Once again it's time to cast aside the Guinness Premiership and Magners league as the Heineken Cup rolls into town for round three.
Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's fixtures:
Munster v Perpignan
Pool 1 is by far the tightest as we head into the third round with all four teams having notched up a win and a loss. Munster are the pool leaders after picking up a bonus point in each of their two games, whilst Perpignan are hot on their heels and only a mere point behind them. Bad news for Munster is that Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery is ruled out with an achilles problem, but on the brighter side skipper Paul O'Connell and his fellow Ireland team mates David Wallace and Denis Leamy return to strengthen the pack.
Munster narrowly lost to the Ospreys in their last Magners league fixture, and the Irish side find themselves in a relatively lowly 6th spot in the Magners league by their own high standards. No doubt they will be hoping to replicate the eight try thumping of Treviso which they dished out in round two. Defending Top 14 champions Perpignan on the other hand sit second in the French Top 14 having won ten of their fourteen games, and they convincingly beat a strong Northampton side in round two after suffering a shock 9-8 defeat by Treviso in the opening cup game. I expect this to be a closely run, bruising encounter at Thomond Park which will be won or lost in battle of the forwards.
My prediction: Perpignan by 6.
Northampton v Treviso
Northampton and Treviso both go into this game with four points, and despite Treviso's victory over French giants Perpignan, the Saints will fancy taking the scalp of the Italian side. Northampton have enjoyed a strong start to the season which is reflected by their current position of third place in the Guinness Premiership, along with the 31-27 victory over Heineken Cup supremos Munster in the opening round. A difficult trip to the south of France saw them chalk up a loss against Perpignan, but I fancy the Saints to do a number on Treviso even though the Italians approach this fixture on the back of a convincing 37-19 victory over Ferla L'Aquila.
My prediction: Northampton by 10.
Glasgow v Gloucester
So far it's been a season of contrasts for Glasgow. Currently they perch on top of the Magners league whilst simultaneously propping up Pool 2 of the Heineken Cup having played two and lost two. A narrow home defeat at the hands of Biarritz left a bitter taste in the mouth of Warriors coach Sean Lineen, and his side are focussing on replicating their form in the Magners league in the cup competition. The welcome return of Scotland captain Chris Cusiter will no doubt help to bolster the Warriors' side, and he has stated that Glasgow are targeting back to back wins Gloucester who have experienced a stuttering start to their season and are currently languishing in the bottom half of the Guinness Premiership. Gloucester join Glasgow in suffering at the hands of Biarritz when they lost 42-15 and shipped five tries to the French team in round two. However a home victory against Newcastle and a closely run defeat away against Harlequins in the Guinness Premiership will have increased the belief of the west country boys. Gloucester did succeed where Glasgow failed in narrowly beating the Dragons, but I think Glasgow are going to convert their Magners league form into a win this weekend.
My prediction: Glasgow by 8.
Biarritz v Newport-Gwent Dragons
The Dragons will hope to arrive at Parc des Sports Aguilera breathing the same kind of fire that has seen them win five games out of eight in the Magners league and give them the covetable title of top-placed Welsh side in the league. Dragons skipper Tom Willis returns from a calf injury which has seen him only play two games this season and this will be a welcome boost ahead of this tough fixture away in France. The Dragons lost their opening Heineken Cup game away to Gloucester before taking down current Magners league leaders Glasgow at home in a 22-7 victory. They head into this game after a strong home 30-14 win over current Heineken Cup holders Leinster in the Magners league and a narrow 8-9 victory away against second placed Edinburgh. In contrast, Biarritz lost their last Top 14 fixture against bottom club Sporting Club Albigeois and are languishing in mid-table mediocrity.
My prediction: The Dragons by 6.
Viadana v Ospreys
Bottom of Pool 3 Viadana take on an injury plagued Ospreys at the Stadio Giglio on Saturday and the Italians are hoping to put their first points on the board against the Welshmen. Viadana have conceded eleven tries in their last two Heineken Cup games: five unanswered tries away at Clermont Auvergne and six at home to Leicester, although they did manage a consolation try against the Tigers in a game that exposed all of their weaknesses. Therefore back to back games against an Ospreys team who are so short on players they were forced to draft in an emergency scrum half in the form of South African Ricky Januarie could be the opportunity for Viadana to rack up their first win in the competition.
Last weekend the Ospreys beat Munster in the Magners league with Ireland's Tommy Bowe touching down to break the hearts of his fellow countrymen, whilst Viadana convincingly beat Petraca 36-6 at home. Viadana will do well to take anything from the Ospreys who drew 32-32 with Leicester in round one and snatched victory from Clermont Auvergne in a 25-24 thriller at the Liberty Stadium in round two. Despite all their injuries, I think the Ospreys will win this one.
My prediction: Ospreys by at least 15.
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester
This game looks set to be an absolute corker as top of the pool Leicester take a trip across the channel to do battle with Clermont Auvergne. Much has been made of Leicester's slow start to the season and the distinct lack of tries scored by the East Midlands outfit, not that this has been a problem for them in the Heineken Cup as they ran in four tries past the Ospreys and then sharpened their teeth in the 11-46 clawing away at Viadana in round two. Despite their lack of tries in the Guinness Premiership Leicester's defence has been solid, and with Toby Flood and Alex Tuilagi back from injury I expect the try drought to end. Clermont Auvergne match Leicester as they are placed fourth in the Top 14, and like Leicester they approach this match on the back of a loss. With Ospreys beating Clermont by a solitary point and Leicester drawing 32-32 with the Ospreys these two teams can barely be separated.
My prediction: Leicester to win by 2.
Ulster v Stade Français
Second placed Ulster take on Pool 4 leaders Stade Français on Saturday, and go into this game after suffering a 25-13 defeat to Glasgow last weekend. Internationals Stephen Ferris and BJ Botha return from injury and will add strength to the Ulster squad, but Ireland centre Paddy Wallace is out of action with an ankle injury. Ulster convincingly beat a lacklustre Bath side 26-12 in round one, before succumbing to Edinburgh in round two. Stade are one of the three French teams (along with the Scarlets) who head into round three unbeaten after demolishing Edinburgh and winning a last gasp victory in front of a heartbroken Bath crowd at the Rec. Stade Français arrive in Ireland hot on the heels of a 34-10 victory over Bayonne in the French Top 14, although rather surprisingly the team with the most garish kit in the rugby world currently find themselves in a rather drab seventh place in the league. This just happens to be the position Ulster occupy in the Magners league, however with their raft of international talent and perseverance (just ask Bath), I think Stade Français will overpower the Ulster men this weekend.
My prediction: Stade Français by 12.
Bath v Edinburgh
Poor old Bath: Perilously close to the bottom of the Guinness Premiership and suffering their worst start to the season in years. Not only that, they are bottom of Pool 4 after losing their first two matches. Add to the gloom the fact that they now have back to back matches against Edinburgh (who are currently second in the Magners league and are targeting ten points from the next two games against them), and they will be without banned England winger Matt Banahan, and things aren't looking so rosy for Steve Meehan's men. Bath have won one Guinness Premiership game and drawn two this season, so victory against high flying Edinburgh is just the tonic they need to kick start their season. Edinburgh are currently third in the pool after securing a victory against Ulster in the last round after being ripped to shreds by Stade Français in a 31-7 beating across the channel. With their current form in the Magners League and Bath's lack of form in every competition (even though they did run Stade Français close in the last round) this will be a tough game for Bath, but I have a feeling their luck might well change.
My prediction: Bath to win by 3.
Cardiff Blues v Toulouse
This game promises to be an interesting encounter with Toulouse keen to avenge the 9-6 quarter final defeat at the hands of Cardiff in last year's Heineken Cup competition. Pool 5 table toppers Toulouse have chalked up seven tries in their games against Sale and Harlequins, although their win against Quins was a master class of snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat when they clinched a 19-23 victory at the Stoop after being 14-0 down at half time. They might only be fifth in the French Top 14 at the moment, but they will be more than a match for the Blues who ran out victorious over a shaky looking Quins in the first round before losing by one point in a thriller against Sale at Edgeley Park. The Blues' season has been inauspicious so far and they currently lie eighth in the Magners league with only three wins out of eight under their belt. Last weekend they enjoyed a moral boosting 21-9 home victory over Connacht even though Jamie Roberts, Andy Powell and Leigh Halfpenny were on Barbarians duty, however with inconsistency being the keyword at Cardiff this season I predict a win for the French.
My prediction: Toulouse to win by 15.
Harlequins v Sale
The only all Guinness Premiership match sees the Quins take on the Sharks at the Twickenham Stoop. Harlequins are at the bottom of Pool 5 having won no games, and the scars from the heartbreaking home defeat by Toulouse will still be fresh in the minds of the west London faithful. With the way the Guinness Premiership fixtures have fallen these two teams are yet to face each other in the league, but with the two back-to-back Heineken Cup fixtures followed swiftly by a league match at Edgeley Park on the 1st January these two teams will soon be sick of the sight of each other. Quins are the slight favourites going into this game with two league wins on the bounce, home advantage and an extra premiership victory under their belts.
My prediction: Harlequins by 8.
Brive v London Irish
Toby Booth's Exiles are hoping to pull a fast one over Brive with insider knowledge gleaned from their defence coach Dave Ellis, a man who made the switch from Brive to London Irish this summer. High flying London Irish have been one of the pleasant surprises of the season, currently second in the Guinness Premiership and having racked up the most points in the season to date by playing some entertaining rugby. A narrow 25-27 home defeat against the unbeaten table toppers the Scarlets in round one of the Heineken Cup came after an impressive (and some might say surprising) victory over holders Leinster at the RDS in round one. Brive prop up Pool 6 with two uninspiring losses from two games, the most embarrassing being the 13-36 home drubbing by a slightly less than sparkling Leinster. With Mike Catt's protégé Ryan Lamb in the driving seat and Dave Ellis' insider knowledge, I expect London Irish to squeak it, even though Brive beat Toulouse last weekend.
My prediction: London Irish by 9.
Scarlets v Leinster
Pool 6 leaders the Scarlets might be the only home nations team taking two victories into this weekend's round of Heineken Cup fixtures, but despite this and their home advantage they will be the underdog against Leinster who are sitting third in the Magners league and boast a team sparkling with international talent. The last meeting of the two sides was a Magners league fixture on the opening day of the season which resulted in a 18-16 victory for the Scarlets, although the teams lining up to face each other this weekend will be a different prospect to the teams that were stripped of their Lions stars in early September.
Team wise, the Scarlets hope to have Wales fly-half Stephen Jones available for selection, whilst the only man unavailable for Leinster is man of the moment Jonny Sexton who is recovering from a couple of broken fingers. This will be a tough game for the Welsh outfit, especially as Michael Cheika's men from Dublin are keen to ignite their Heineken Cup campaign after a home defeat at the hands of London Irish before they brushed away the cobwebs against a stodgy looking Brive.
My prediction: Leinster by 10.
So what do you think? Do you agree with my predictions?
Sam Warburton Forced to Retire
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