Round two of the Heineken Cup kicks off this evening at Wembley, where Saracens take on Toulouse in front of a record crowd for a pool game. The 50,000 plus will be treated to some of the biggest names in Northern Hemisphere rugby, too. The visitors’ teamsheet is brimming with internationals – the likes of Picamoles, Fickou, Steenkamp, Ralepelle and Vermaak all start on the bench. There is an abundance of pace in the backline, where the mercurial Clement Poitrenaud is named at 12 with a back three of Medard, Huget and Gear surely one of the most dangerous to grace this great tournament. Saracens may have fewer blockbuster backs, but their pack will go toe-to-toe with the Toulouse behemoth. Billy Vunipola moves back to the blindside to accomodate Ernst Joubert at no.8, with Jacques Burger completing an incredibly hard working, not to mention physical, back-row. It will be a tight game, but Sarries are the masters of these occasions and should triumph against a Toulouse team that is yet to win away from home this season. The other game tonight comes from pool 5, where the Tigers take on Treviso at Welford Road. The Italians are a tricky proposition at home, but their away form is fairly terrible and Leicester will be targeting a five point win.
Saturday’s opening game is a repeat of the 2010 Challenge Cup final. That day, Cardiff performed superbly to beat Toulon in France. This weekend the game is in Cardiff, but that is about where the good news ends for the Welsh region. They were blown away in the first half against Exeter last week, completely outmuscled and lacking any apparent desire or belief. Toulon’s galacticos, whatever line-up they eventually rest on, should win fairly comfortably. Zebre against Connacht looks a bit of a dead rubber already, and the irish province should have enough to get a win in Italy.
In Pool One Leinster host Castres who, like Toulouse, are yet to win on the road this season. Leinster come into the game off the back of a vital away win against Ospreys, and will be desperate to keep that momentum going and put themselves in the driving seat for qualification. Jimmy Gopperth is once again preferred to Ian Madigan at fly-half – his steady boot should see Castres vanquished back to France.
Another Irish province, Ulster, face a far tougher assignment that same afternoon, travelling to the impenetrable Stade Yves du Manoir to face Montpellier. The French side have bullied some big names here already this season, and with a pack including the likes of Jim Hamilton and Mamuka Gorgodze, they will look to do the same to Ulster. The Northern Irishmen were impressive against Leicester last weekend, but will need to be much more clinical with their chances if they are to come away with anything from this game. Montpellier should win, and could even deny Ulster a bonus point.
The Scarlets performance against Harlequins was astonishing, and they now have a genuine chance of upsetting French giants Racing Metro this weekend. The quartet of Williams in the backline will ensure they are always a try-scoring threat, but the might of Racing might just be too far for them. While the French side have been sluggish at times this season, they have a big pack and in Sexton a man who can kick them to victory – which is what could well happen.
Gloucester change 12 for their trip to Thomond Park to take on Munster, which seems odd given their good start to European matters last weekend. Freddie Burns is on the bench while Billy Twelvetrees is rested, meaning Jonny Bentley gets his first start in Gloucester colours. The hosts have a full strength side and should record a comfortable, probably bonus-point, victory.
Sunday’s action sees an intriguing encounter at Franklin’s Gardens where Northampton welcome the Ospreys. Both sides recorded losses last weekend and another one would effectively see their European challenge over. The Saints are without Alex Corbisiero and Sam Dickinson, two of their standout performers so far this season, so the Ospreys will certainly fancy that they have a sniff, especially with a pack that boasts five Lions. The Saints should have enough to secure a narrow victory, however. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s epic win over Munster last weekend will give them plenty of confidence, but Perpignan at the Aimé Giral are a different prospect and the Frenchmen should win comfortably.
The weekend winds down as Glasgow entertain Exeter in a game the Chiefs will believe they can win after last week’s dispatching of Cardiff. Glasgow don’t have a great record in Europe but do not lose at home very often – that record should see them past the impressive Chiefs. Finally, Clermont welcome a Harlequins team in a form and injury-enduced meltdown to the Stade Marcel Michelin, where they have not lost for 64 games. You almost pity Harlequins – in a stinking run of form, with an ever-growing injury list, it is the last place they would have wanted to go to. Continuing a theme this weekend, the French should record a comfortable win.
Round 2 SuperBru predictions:
Saracens v Toulouse: Saracens by 8
Leicester Tigers v Treviso: Tigers by 17
Cardiff Blues v Toulon: Toulon by 13
Zebre v Connacht: Connacht by 3
Leinster v Castres: Leinster by 14
Montpellier v Ulster: Montpellier by 9
Scarlets v Racing Metro: Racing by 3
Munster v Gloucester: Munster by 19
Northampton Saints v Ospreys: Northampton by 6
Perpignan v Edinburgh: Perpignan by 18
Glasgow Warriors v Exeter Chiefs: Glasgow by 7
Clermont Auvergne v Harlequins: Clermont by 24
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images