The pre-festive season Heineken Cup double headers are here – always an entertaining time in the rugby calendar, and one that, cliché as it may be, goes a long way to deciding the outcome of the pool stages.
Friday night kicks off with an important game at the Arms Park, as Cardiff welcome Glasgow. One point separates all four teams in the pool, so there is all to play for over the next two weeks. Cardiff were the definition of Jekyll and Hyde in the opening two rounds – woeful at Exeter, brilliant against Toulon. That makes this game very difficult to call, but given Glasgow’s impressive start to the season, I’m backing them to sneak an important away win and keep the pressure on Exeter and Toulon. Elsewhere Castres welcome the Ospreys to France – with the Welsh region all but out of the competition, Castres should record a relatively easy win.
Saturday starts with the other game from pool two, Exeter against Toulon. The Chiefs are a match for anyone at Sandy Park, but have come unstuck against top French opposition before, having lost heavily to Clermont last season. Toulon do not travel well, as goes the cliché about French sides, and while it will be close I’d still expect them to get a win. Undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend, however, comes from Franklin’s Gardens, where Northampton take on Leinster in a repeat of the epic 2011 final. The Saints have never beaten Leinster in the Heineken Cup, but have looked a different team this season. Even without the influential Ben Foden, I’m backing them to beat the Irish giants and keep pool one competitive.
Other big games on Saturday include Harlequins’ trip to Paris to take on a Racing Métro side who have not hit anywhere near the levels they were predicted to this season. While Quins have also struggled at times, they have impressed recently, and as shock results go this wouldn’t actually be a major one. In need of a win to keep their quarter final hopes alive, I think the Londoners could come away from Paris with a tight win. The other game in that pool sees Scarlets make the daunting trip to Stade Marcel Michelin – in front of their home fans Clermont are one of the best club teams in world rugby, and should record a comfortable win against the Welsh region.
Sunday’s headline fixture comes from pool five, as the Tigers welcome Montpellier to Welford Road. The French side are on a two game losing streak in the Top 14, while they were also dealt a huge blow to their qualification chances in this competition as they lost comprehensively to Ulster at home in the last round. They desperately need a win, but have only done so away from home twice this season – to Bordeaux and Treviso – so Welford Road would hardly be their location of choice to play this weekend. Look out for Rene Ranger in their backline, however, who is capable of magic. The Tigers will be happy with their six points from the opening two rounds, but Ulster’s win in France does complicate things for them – they need, at the very least, to win comfortably this weekend. Despite their injury issues, they should do so.
Also on Sunday, Perpignan travel to Thomond Park to take on Munster, in a game the Irish outfit will fancy themselves to win comfortably. They have been in great form this season, although their shock loss to Edinburgh in the opening round means they will be targeting a maximum five points. The weekend wraps-up in the south of France, as Toulouse welcome lowly Connacht to the Ernest Wallon. The French giants have been imperious at home, and could rack up a cricket score against the ailing Irish province.
Cardiff Blues v Glasgow Warriors: Glasgow by 4
Castres v Ospreys: Castres by 13
Exeter Chiefs v Toulon: Toulon by 10
Zebre v Saracens: Saracens by 25
Clermont Auvergne v Scarlets: Clermont by 18
Racing Métro v Harlequins: Harlequins by 3
Northampton Saints v Leinster: Northampton by 2
Ulster v Treviso: Ulster by 15
Munster v Perpignan: Munster by 12
Edinburgh v Gloucester: Edinburgh by 5
Leicester Tigers v Montpellier: Leicester by 9
Toulouse v Connacht: Toulouse by 38
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images