Wasps v Leinster
Wasps have been a “history in the making” club for some weeks: since the most venerable of London’s major teams quit the capital last month for a new home in the Midlands, they have attracted record crowds. But it is never too soon for another “first”, and if they win they can expect to set a new standard by qualifying for the elite Euro competition’s knockout stage despite losing their opening two pool games – a feat never previously achieved.
Why would anyone bet against them, given recent form? Vibrantly led by James Haskell, who will give the England flankers Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood plenty to think about if he carries on in this vein, they were terrific in all sorts of ways in beating Harlequins last week: defensive application, attacking opportunism, game management, attitude.
The Dubliners, several notches down from their title-winning days, find themselves in real danger, and if they go “pop”, the quarter-finals could be a purely Anglo-French affair. They have three Test Lions – Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip – in their starting line-up, which is three more than Wasps can boast, but the force appears to be with the Londoners. Sorry, the Midlanders.
Castres v Harlequins
Quins were badly bruised on home soil last weekend, but they are still just about in with a shout of fulfilling the qualification promise they showed over the first three rounds of pool fixtures. A bonus-point victory against barely interested opponents should not be out of the question, but Conor O’Shea’s men do not have much of a strike rate – six tries in five Euro outings tells its own sorry tale – and even if England’s new-old No 8 Nick Easter has another blinder, they will need a whole lot of complex arithmetic to go their way.
Bath v Glasgow
This should be a proper game. Bath, electrifying against Toulouse six days ago, have all their attacking kingpins on duty as they go in search of what once seemed an unlikely qualification, while Gregor Townsend’s visitors, handsome winners over the back-rowless West Countrymen in October, are also in the mix and have the ability to make life difficult, even though they travel without a platoon of talent.
Clermont Auvergne v Saracens
Saracens were almost as good collectively against Munster last week as Billy Vunipola was individually, which is saying plenty, but they are still at risk of a pool-stage exit. If last season’s beaten finalists draw a blank at Stade Marcel-Michelin they could well find themselves dead in the water. Hence the strongest available line-up, including Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell, Billy V and brother Mako.
Northampton v Racing Métro
A straight shoot-out for the pool victory, with the losers highly likely to progress, albeit towards a nasty quarter-final on the road. Alex Corbisiero starts in the Northampton front row, while the Parisians field two big-name Welshmen, the centre Jamie Roberts and the lock Luke Charteris.
Ulster v Leicester
Leicester have made a mess of things, yet they are still clinging on by their fingernails. They need a four-try victory at their least favourite venue in the whole of rugby, and have handed Freddie Burns the chance to drive the process at outside-half.Reuse content