Preview: European Rugby Round 2

European rugby experienced a successful start to its new life under European Professional Club Rugby last weekend, attendances in the European Champions Cup were solid, with only one match attracting less than 9,000 spectators to the ground, and apart from two examples, matches in the European Challenge Cup were close affairs. This weekend sees Round 2 – it started on Thursday night with Bordeaux-Begles making up for their shock home loss to Edinburgh last weekend by thrashing London Welsh in Oxford. Here are some of this weekend’s highlights.

20140826133542!European_Rugby_Champions_Cup_LogoEuropean Champions Cup

Munster Rugby vs Saracens, Friday, 7:45pm

The only two teams that face each other this weekend that are unbeaten go head-to-head at Thomond Park looking to put a marker down on Pool 1 standings. Munster won thanks to a last-gasp Ronan O’Gara-esque Ian Keatley drop goal in Sale, whilst Saracens beat Clermont in Barnet thanks to a Zack Guilford howler, dropping the ball from a Garry Owen. Munster are under pressure to make sure they win at home, whilst Saracens would like to claim the win to make it easier for themselves later on in the tournament. Keatley keeps his number 10 shirt and Chris Ashton has a very big point to prove as he was not included in Stuart Lancaster’s England Squad for the upcoming Autumn Inernationals. The Celtic battle between Peter O’Mahony, and Kelly Brown (who wasn’t picked by his national team coach for the Autumn tests either) bring water to the mouth of any rugby tackle aficionado as will the second-row head-to-head of Jim Hamilton and Paul O’Connell.

Munster to claim the win, but Saracens won’t be rolled over easily, Keatley to score a late 3-pointer again?

Bath Rugby vs Stade Toulousain Saturday, 3:15pm

Bath’s European campaign started dreadfully last weekend as they were dealt a rugby lesson by Guinness Pro12 side, Glasgow Warriors. Mike Ford’s men went down 37-10 in Scotland, and now face being knocked out of the tournament if they can’t beat the four-time European champions Toulouse. Semesa Rokoduguni retains his place on the wing, following a week where he was named in England’s Autumn International squad and Mike Ford has changed his front-row completely, his son, George Ford has been in good form the West Country side, but failed to translate that onto the European stage last weekend – something he will need to do, if Bath wish to reach the Quarter Final stage of the competition this year. Much has been made of Toulouse’s poor start to their Top 14 season, losing 5 games in a row lead to doubts about their Head Coach, Guy Noves, which were justified. The outfit from la ville rose beat Top 14 rivals, Montpellier, last weekend and need to back that win up with an away win at Bath this weekend. With a starting 15 all internationals, part from young scrum-half Sebastien Bezy, Toulouse have an experienced side, especially with Imanol Harinordoquy at the base of the scrum. Their problem this is that their team has many new faces in key position, such as the above former Biarritz number 8, Toby Flood in the out-half jersey and Corey Flynn at hooker just three examples.

In a very open pool, where all four teams (Glasgow and Montpellier are the other two) have the squad quality to qualify, Bath need a win, to keep their hopes, realistically alive, and they will do. The Recreation Ground on a European afternoon is a fantastic atmosphere that will give them a 7 point advantage.

Northampton Saints vs The Ospreys, Saturday, 5:15pm

In a repeat of one of last season’s pool fixtures, The Ospreys are coming off a valiant thrashing of Benetton Treviso last Sunday whilst The Saints lost away to Racing-Metro, which puts them in a rather similar position to Bath, lose and face being, pretty much, out of Europe, win and they can still qualify for the last eight. Kahn Fotuali’i has been dropped by Jim Mallinder, the ex-Ospreys is replaced by Lee Dickson in the starting fifteen, as young James Wilson comes off the bench to start instead of George Pisi. The Ospreys don’t have the experience in their pack as they used to, but Nicky Thomas has been scrummaging confidently enough to earn himself a first call-up to a Welsh squad. Eli Walker has been is injured for at least weeks, and blond-haired livewire Hanno Dirksen comes in for him.

A win is possible for both sides, The Ospreys unbeaten in all competitions so far, and Northampton desperate to do better than last season and reach the Quarters. It will be a battle between both fly-halves to see who wins – Stephen Myler and Dan Biggar like to play a conservative kicking game and it depends on which one is more accurate in applying this that will define the outcome. Keep an eye out for the line-out battle between Courtenay Lawes and Alun-Wyn Jones, but Northampton to win and the Liberty Stadium outfit to obtain a crucial defensive bonus point.