The best of the best resume hostilities in the European Champions Cup this weekend writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Following the first two rounds in December, the teams dispersed back to the domestic front to sharpen their tools and will come out firing to start the next loop of Europe’s top-flight competition.
We pick and preview the key clashes of the third round:
Castres v Munster
Friday, 14 January – 22:00
With Pool B leaders Harlequins having cantered to a 43-17 win over Cardiff in Round Two, the return tie should play out much the same way. Thus, the pick of Friday’s fixtures is the clash at the Stade Pierre-Fabre, a rematch of a hard-fought affair won 19-13 by hosts Munster.
Will home-ground advantage tip the scales in Castres’ favour this time around? The French club will certainly hope so after succumbing 20-18 in their opening-round home game against Quins. More than a home-ground advantage, it’ll come down to who takes their opportunities after both teams left points out on the park in their last head-to-head clash.
Munster’s gutsy 18-13 United Rugby Championship win over Ulster after losing Simon Zebo to a red card in the 15th minute at the weekend would not only have galvanized them to no end but also forced them to be more clinical. That should carry over and get them over the line in another tough tussle.
Connacht v Leicester Tigers
Saturday, 15 January – 17.15
All good things must come to an end and the time came for the Gallagher Premiership-leading Leicester Tigers at the weekend. Including their back-to-back European Champions Cup wins, the Tigers held a perfect 13-0 record before being stung by Wasps last Sunday. How they respond to that 16-13 loss will make for captivating viewing.
Connacht will look to pounce on the wounded Tigers and after pushing them hard in the previous round, they’ll fancy their chances at home. The Irish club led 20-13 up until the 55th minute when a yellow card saw them leak two tries and ultimately go down 29-23, with Jack Carty slotting a drop-goal in the final play of the game to salvage a losing bonus point.
Connacht has shown themselves capable of claiming major scalps but has been inconsistent. Their lead in the first meeting was down to a fortuitous try and another of a Tigers’ mistake. Leicester would’ve learned that lesson and will clean up their act which, combined with their superior scrum, should see them triumph again.
Leinster v Montpellier
Sunday, 16 January – 15.00
Leinster will be in a menacing mood when they host Montpellier at the RDS Arena. Seemingly cursed by Covid, their last URC game was their 47-19 win over Connacht on December 3 and they’ve only played one match since – beating Bath 45-20 in the opening round of the European Champions Cup.
The peak of their misfortunes saw frustration turn into fury when their away assignment against Montpellier was canceled, not postponed, due to new positive cases. As a result, their French foes were rewarded a 28-0 win. Leinster lambasted the decision, arguing they had a Covid-free group ready to fly out, but nothing came of it.
Therefore, expect a fired-up Leinster to take out their anger and punish Handre Pollard and company. Last year’s Challenge Cup champions were crushed 42-6 by the Exeter Chiefs in their return to the top-flight and they’re heading straight into a storm of controlled chaos, so look to Leinster to get their five log points back.
Northampton Saints v Ulster
Sunday, 16 January – 17:15
Similar to Castres-Munster, the first clash between these two teams went down to the wire, with Ulster hanging on for a 27-22 win. Unlike Castres-Munster, though, it was clear who bossed proceedings for most of the match. The Saints have struggled on defence and Ulster exploited this early and often. They ran in three tries in the first quarter and got the bonus-point touchdown in the second half.
The Saints chipped away through the boot of George Furbank before scoring two late tries to give themselves a sniff. On one hand, their fighting spirit can be commended, but it was more a case of Ulster lacking a killer instinct. They were guilty of going through the motions in the final quarter, most egregiously gifting Northampton their hope-filled final try by trying to run from deep inside their half.
Last weekend’s loss to 14-man Munster magnified the need for more focus and intensity on attack and that urgency should see Ulster return to form with the ball in hand to put away the Saints more soundly.
Clermont Auvergne v Sale Sharks
Sunday, 16 January – 19:30
Theirs was one of the Round Two fixtures that had to be postponed, meaning the last time they met was back in 2015 when Clermont Auvergne triumphed 22-13 on Sale soil. That win also edged the Frenchmen in front 4-3 in the head-to-head stakes.
They started their current campaigns in contrasting ways, Clermont Auvergne going down 29-23 to Ulster at home and the Springbok-laden Sharks scoring a 21-13 win over the Ospreys. Thataway win over the fancied Welsh outfit showed the Sharks are capable of springing upsets, but their shortcomings once again came to light in the 32-15 loss to Bristol last weekend.
That heavy defeat sees them languishing in 10th position in the Gallagher Premiership with a 4-7-1 record. That Clermont Auvergne’s third on the TOP 14 table (9-5-1) confirms they’re the better team. Their slip-up against Racing 92 at the weekend, which came after a narrow win over second-placed Toulouse, was a timely wake-up call that I see helping them find solid success to close out the weekend.