Northampton v Ospreys
Ospreys travel to the East Midlands with five Test Lions in their pack, four of whom participated in the series victory over Australia last June. Northampton? They have no Lions up front at all, thanks to Alex Corbisiero’s latest orthopaedic trauma, yet they will start tomorrow afternoon’s game as hot favourites to deal a mortal blow to the Welsh region’s chances of making the knockout stage for the first time since 2010.
Both sides are in must-win territory at an unnervingly early stage of the tournament. The Saints might have prevailed in Castres last weekend but came up short, and therefore cannot afford even a single slip-up on home soil. Ospreys, meanwhile, messed up in front of their own supporters – the limp effort against Leinster drew some very sharp words from their captain, Alun Wyn Jones – and are already playing catch-up.
The prop Ryan Bevington and the scrum-half Tom Habberfield have been drafted into the visitors’ starting line-up, as has the wing Jeff Hassler, who will be making his first Heineken Cup start. The Canadian might have chosen a better moment. His direct opponent will be George North, one of the more lethal long-range finishers in world rugby.
Clermont Auvergne v Harlequins
A trip to the Auvergne is a challenging affair at the best of times. At a difficult time, it is about as tempting as a skinny-dippers’ convention in the Arctic Circle. The Londoners have more than a dozen players under treatment, including the crack Samoan flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu, who picked up a hamstring injury last weekend and will not play again before January.
Clermont could have a casualty list two dozen strong and still field a competitive side. Tomorrow, the Frenchmen will be without their principal orchestrator, the suspended scrum-half Morgan Parra, but why lose sleep when a replacement as dynamic as Thierry Lacrampe is fit, available and raring to go? If Quins, who have three men playing out of position, finish within 15 points, it will be a triumph of hope over expectation.
Munster v Gloucester
Something similar goes for Gloucester, who clearly do not rate their chances of storming Thomond Park in their current state. Nigel Davies, their rugby director, has made just the 12 changes to his starting line-up after last week’s narrow victory over Perpignan and as the absentees include players as good as James Simpson-Daniel, Billy Twelvetrees, Freddie Burns, Jimmy Cowan and Matt Kvesic, it may be that they have given this one up as a bad job.
Munster, smarting from an unexpected reverse at Edinburgh in the opening round, have beefed up their pack and will be in full warpaint. An evening of pain awaits the West Countrymen.
Glasgow v Exeter
The Devonians head north to Scotstoun tomorrow in high good humour, although the venue has been something of a mugger’s alley for English sides in recent times. The fast, direct rugby they played against Cardiff Blues six days ago should set the tone for a competitive campaign and with the hard-running Sam Hill back in midfield, they are equipped to ask serious questions of Gregor Townsend’s side – especially as the Wallaby lock Dean Mumm and the much talked-about No 8 Dave Ewers are in such blinding form. The Zimbabwean Ewers’ tussle with his South African opponent Josh Strauss should be well worth the ticket price on its own.
Best of the rest
OK, so Jonny Wilkinson is playing for Toulon at Cardiff Arms Park today. At the risk of committing heresy in this celebrity-driven age, the more intriguing contest will unfold 40-odd miles along the motorway in Llanelli, where Scarlets take on the swaggeringly wealthy Parisians of Racing Metro. Can the Welsh side, with all those brilliant Williams boys in the back line, repeat the trick they pulled at Harlequins last week? If they succeed, it could be a classic.