Stephen Ferris previews Ulster, Munster and Harlequins in the Champions Cup
Champions Cup Round 2
With seven of the 12 games last weekend being won by the away team, then already some of the more familiar European clubs have their backs against the wall.
With the new format of having two pools, with 12 teams in each, this means that there is very little room for error and getting off to a fast start is vitally important.
Home losses for Northampton, Ulster and Bristol Bears in particular, means that round 2 for them is either win or BUST. Not all of the teams in the competition are taking it as seriously as they should be in my opinion. Sale Sharks and Gloucester specifically look like their goals this season are all around having a good showing in the Gallagher Premiership. Hopefully both teams go well this weekend and prove me wrong…
KEY GAMES FOR ROUND 2
Clermont Auvergne vs Munster Rugby (Sat 19th, 5.30pm)
Personally I think this is the game of the weekend. Clermont off the back of a terrific result against Bristol Bears will be looking to back it up with another big effort. Munster only got four points out of their home game last week against Harlequins, and as mad as this sounds, if Munster fail to get something from this fixture, then the odds will certainly be stacked against them to progress to the Quarter finals.
Clermont rarely lose at home. However they did on the 4th December against Montpellier and that will give a little bit of hope to the Munster players and fans that they can turn Clermont over.
The match Handicap is 9 points, and it’s hard to see Munster beating this even though they are unbeaten so far this season, but if there is one team that can do it… it’s Munster.
They need to slow the game down, make it a physical battle, win the collisions, and hope that Clermont have an off day. Japanese winger Kotaro Matsushima bagged a hat-trick last week and it will be very important that Munster keep that man quiet.
I feel this game is going to be a great marker for where Munster rugby currently are in their progression. New coaches came under a lot of fire last year due to underwhelming performances, but no excuses now and this is by far their biggest challenge they have faced this season.
Munster +9 – 10/11
Tip – Coombes anytime try scorer. Scored last week and has been scoring tries for fun in the Pro14.
Gloucester vs Ulster Rugby (Sat 19th, 3.15pm)
How poor were Gloucester last weekend against Lyon…? Conceding 55 points has them at the bottom of Pool B, and after only one game I think it’s safe to say they won’t be challenging for the Heineken Champions Cup this year.
Ulster on the other hand came very close to getting a scalp against Toulouse in Belfast, only to be undone by the magician that is Cheslin Kolbe who scored 2 unbelievable tries that sealed the win.
If Ulster can travel away from home and get a victory, then it keeps their slim hopes of a quarter final in the balance. Ulster lost Coetzee in the 44th minute to a head injury last week, and they will be hoping he makes the plane for this match as he is just so important to the team. He gives the team most of their dominant moments. Carries, tackles, turnovers, game changing moments, he is a BEAST of a player.
Ulster could also be missing Iain Henderson for the second week in a row, the Ulster captain hurt his knee in the victory over Scotland when playing for Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup.
So team selection might be a headache for Dan McFarland and the rest of the Ulster coaching ticket, but I feel that whatever 15 players he picks for this game will be good enough to get the win. Ulster are favourites for this game at 3/10 and the handicap is 9 points once again.
With Danny Cipriani leaving Gloucester with immediate effect, the club shipped a bag full of points last week, 1 out of 4 wins this season in all comps… my money is on Ulster to get the victory. Gloucester lost at home two weeks ago to Harlequins by 10 points, and I feel it will be a similar outcome when they take on Ulster.
Ulster to win – 3/10
First Try Scorer – Rob Herring to get over once again. Scored two tries from mauls last week.
Tip – A draw on the handicap of 9 points – 25/1
Harlequins vs Racing92 (Sun 20th, 3.15pm)
The runners up in last year’s competition got the job done against Connacht last week in Paris. They got the maximum 5 points on offer, however if they are to win this match then they need to be a lot more clinical as they squandered numerous opportunities.
Teddy Thomas was either mesmerizingly brilliant or bang average in his performance. Simple 3v1 moments were made a hash of too many times for a team that oozes class most weeks.
Racing 92 have the ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat in any minute of the 80… and having Finn Russell back pulling all the strings makes them an extremely dangerous opposition.
Quinns are sitting 5th in the Gallagher Premiership and will be looking further down the road of trying to secure a healthy finish in the league come the end of the domestic season.
With this in mind, and also not getting anything out of the game last weekend in Limerick, I’m expecting a few changes to their starting team. They have a six-day turnaround for their next Prem game which is also at home against Bristol Bears, and I feel a lot of their focus will be on that Boxing day battle.
Looking at the two squads on paper you have to say that Racing 92 will win this one. People always say looking at teams on paper counts for very little… but with no home crowd cheering you on, and those 50/50 refereeing decisions maybe not going your way, then individual quality and strength and depth usually gets most games done in the current Covid-19 circumstances we all find ourselves in.
Racing 92 to win – 2/7. If the weather is looking good come placing a bet, then Racing 92 to win on the Handicap of 9 points. Racing -9 – 10/11
Tip – Vakatawa always worth a look on the try scoring markets
Wasps vs Montpellier (Fri 18th, 8pm)
I’m not sure either of these teams really want to play this match. Montpellier got pumped at home to Leinster last weekend so their chances of progressing to a quarter final are slim to none.
Wasps have decided to leave some key players out of their starting team, even though they are sitting in 2nd in Pool A… Dan Robson, Jack Willis and Joe Launchbury all not involved.
Does focus turn to the Gallagher Premiership once again? I honestly think it does a little and that coaches are judged on their Premiership form more so than their European form.
Montpellier currently sit 10th in the Top14 and have conceded an average of 27 points per game so far this season. We all know that they can turn up on their day and beat most teams, but this isn’t the Montpellier of old who every team dreaded getting when the European groups were drawn out.
They have a soft underbelly and I feel Wasps can get at them even though they are missing a couple of their heavy hitters.
Mindset counts for so much in sport in general. Where is Montpellier’s mindset and ambition for this competition after their tonking at home last week?
Do they have the minerals to bounce back and upset the odds? I don’t believe they do. They have players who were world class 5 years ago and are now living on reputation.
Players picking up huge pay cheques and not delivering for their club, it’s not good enough. Those last few sentences could be the head coach’s team talk on Friday night and we might see a reaction and a performance…
Wasps win – 1/3
First try scorer – Josh Bassett – 9/1
Tip – Wasps winning margin between 1-12 points – 13/8
Wasps – 1/3
Ulster – 3/10
Racing – 2/7
Connacht – 11/10
Munster +9 – 10/11
5-fold – 7.93/1
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing