European Rugby Champions Cup preview: Will Fraser boosts Saracens hopes of giving French another lesson

 

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The Independent Online

The European Rugby Champions Cup has arrived; here's a look at the best fixtures of the weekend.

Saracens v Clermont Auvergne, 3.15pm

Saracens produced one of the great English club performances in the history of European competition by putting 46 points past Clermont Auvergne in last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final, and while it would be plain greedy of the Londoners’ supporters to expect something similar this afternoon, they certainly have an even-money chance of winning once again – especially with Will Fraser back on the open-side flank after injury and a bench combination that, for the first time, looks stronger than that pieced together by the French league leaders.

Billy Vunipola is in prime form at No 8, the American multi-tasker Chris Wyles is playing well enough to keep a couple of fellow Test centres out of the starting line-up and Owen Farrell is fit enough to play a part, although Charlie Hodgson wears the No 10 shirt from the off. Clermont, now in their post-Sitiveni  Sivivatu era, have Zac Guildford on the left wing.

Glasgow v Bath, 3.15pm

Bath may be fast running out of back-row options, but that has not stopped them changing their entire front row after the scrummaging implosion at Wasps. Out go Paul James, Rob Webber and David Wilson; in come Nick Auterac, Ross Batty and Henry Thomas. The West Countrymen are at full strength beyond the scrum, which makes them extremely dangerous, but the attackers are depending on an untried loose combination of Dominic Day, Guy Mercer and David Sisi and cannot be sure how much possession they will see.

Leicester v Ulster, 7.45pm

The Tigers are regaining their stripes, slowly: the outstanding Marcos Ayerza is back in the front-row swing of things after Test duty, the back division finally has a hint of continuity and another big second-row showing from Graham Kitchener could leave its mark on the thinking of the England coaches. But they have had terrible trouble with the men from Belfast down the years, and with hardened campaigners like Tommy Bowe and Rory Best in the visiting line-up, tonight’s game has a whiff of sulphur about it.

Best of the rest

Racing Métro, not always as committed to European rugby as they might have been, appear to be throwing the kitchen sink at it this time – at least until they lose a game. All the big names will be there when the Parisians take on Northampton today, including the Lions Test players Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Sexton. For their part, the English champions have all their pieces in place, leaving aside the long-term injury of prop Alex Corbisiero.

Sale are without two of their best players, the Italy full-back Luke McLean and the All Black flanker Daniel Braid, for this afternoon’s meeting with Munster in Salford – far from ideal against Euro specialists with players as good as Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony in their ranks – but Wasps have the England lock Joe Launchbury back in the engine room as they travel to Dublin for tomorrow’s meeting with Leinster.

As for the much talked-about Steffon Armitage, he will start at No 8 for Toulon against Scarlets tomorrow, thereby leaving himself cup-tied and effectively of no interest to any English club who might fancy giving him a route into the England team for next year’s World Cup.

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