There is no rest for rugby fans this weekend as the Heineken Cup returns on the back of a fast and furious Autumn Series. No time for egos to be massaged or checked then, as players must exit the international mindset and ready themselves once again for the demands of continental club rugby.
The weekend kicks off with a fascinating game at Franklin’s Gardens, where Ulster are the visitors. The Northern Irishmen are unbeaten in both the RaboDirect and the Heineken Cup, and will need to be at their best to win in what will be a raucous atmosphere of home support. It is a vital game for the Saints, as they will not want to have to go to the impenetrable Ravenhill and get a result. They will be buoyed by the return of Hartley and Foden, but I still think Ulster will snatch a win and continue their impressive form this year. The other games on Friday see the other teams in that pool face off, where I expect Glasgow to win against a Castres side who hate to travel, and Connacht take on Biarritz with the French side likely to take a victory (although Connacht might make it more difficult for them than they were expecting).
The bulk of the action takes place on Saturday, with the pick of the games coming from Toulouse where they welcome the Ospreys. The Frenchmen are unbeaten so far and didn’t really need to get out of second gear in round 2 to beat the Tigers, but with away games in Wales and England to come they will be keen to capitalise on home advantage, and should do so. The Ospreys will be desperate for at least a bonus point to help them in a pool that is impossible to call at the moment.
Elsewhere, Sarries travel to Limerick to face Munster in a game that is likely to be a ferocious forward battle. Sarries have impressed so far in back to back victories, but Munster in Ireland is a different prospect and I expect them to come unstuck, although it should be a close one.
Leicester and Quins take on Italian opposition and should win comfortably (although Treviso certainly have the ability to cause problems these days – next week’s game in Italy will be intriguing), while Sale welcome the Toulon globetrotters to the Salford Stadium in a contest that could be over by half time. Sale will be hoping the notorious French traveling demons surface once again, but there is too much talent in the Toulon lineup for them not to win here.
Edinburgh’s dire European form is likely to continue in an away trip to Racing Metro – fans will be hoping they can at least register a point on the scoreboard having failed to do so in the first two rounds. Finally on Saturday, Exeter travel to Wales to face the Scarlets with both teams hoping to revive their European campaigns having lost their opening two games. In what will be a close game, home advantage could see the Scarlets over the line.
The main event of the weekend takes place on Sunday, with Clermont Auvergne welcoming Leinster in a repeat of last year’s epic semi-final. Both teams should be well rested with neither France nor Ireland having an international last weekend, which will hopefully contribute to a fast and open game the likes of which both teams like to play. While Leinster’s Irish stars will be in good spirits following the crushing of Argentina, I expect Clermont to be too tough a proposition at home, where the fans will whip up a storm of support to drive their team to victory. Elsewhere, Cardiff take on Montpellier in a game they have to win if they are to have any possibility of getting out of their pool.
Glasgow Warriors v Castres: Glasgow Warriors by 4
Connacht Rugby v Biarritz: Biarritz by 9
Northampton Saints v Ulster: Ulster by 6
Scarlets v Exeter Chiefs: Scarlets by 3
Toulouse v Ospreys: Toulouse by 10
Zebre v Harlequins: Harlequins by 15
Leicester Tigers v Benetton Treviso: Leicester Tigers by 12
Sale Sharks v Toulon: Toulon by 14
Munster v Saracens: Munster by 5
Racing Metro 92 v Edinburgh: Racing Metro 92 by 10
Cardiff Blues v Montpellier: Cardiff Blues by 6
Clermont Auvergne v Leinster: Clermont Auvergne by 4
Do you agree? How do you see the weekend unfolding?