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European Champions Cup – a guide to round five

European Champions Cup – a guide to round five

The European Champions Cup returns this weekend and everything is on the line for the Aviva Premiership Rugby clubs.

After a disappointing Christmas double-header for the English clubs, the participants of the knockout stages will be decided in these final two Pool games.

And with the Six Nations just around the corner as well, there is plenty to play for both on a team and individual level.

FRIDAY

Bath Rugby v Scarlets

Bath currently top their Pool in the Champions Cup after that impressive victory over RC Toulon at the Rec back in round four.

But if they are to make the most of their strong position, they must beat the Scarlets under the Friday night lights.

In the reverse fixture, played in a biblical downpour, Rhys Priestland pulled the strings for Todd Blackadder’s side as they choked the Scarlets to death.

This time around, Bath welcome back Sam Underhill for his first game since November in the back row while Priestland will again pull the strings at fly-half.

Intriguingly, for a side that top their pool, Bath have only scored seven tries this competition, which is fewer than any other team.

But Tom Dunn is the top tackler however with 89, 22 more than any other player.

Also, France’s Jérome Garcès will be refereeing his 50th European Cup match.

SATURDAY

Harlequins v Wasps

Harlequins’ hopes of the knockout stages in Europe are already over but they can spoil the party for Wasps on Saturday.

Wasps have won two of the three previous meetings between the clubs in the Champions Cup, including their only visit to the Twickenham Stoop in 2014-15.

Harlequins have lost all four of their pool games this season, their worst run in the competition since 2009-10, when they failed to win a match.

Quins welcome back Mike Brown for the clash at full-back but Chris Robshaw and Marcus Smith both miss out.

Wasps’ injuries in midfield bring Brendan Macken and Kyle Eastmond together outside Danny Cipriani, while Joe Launchbury is back after missing their defeat to Saracens.

Northampton Saints v Clermont Auvergne

Northampton Saints got back to winning ways last time out in the league – now they are looking to bloody Clermont’s nose at Franklin’s Gardens.

The Top 14 side have won all four previous meetings between the clubs, scoring 33 points on average per game in that run, and conceding just 11.

Saints have lost their last five games in the Champions Cup. However, they’ve lost just one of their last nine games when hosting TOP 14 opposition.

With that in mind, Alan Gaffney has named a strong side that includes Harry Mallinder at fly-half again and Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes – who slides to the back row.

Ospreys v Saracens

The equation for Saracens in Swansea is simple – win or their Champions Cup title defence is over.

Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje both came through their injury returns against Wasps last weekend with flying colours.

And they are fit to start again this weekend in a side that also includes British & Irish Lion Liam Williams on the wing.

Saracens have won all four previous meetings between the clubs – however, each of those victories came by single figure margins.

And the Ospreys come into Saturday’s game having won back-to-back matches for the first time since 2011. However, they’ve not won three consecutive fixtures in the competition since the 2009-10 pool stage.

Both clubs have scored 17 tries this season – the joint-highest in the competition – so it is sure to be a thriller.

Exeter Chiefs v Montpellier

Exeter’s three-point victory over Montpellier in round two was one of the great days in the club’s history.

But since then, back-to-back losses to Leinster have left their qualification hopes hanging on a knife-edge.

Sam Simmonds has made more tackles (46) than any other player who is yet to miss one this season and he returns to start at No.8 this weekend.

Dave Ewers and Don Armand pack down either side of him in the back row while, in the backs, Ian Whitten moves to the right wing to try and counter the attacking threat of Nemani Nadolo, who has beaten more defenders than any other player in the competition.

Rob Baxter’s side will need to be on their mettle at the set-piece as well – Montpellier are one of just two clubs with a 100 per cent scrum success rate after four rounds (Harlequins are the other).

SUNDAY

Castres v Leicester Tigers

Leicester Tigers are out of contention for the knockout stages as well and Matt O’Connor has rung the changes for their trip to Castres.

The likes of Joe Ford, Tom Brady and Charlie Thacker all start in the back line while, up front, Greg Bateman captains the side from prop, with Will Evans on the openside flank.

Leicester’s 25-point win in Round One of the competition represented Castres’ heaviest defeat since 2014-15 when they lost to Harlequins (19-47).

But the French side are unbeaten in their last five home games (W3, D2), their longest run without defeat on home soil since winning eight in a row between October 2001 and October 2005.

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