Pitchside with Ferris: Champions Cup preview including Leinster v Northampton Saints

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Harlequins v Ulster (19:45, Fri) 

Result last week:  25 – 24 Ulster 

Harlequins have selected a weaker side for this coming game, whereas Ulster are going full bore. Ulster will not be happy with their performance last week in Belfast, having to rely on John Cooney to knock over a 79th minute penalty to win the match.  

In my opinion I thought they were second best in this game, but maybe that is a sign of a good team being able to get the job done when they are not playing to their full potential. However, Ulster will take a lot of confidence into this game having won last week and knowing if they get another win, they are within touching distance of a European Cup Quarter final place. 

I find in these back-to-back games if you get the upper hand in the first game it can spur you on to get another result the following week, or in this case… six days later! 

I would be going for an Ulster win with a much more improved level of performance compared to last week. McFarland and the rest of the coaching staff will be wanting to knock up the intensity a couple of notches!  

Prediction: I fancy Ulster to win and just about beat the handicap at –4. 

Racing 92 v Osprey (19:45, Fri) 

Result last week: 19- 40 Racing 

The handicap for this game is a lot (29)! With Alun Wyn Jones still out for the Ospreys as he is up for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and Allen Clarke stepping aside a few weeks back, Ospreys could find themselves in some difficulty.

Racing 92 are sitting pretty in this group. If they can get a five-point win at home, it will set them up nicely for a shootout between the other two big hitters in this group, Munster and Saracens.  

This game being in an indoor stadium, the ball and surface will be slick with no bad weather to talk about. A –29-point handicap for Racing 92 is a lot of points, but with the hole the Ospreys currently find themselves in, I think it would be silly to bet against Racing 92 in this game. The team are building nicely with guys like Zebo and Finn Russell pulling the strings. I reckon they have got it in their locker to score 40-50 points in this game. I can see the Ospreys getting over the white wash once or twice, but it certainly won’t be enough to trouble Racing 92.

Prediction: My prediction would be Racing 92 –29, this may sound crazy but as I said, with the hole Ospreys have found themselves in I can only see a resounding Racing 92 win here. 

Connacht v Gloucester (12:45, Sat)

Result last week: 26 – 17 Gloucester 

Last week Connacht were very much in the game for the large parts. I don’t see them being happy with their defence, as there were 15 line breaks from Gloucester during the match.  

I am sure it will be bitterly cold and windy at the Sportsground in Galway, the Connacht lads will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of Gloucester coming to try and spoil the party on the West Coast. What a hard place to go and get a win. 

David Humphreys, the director of Rugby for Gloucester, has played for Ulster at the Sportsground many times over the years, so he will be telling the guys what they are walking into. They may listen to him because it is going to be a tough ask for them to get a result.  

If the weather is poor, it will make the game a lot tighter. Looking at Saracens v Munster last week this game was only 10-3, and I think if the weather conditions had of been better, Munster would have won this by a lot more. Will this be as tight as the bookies suggest?

Prediction: I am going to go with Connacht beating the –2 Handicap. I just can’t see Gloucester getting a win out of this game. Team selection has a huge part to play. But Connacht at the Sportsground, it doesn’t matter who’s travelling there, it will be a tough game!

Montpellier v Toulouse (15:00, Sat)

Result last week: 23 – 9 Toulouse 

These teams know each other so well and play each other so often in the Top 14. I had said in my last blog, Toulouse knew what they are facing when Montpellier come to town and I think it’s the same again this week.

This is going to be a tight game. Montpellier at home generally are a very proud French team. There has been a lot of money spent in their club over the last few years. However, they haven’t reached the heights we thought they would when you look at the money spent.

This Toulouse team look like a team who are finally starting to get it back together again. For me, Toulouse are slight favourites heading into this even though they are away from home. In saying that, the French mentality in going away from home is to get something out of the game even if that means picking up a losing bonus point.  

Prediction: I am going to stick to my guns and say Toulouse are going to take the win in this game and beat the -1 Handicap. Montpellier, realistically after being beaten in the first round by Connacht and again being beaten last weekend, it is going to be a tough ask for them to qualify. 

Saracens v Munster (15:00, Sat)

Result last week: 10 – 3 Munster 

Last weekend’s game was high attrition and trench warfare at times due to the conditions. I very much fancy Saracens heading into this game. I think they are going to put out a significantly stronger team. We are going to see a lot more of those internationals that were away at the Rugby World Cup representing England back in there. 

Munster, for me have been slightly underwhelming so far this season. With high coaching pedigree added to their staff in Stephen Larkin and Graham Rowntree I was expecting Munster to be one of the dark horses for this competition. But maybe this is a transitional period for the men in Red. If it is, like a lot of people are saying, then it’s going to take time to get things right. 

Prediction: I see Saracens beating the –12 Handicap all day long. (If they pick their best team) This could be my pick of the week in terms of a best value bet!  

Leinster v Northampton Saints (17:15, Sat)

Result last week: 16 – 43 Leinster 

Not having Johnny Sexton is a huge loss for Leinster. Ross Byrne must step up to the plate and show what he is made of once more.

All season he has been showing that he can fill Johnny Sexton’s boots with no issues, and I think generally the whole way through the Leinster squad, it doesn’t matter who takes the pitch. Ronan Kelleher is now out with a broken hand and will be missing for a few weeks.

This leaves the door slightly ajar for James Tracy and Sean Cronin who is back for training this week. Leo Cullen has the benefit of his team being versatile. Sometimes when a player gets injured, it might disrupt the team, but not Leinster.  

They are unbeaten in all competitions this season, so I would not be betting against them. The –19 Handicap for Leinster is a lot, but I think Northampton will be looking for a reaction from last week as it did get embarrassing for them as the game went on.

There wasn’t a huge crowd watching the Saints at home and any travelling support will be looking to go home with more of a smile on their face this week. Not sure this will be the case though… 

Prediction: For me, Leinster are huge favourites and rightly so. Northampton have the ability to score a couple of tries, but Leinster have the ability to score 40 points.

Clermont v Bath (15:15, Sun)

Result last week: 17 – 34 Clermont 

I can’t see Bath making a comeback, never mind making one in this game – I think they are goosed for the tournament! 

In this game I fancy Clermont to score four tries at least and get a 5-point win.

With the type of players, they have I can see them doing a big number on Bath. I can see Bath making a lot of changes to give some guys an opportunity of exposure and experience in the European Heineken Cup. 

Looking ahead to this game the –22 Handicap for Clermont looks OK. Depending on the weather, if it is lashing down with rain it could be a very tough contest with a lot of stoppages in play. 

Prediction: If it is a half decent dry ball, I fancy this Clermont team to run riot and score more than 21 points to beat the HC.

Top try scorer’s over the weekend

Virimi Vakatawa – Racing 92
Alivereit Raka – Clermont
James Lowe – Leinster

Five-Fold ACCA

Clermont v Bath: Clermont win 
Racing 92 v Ospreys: Racing 92 win 
Leinster v Northampton Saints: Leinster win 
Saracens v Munster: Saracens win 
Glasgow v La Rochelle: Glasgow win 

Stephen 

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Stephen Ferris

After a fine backrow career with Ulster and Ireland, Stephen Ferris will be sharing his thoughts on all the big rugby talking points here on Ladbrokes News, including the World Cup and Six Nations.