European Champions Cup: Contenders Leinster to edge past Northampton
Simon Mail previews the third round of pool games in the Champions Cup including Northampton v Leinster and Munster against holders Saracens...
Bath v Clermont Auvergne Friday, 19:45 Live on BT Sport 2
Clermont to claim precious win
Bath's hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup look doomed already after back-to-back defeats against Ulster and Harlequins. Clermont Auvergne won the European Challenge Cup last season and have started this season's European bid with a comfortable win over Quins and a narrow loss at early pacesetters Ulster.
The Top 14 visitors know this is a crucial match for them with Ulster winning both of their opening matches and Clermont should have the beating of Bath. The hosts have lost their last three games in all competitions and are likely to fall short again. But their European losses were by no more than six points and another narrow defeat is the best bet.
Saints face huge challenge
Northampton v Leinster Saturday, 13:00 Live on BT Sport 2 and Channel 4
One of the games of the weekend features Northampton and last season's finalists Leinster. The Saints are top of the Premiership and have started their European campaign with wins against Lyon and Benetton. Leinster have made a perfect start to the season, winning all seven games in the Pro14 and both Champions Cup matches. Leo Cullen's side even managed to rest their first choice players in last week's 23-10 win in Glasgow.
Leinster are the favourites to win the Champions Cup and their flawless start, winning nine games in all competitions, is an ominous sign for their rivals. Northampton have made significant progress under Chris Boyd but this looks another step up from their recent opponents. The hosts will be competitive at Franklin's Gardens but Leinster's relentess run should continue with a win by up to 12 points worth backing.
Ulster to extend winning run
Ulster v Harlequins Saturday, 15:15 Live on BT Sport 2
It has been an impressive start to the Champions Cup for Ulster and the Pro14 side are on course to reach the quarter-finals again this season. Ulster edged to a 17-16 victory at Bath in their opener before defeating Clermont 18-13 at home. Harlequins were heavily beaten in France by Clermont, but a 15-9 win over Bath at the Stoop has kept them in contention.
Ulster are strong favourites to win this match and it is difficult to bet against the hosts. Although Harlequins have won their last two games, having defeated Gloucester in the Premiership last week, this looks a tough ask for them at Kingspan. Ulster have won both European matches by no more than 12 points and a third tight victory could be on the cards this weekend.
Saracens face crunch contest with Munster
Munster v Saracens Saturday, 17:30 Live on BT Sport 2
Another huge showdown takes place this weekend with Munster hosting troubled defending champions Saracens. The Premiership side are focused on avoiding relegation, after their 35-point penalty, but have not given up on the Champions Cup. An opening defeat in Racing 92 was followed by a comfortable win against Ospreys. Munster are tied at the top with Racing after beating Ospreys and drawing 21-21 at home to the French side.
This is likely to be a massively physical encounter at Thomond Park and Munster need to claim victory after failing to win their previous home match. Saracens defeated Munster in last season's semi-final but they have left out some of their key players including Owen Farrell with the Premiership their priority. Munster can take advantage of this and claim a narrow home win over the champions.
Gloucester to get off mark
Gloucester v Connacht Sunday, 13:00 Live on BT Sport 2
Gloucester are realistically out of the running for a quarter-final spot after defeats in their first two pool games. The Cherry and Whites squandered a winning position at home to Toulouse before losing narrowly in Montpellier. Visitors Connacht edged Montpellier 23-20 at home before a 32-17 loss to group leaders Toulouse.
Although Connacht are in a stronger position than Gloucester, it is difficult to make a strong argument for either team qualifying for the last-eight. It has been a poor run for Gloucester with five successive defeats in all competitions but this is a good opportunity to get back on track. Having beaten Connacht in five previous meetings, Gloucester are backed to grind out a much-needed victory at Kingsholm.
Exeter to maintain control of pool
Sale v Exeter Sunday, 15:15 Live on BT Sport 2
Exeter's failure to translate their Premiership form into European success has been a source of frustration in recent years but the Chiefs could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Rob Baxter's side were superb in their 31-12 win in La Rochelle and backed it up by defeating Glasgow 34-18. Premiership opponents Sale lost narrowly at Glasgow before overcoming their French pool opponents at home.
This looks a golden opportunity for Exeter to challenge for the Champions Cup and their initial performances this season are very encouraging. A trip to Sale is never an easy place to play but an Exeter team with three successive wins should continue this momentum. The hosts can keep it close but the Chiefs should extend their run of victories with a tight win to stay in charge of their group.