Champions Cup: Five storylines to follow in the European weekend

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  • James Botham
    Welsh rugby player

Ahead of Round Three of the Champions Cup pool stage, Planet Rugby features writer James While gives us his five storylines to follow over the weekend.

Cardiff to test English champions

In December, a makeshift Cardiff side suffering 30 unavailable players travelled to the Stoop and gave Harlequins the fright of their lives in the first half, playing a wonderful brand of running rugby that mirrored the shackle-free style of their hosts.

At the interval, all was square at 17-17, until Alex Dombrandt stretched his legs and bagged a brace in the second half as the doughty Welsh side ran out of steam.

Ellis Jenkins and James Botham both put in massive shifts in the game, and although Botham is absent, Jenkins remains as Cardiff are able to pick from a much healthier squad.

Cardiff boss Dai Young commented: “We can be really proud of the way the group came together to perform admirably in the opening two rounds in Europe back in December.

“The senior guys did a great job to lead the more inexperienced players during that period and they’ve taken confidence from that. I’d like to think it brought us a bit closer together. It was a difficult period but we stuck together and hopefully we’ve come out as a closer unit.”

It’ll be a test of Harlequins’ mettle and a game that’s sure to light up an exciting weekend of European rugby.

Wins on the road

Winning away from home is a priceless commodity in European rugby, especially considering the ‘sudden death’ nature of this season’s pool stages.

Racing 92 might not be setting the Top 14 alight, but their class across the pitch is undeniable and we fancy they might just upset their hosts, an Ospreys side that have truly flattered to deceive this season. With an outstanding pack and Wenceslas Lauret in the form of his life on the flank, Racing have every opportunity to cement a place in the knockout stages of the tournament.

Over on the west coast of Ireland, visiting Connacht is always one of the biggest tests of fortitude and basic rugby, and with wind and rain predicted, Leicester Tigers arrive on a mission to grab a win. Tigers play hard, abrasive rugby built around one of the most gnarly packs around, exactly what’s needed at the Sportsground, but without George Ford, Ben Youngs and Dan Cole, their chances of snatching victory have reduced somewhat.

Bath demolished

Bath have experienced a season that is at best, disastrous, at worst, catastrophic. Yes, they scraped a win versus a 14-man Worcester Warriors last weekend, but travelling to play La Rochelle, a side that play with immense forward power combined with the typical pace of a French backline, you feel that this just might be one of those moments where we witness a cricket score put on a side devoid of form or belief.

To add insult, Will Stuart, Bath’s tighthead anchor and Tom de Glanville, one of their better players this year, are both absent injured, but the good news is that England flank Sam Underhill appears now to be available.

Nevertheless, La Rochelle possess class in every position and with the likes of Dany Priso and Uini Atonio, supported by world class players like Gregory Alldritt, this match isn’t a question of who is going to win, rather how many can La Rochelle score?

It’s going to be a tough day at the office for Bath and one that might just make their season even worse.

Too close to call

Glasgow Warriors live up to their name in every respect and after their 22-7 win in the December fixture versus Exeter when the commentators and players struggled to see themselves in a pea-soup fog, they might fancy their chances on the road as they travel to Sandy Park.

Rob Baxter’s men look like a misfiring supercar at the moment; we all know how good they are, but an edge seems to have gone at scrum time and they’re lacking their usual finishing ability close to the line.

Glasgow’s identity is one of fast, opportunistic rugby, whilst the Chiefs are their usual pragmatic selves; the match will be a contrast of styles, with two sides that don’t lack firepower. It’s almost too close to call and one we believe will be the hardest-fought fixture of the weekend.

Eight to eight

Sunday’s offering of three fixtures back-to-back brings us a triplet of high quality matches. However, the one that attracts us most of all is Leinster, arguably the best team in Europe right now, against the Top 14 side Montpellier. The hosts should have enough to dispose of the visiting French, despite the glitterati in the ranks of Montpol.

In the head-to-heads, Zach Mercer’s duel (when he comes off the bench) with Lions number eight Jack Conan is our match-up of the weekend. Many felt Mercer was underutilised by England and that his loose style didn’t find favour with Eddie Jones, whilst Conan cemented his international credentials with a massive display for the British and Irish Lions.

Mercer has been playing to rave reviews in the south of France and it just might be that his sojourn will be the making of him as he looks to rejuvenate his international career once his two-year contract ends, but right now, Conan is the best eight available to the Lions and their battle will absolutely inform the result of the game.

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