Around The Grounds: Champions Cup Round 5
All domestic action stops as the curtain comes down on many teams European campaigns, just in time for Six Nations training camps. Premiership Rugby stops to pause for a much needed breath, after an intense winter period that saw the resurgence of Paul Gustard's Harlequins, Steve Diamond getting into the Christmas spirit and making some new friends, and a totally bonkers ending at Sixways to close out a tremendous opening weekend of 2019, we switch focus to this weekends Champions Cup action, and preview the potential biggest talking points.
We begin in France, the ancient Gothic City of Montpellier to be precise. The South of France has been enjoying a period of renaissance in recent times, after stunning defeat to Newcastle in round two, the French giants will be looking to set the record straight and take a 'gros' step towards qualification to the knock out rounds.
A strong team named, Ruan Pienaar is back in at scrum half to try and manage a Falcons side that have been inconsistent if not at least exciting in the four opening rounds. Despite poor league form, tighthead woes and a mounting injury list, Dean Richards has a knack of ensuring his sides turn up for the big occasions, with temperatures dropping to a mere two degrees Celsius on Saturday, and one win from one in the South of France in this years competition, don't be surprised to see Newcastle pull off an upset here.
Speaking of upsets, who saw Edinburgh top of this group in January? The players and staff would tell you they always believed, and with a strong orator and organiser in Richard Cockerill, it would be difficult not to believe it. The Murraymen can effectively secure qualification with a game to spare if the game earlier in the day goes their way. Spare a thought for Luke Hamilton, immense in the competition so far, ruled out of his clubs biggest game in memory due to HIA protocol in 1872 cup victory. Edinburgh have to go to impenetrable fortress Stade Mayol and win, only two home defeats in two years, one to Newcastle in October, it's not a case of how, but why not?
Staying in Scotland Glasgow are another who have pulled up trees in European competition. Hot on the heels of unbeaten Sarries, the Glaswegians face a Cardiff side with nothing to play for but pride. Currently one of the best placed second placed sides due to advance, The Warriors only have to match that of their counter parts to achieve a knock out bow, a challenge it is with Sarries at Allianz Park in the final round, though not as difficult outrunning every mob in New York City such as their 1970's namesakes. Can they do it? SPOILER ALERT...Luther did shoot Cyrus!!!
Sharply moving on, Saracens win and they have qualified as group winners. As predictable as it is, you have to applaud the sheer quality and consistency, it's been scarce from English sides on the continent this year. A perfect four from four, whipping boys in the whole tournament and the only side with 'nil-pwa' Lyon are next on the menu. Owen Farrell will likely jump ahead of Thomas Ramos as tournament points leader, if recent form is anything to go by a try fest is on the cards, Lyon do like to put up points at home, only problem being the opposition like to put up more!
Bath v Wasps should have been everything in Pool One in Round Five. Instead it means nothing. NOTHING! How frustrating that both have faltered with both only picking up non-bonus points from each other! Todd Blackadder seems to have taken note of the relevance of this one, with a host of changes that see the recently impressive yet member of the Sixways scrum massacre Max Lahiff, destination-less Rhys Preistland and young Darren Atkins come in to show they all have something to offer against a fairly strong looking Wasps side. The hope is both will play out a pulsating, exhilarating, shackles are off brand of rugby. Wasps look set to play that way after a wonderful open attacking win over Northampton last week. We're sure Bath will take finishing a game with more than eleven men and no injuries.
For all of Bath and Wasps failings in 2018, it doesn't half give us a feast of excellence at the summit of the tightest group of the lot. Toulouse downed champions Leinster in glorious drama filled action in Round Two, if tomorrows reverse is even half as good, the rugby world has cause to celebrate. The biggest story will naturally be the missing Johnny Sexton, but this one is such an embarrassment of riches, it really, really shouldn't be. Jordan Larmour versus Maxime Medard, Dave Kearney versus Cheslin Kolbe, the ferociously powerful Leinster front row and the equally as daunting Toulouse back row, steadied by powerhouse Jerome Kaino. A more compact setting at the RDS arena, the pink city are going to green with the belief and remit they can down blue. Expect fireworks (and not just the pre-match entertainment Leinster do so well in their usual bouts at The Aviva).
With Munster extinguishing hopes of Gloucester making an unlikely late bid to steal a second place spot, Exeter and Castres would realistically need two bonus point wins in their remaining games if they have any hope of extending their cup run past next week. So an open, attacking game of rugby then? Whilst Exeter show moments of true brilliance, a consistent attacking flow isn't exactly the style of play that got The Cheifs to where they are, but not giving it a go in this position would be disappointing. Chiefs fans wave goodbye to Santiago Cordero in May, what a player he has been not only in this competition but overall. This is likely his last European game for the home side in Devon. Sad, and a huge void to fill, just as well Exeter have a certain Stuart Hogg to drop in. No doubt Baxter will look back to that poor home defeat to an, at the time, inform and inspired Gloucester, this could have been a game to seal a chance at the knock outs, whilst not impossible it is unlikely, but then again so is promotion to being crowned Champions in 6 years.
Racing and Ulster is another monumental game involving a French side on Irish soil. Finn Russell has stepped up another level since a move East, and a game of huge magnitude will test the theory the Scot has developed into a world-class stand off. Last time Racing were on the road, a thrashing at the hands of Bordeaux was the serving, how they hope to avoid such tribulations in Ireland. Ulster meanwhile come into this one in tremendous form, tremendously bad, that is. 61 points conceded against Irish counterparts Leinster and Connacht in that last fortnight, something has to change if they are to overcome a Racing side that are undefeated in European rugby. Back to Russell, the fourth highest points scorer has some serious options if he chooses to open the game out in Juan Imhoff and a face familiar to the Irish in Simon Zebo, and it's hard to come to any conclusion other than both having a field day if Ulster can't repair a fragmented defence. Five years ago, Scarlets and Leicester in Llanelli would have been classed as the game of the weekend, now, it's somewhere between eighth and ninth in terms of popularity and importance in a season of French, Scottish and Irish dominance. More changes for an English side that clearly feel the competition isn't worth the risk of injury, whilst Scarlets name a solid starting line up that look particularly strong in the pack. Ken Owens is back at Number 8 ***KEN OWENS IS AT 8 KLAXON*** after a lovely day out against Newport last Saturday.
If we can take anything from Ken Owens masquerading as a big ball carrier from the base of the scrum, it's that it's never too late to try something new, anybody can take risks no matter their age, and whilst it might seem scary at first, nothing will feel as daunting as Ken Owens felt after his first sighting of green grass and space in a day that proved that truly, anything is possible.