side and with Saracens looking to bounce back from a pride-denting Premiership loss to Sale Sharks last week, expect Mark McCall’s men to put in an angry performance at Matmut Stadium de Gerland. It will also be interesting to see how England number eight Billy Vunipola’s second game in his return from injury plays out, especially with their Six Nations opener against Ireland just around the corner.

One-v-one battle to watch – Rory Best (Ulster) v Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing 92)

Two old warhorses face off at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday and it promises to be a fascinating battle. With a combined age of 71 (72 in a couple of weeks), these two have been around the block plenty of times at both European and international level. Ireland veteran Best has been well managed in his latter years at Ulster, which has definitely helped extend his career, while Szarzewski is set to start due to Camille Chat’s absence. Szarzewski has lost a yard in pace but he’s an expert in the dark arts and set-piece which will be key on Saturday.

Subplot of the weekend – Danny Cipriani’s back…but is it too early?

The talented English fly-half returns to the Gloucester starting XV to face Munster on Friday after four weeks out, so can the talismanic pivot spark the Cherry and Whites into action? Or is it too early for Cipriani who, after a small tear in a chest muscle, only started training on Tuesday? The English side have certainly missed the 31-year-old following heavy defeats to Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers, which is why they have rushed him back. Against a strong team, Johan Ackermann needs the playmaker’s talents to unlock the opposition defence to bring them back into qualification contention. Although the West Countrymen sit in last place in Pool 2, the Irish province, who are at the summit, are just four points ahead of Ackermann’s charges and a win for the hosts would condense the group even more going into the final round.

Best of the rest

With the group stage entering its final two rounds, there are plenty of crucial clashes this weekend. While the Gloucester-Munster, Leinster-Toulouse and Ulster-Racing 92 encounters take precedence and have already been mentioned above, Exeter Chiefs also have a crucial game when they take on French champions Castres on Sunday.

In the Challenge Cup, the top-two in the first four pools go head-to-head. Clermont Auvergne can assure themselves of a home quarter-final when they take on Northampton Saints while the Ospreys will look to overtake Worcester Warriors in their group as the Welsh region host the Englishmen at the Liberty Stadium. In Pool 3, Connacht are three points behind Sale and the Irish province take on Steve Diamond’s in-form side at the Sportsground. Finally, La Rochelle face Zebre attempting to hit back following their shock home defeat to Bristol in the previous round.