The European Champions Cup is back with us and the next two weekends feature the first two rounds of play. The format still makes basically no sense, but the rugby should be good and with 11 games on tap over the next three days (Scarlets had to forfeit to Bristol due to isolation after their trip to South Africa) there is plenty to get excited about.
Here is a brief look at a few of the matches.
Northampton Saints VS Racing 92 – Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
Northampton is the team in better form here as they enter this contest with back-to-back wins in the Gallagher Premiership over Bristol and Bath. This leaves them sitting third in the highly competitive table. Racing, on the other hand, has lost three straight in the Top 14 and sits sixth in the big-money competition. There are mouthwatering battles all over the park and the pick of those is at No. 10 where British & Irish Lions’ teammates will clash as Welshman Dan Biggar directs Northampton while Scottish maverick Finn Russell does the same job from the Parisians. This is basically a pick ’em line and I’ll go for Northampton as the team in better form to win at 21/20 with BetXchange.
Ospreys VS Sale Sharks – Swansea.com Stadium, Swansea
Sale is 7.5 point favorites on the road in Wales as they face an Ospreys outfit that has failed to win in their last eight Champions Cup matches. The problem for the Welsh has been their inability to defend the best teams in Europe, having conceded an average of 34 points per game across those seven defeats and one draw. Gareth Anscombe makes his first start since the Autumn Internationals as one of five Welsh caps in the backline.
Sale is not in good form having won just three of their nine matches and sitting 11th in the Premiership table. Their team is, however, loaded, with the Curry brothers as good as they come in the back row, giant South African Lood de Jager in the second row, and rising star Raffi Quirke at scrum-half. I like Sale to win and to cover.
Bordeaux VS Leicester Tigers – Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
The clash of the round sees the leaders of the Top 14 Bordeaux face a Leicester Tigers squad that has defied all expectations and that has won every game they have played so far this season. The Tigers’ turnaround under Steve Borthwick has been remarkable, but this will be their biggest test to date away from home against a massive French outfit. Borthwick, however, has used this opportunity to rest some of his key men. The likes of Freddie Steward, Ben Youngs, Nemani Nadolo, and Hanro Liebenberg all miss out, so the depth of the Leicester squad will be tested. I like the home side to win here and cover the 7.5 points, with Leicester looking to get their own back at Welford Road later in the competition.
Castres VS Harlequins – Stade Pierre-Fabre, Castres
Free-flowing Harlequins travel to Castres with a strong side featuring just one change from the starting XV that lost to Leicester last time out. That change is on the flank where Tom Lawday comes in and Jack Kenningham drops to the bench. That means that the backline that boasts exciting England fly-half Marcus Smith and powerhouse South African Andre Esterhuizen remains intact. Castres are sixth in the Top 14 and they blasted Racing 92 25-3 in their last match. I like ‘Quins here with the win and the cover at -4.5.