Barkley bench warming gives Hape chance to seize initiative

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Ulster v Bath

The things that please the England hierarchy do not always please Olly Barkley – quite the opposite, generally speaking – and one glance at the Bath team sheet for this afternoon's important game in Belfast explains why.

Barkley has been relegated to the bench, as has his fellow international back Nick Abendanon – a change of selectorial tack that allows Shontayne Hape, the best inside centre in the country according to Martin Johnson, the chance to prove he is also the best inside centre at the Recreation Ground.

As a consequence, Bath look dangerously light in the goal-kicking department. Jack Cuthbert, who has beaten Abendanon to the full-back spot, has been known to hoof a few, while the outside-half Sam Vesty also puts boot to ball occasionally. But it is a high-risk option, especially as the West Countrymen are so low on confidence.

Ulster beat Bath home and away last season and start as hot favourites. The outstanding blind-side flanker Stephen Ferris starts, as do a highly effective South African contingent headed by Ruan Pienaar. The visitors must win to give themselves a realistic chance of reaching the knock-out stage, but there is quite a difference between "must" and "will".

Northampton v Cardiff Blues

As anticipated, the Midlanders are throwing the kitchen sink at this one. All four of their current England internationals return to duty, and while they are not quite at full strength outside the scrum – Bruce Reihana, the folk-hero wing, is still injured, while the hard-working scrum-half Lee Dickson is not considered fit enough to start – they are in better shape than the Welshmen, who are missing top-class backs in Ben Blair, Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts.

All the same, a humdinger is on the cards. The Blues travel with a strong pack featuring Lions Test forwards in Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams, plus the bristling young Wales lock Bradley Davies, whose tête à tête with Courtney Lawes should be no end of fun.

Perpignan v Leicester

Down to the badlands go Leicester, who will probably win the group if they do a job on the Catalans. It is a mighty big if, however. Beaten twice at home in the Top 14 tournament and less than chuffed as a result, Perpignan are wheeling out the heavy artillery in the shape of Nicolas Mas, Marius Tincu and Damien Chouly, all of whom relish a little cuddle with English opposition. Interestingly, Leicester have picked Dan Cole ahead of Martin Castrogiovanni at tight-head prop. They also have Toby Flood available after his heavy knock against the Springboks a fortnight ago.

Saracens v Racing Metro

Saracens, like Bath, are in must-win territory, so the prospect of Sébastien Chabal rampaging all over Vicarage Road should concentrate the mind wonderfully. Yet Chabal may be the least of their problems. The Parisians, very much in the shake-up after beating Clermont Auvergne, travel with a star-spangled back division featuring the Argentine maestro Juan Martin Hernandez, the Fijian wing Sireli Bobo, the World Cup-winning Springbok centre Frans Steyn, the quicker of Italy's Bergamasco brothers and a dead-eyed marksman in Jonathan Wisniewski.

London Irish v Toulon

Tomorrow is Jonny Wilkinson day in Reading, so we can expect a bumper crowd. The Horizontal One may be operating at one remove from the England team, but he still sets turnstiles spinning and as he will be accompanied by a rich collection of hired hands from every corner of the rugby world – All Blacks in Rudi Wulf and Carl Hayman, a Springbok in Joe van Niekerk, a Fijian back in Gabi Lovobalavu and a Tongan prop in Saimone Taumoepeau, not to mention the more familiar Paul Sackey – there will be a whiff of the exotic about Toulon, even if they kick the ball in the air all afternoon.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Wasps

The Welshmen are struggling with injuries – Tom Willis, Luke Charteris and Dan Lydiate are all missing – and as the game has been shifted away from Rodney Parade because of the freeze, Wasps will never have a better chance to nail an important win on the road: they would rather play Newport in Cardiff than Cardiff in Cardiff.

Best of the rest

A repeat of last season's classic quarter-final between Clermont Auvergne and Leinster would have been lovely, but the Irish side probably have too many back-line injuries to throw a meaningful punch at the French heavyweights. The most interesting contest will be in Limerick tomorrow, with Ospreys attempting to strengthen their European credentials against a Munster side reinforced by the return of Paul O'Connell after long-term injury.

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