European Champions Cup preview: George Ford pins faith in Bath possession to outshine Leinster

The quarter-finals take place this weekend

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Leinster v Bath (3.15pm Saturday)

The ritziest team in England beat the swankiest team in Ireland to European club rugby’s major title by 11 years (in 1998), but the truth of the matter is that Leinster have been the more eye-catching of the two outfits for a long time now. Yet there is just a suspicion that things are coming full circle and, if Bath turn on the style in Dublin, that process will be accelerated.

Leinster under the coaching of Matt O’Connor are a very different proposition from Leinster under Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander who delivered back-to-back Heineken Cup titles before moving up to Test level with his adopted national team. Instead of Jonathan Sexton at outside-half, they have the functional Jimmy Gopperth; instead of the great Brian O’Driscoll providing stability at centre, they have been forced to mix and match in midfield.

They can still pack a punch on the ball-carrying front through Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, but if Bath can cope with this aspect of the hosts’ game, they have the weaponry outside the scrum – George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph are happily reunited in midfield – to ask serious questions.

“We’ll need quick possession if we’re to win in front of 50,000 people in Dublin and the best way to produce it from the ruck is not to have any rucks,” said Mike Ford, their head coach. As a declaration of intent to make the ball do the work, it was both loud and clear.

Clermont Auvergne v Northampton (5.45pm Saturday)

Clermont are probably the best side never to have won an elite European title, although their countrymen at Stade Français might dispute that assertion. Either way, the 2013 runners-up are a mighty force on home soil: their winning run at Stade Marcel Michelin in this tournament stretches back to 2008 and no one even glancing at their starting line-up this evening will expect the sequence to end any time soon.

Northampton cannot hope to beat their hosts in a runaround: Ben Foden and George North are off-limits to the English champions, while Clermont can boast a Lions Test centre in Jonathan Davies, a Tricolore midfielder in the grand tradition in Wesley Fofana, and a pair of Fijian-born wings, Noa Nakaitaci and Napolioni Nalaga, who can win big games without much help from anyone else.

If the Midlanders are to prevail, they must win the arm-wrestle hands down – no easy matter when the opposing back row features players as powerful as Damien Chouly and the exceptional Fritz Lee. The very best of British to them.

Racing Métro v Saracens (12.45pm Sunday)

The Parisians are rolling out the big guns from home and abroad: Brice Dulin, Eddy Ben Arous and Dimitri Szarzewski from the French Test set-up; Jamie Roberts, Johnny Sexton and Luke Charteris from the British & Irish Lions scene.

Saracens are in “make do and mend” mode in midfield because Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Duncan Taylor are crocked. They do have the Vunipola brothers, however, and on current evidence, that at least gives them a squeak.

Toulon v Wasps (3.15pm Sunday)

Three Test All Blacks, a World Cup-winning Springbok lock, an awesome Georgian, a European Player of the Year from England – and that’s just up front. It is hard to see how Toulon, chasing a hat-trick of titles, can conceivably lose with Carl Hayman, Ali Williams, Chris Masoe, Bakkies Botha, Mamuka Gorgodze and Steffon Armitage among their number, especially as Wasps travel without two of their match-winning acts in the injured Christian Wade and the suspended Nathan Hughes.

Comments