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Preview: Gallagher Premiership Rugby clubs begin Euro campaigns

Preview: Gallagher Premiership Rugby clubs begin Euro campaigns

After six enthralling rounds of Gallagher Premiership Rugby action, the domestic campaign takes a backseat this weekend as the clubs turn their attention to Europe.

Seven sides will be in Heineken Champions Cup action, including a heavyweight opening round match between defending champions Leinster and Wasps on Friday night.

The remaining five Premiership clubs will tackle the Challenge Cup, with Sale Sharks kicking their European campaign off away at Perpignan and newcomers Bristol taking on Zebre.

Ahead of what should be a fascinating first round in both competitions, here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about the challenge that awaits England’s finest.

Wasps headline in curtain-raiser

Opening games don’t come much together for Dai Young’s troops than a match-up against the reigning European and Guinness PRO14 champions Leinster in Dublin.

Leinster beat Racing 92 in last year’s final to be crowned kings of Europe and already appear to be in formidable form, having started the new PRO14 season with six wins from seven.

The Irish province have won each of their last six games against Premiership opposition, including the last time they met Wasps in 2016-17 – winning their quarter-final clash 32-17.

Sharks tackle away day curse

In the Challenge Cup, Sale Sharks will get proceedings underway against Top 14 side Perpignan, who currently sit bottom of the French top flight without a win in their opening seven games.

The Sharks will want to improve on last season’s effort in Europe, which saw them lose all three of their away games, when they travel to the Stade Aime Giral.

Perpignan have won both of their previous two Challenge Cup games against Sale, but the hosts will be competing in European competition for the first time since 2014.

Bath renew Toulouse rivalry

Having sneaked into the Champions Cup on the final day of last season, Bath Rugby have been treated to an opening round fixture against four-time European Cup winners Toulouse.

Home advantage could prove to be a disadvantage for Todd Blackadder’s side, with four of the last six meetings between the two teams going the way of the visitors.

But Toulouse are without a win in their last five games against Gallagher Premiership opposition in the competition, although their last victory against English opposition did come against Bath at The Rec in the 2014/15 campaign.

Munster challenge for Chiefs  

Exeter Chiefs will face Munster for the first time in Europe when the two-time champions travel to Sandy Park for their opening game in Pool 2 of the Champions Cup.

While Rob Baxter’s side have started the season with six wins from six in the Premiership, Munster are unbeaten in their opening game in each of their last four campaigns.

In fact, the Irish province have lost just one of their last nine pool stage matches in the competition – which came in Round 5 last season against eventual runners-up Racing 92.

Tigers take on Ulster hoodoo

Leicester Tigers will be in high spirits after overcoming Northampton Saints at Twickenham in the East Midlands derby as they prepare for a daunting trip to Belfast to take on Ulster.

The home side have four home wins from as many matches against Leinster in the European Champions Cup, which have come be an average margin of 23 points.

The visitors are also on a four-game losing streak in the competition, their worst ever in the European Cup, with one win from their last eight trips to Ireland.

Saints welcome Clermont

After five seasons away from the Challenge Cup, two-time winners Northampton Saints return to the competition with a tantalising encounter against Clermont Auvergne.

It’s the first time the two sides have met in the competition, but three-time European Cup finalists Clermont have four victories from their five previous battles in the top flight.

They met as recently as the pool stage of the Champions Cup last season when home advantage proved decisive, with Saints coming out on top at Franklin’s Gardens.

Quins face new foe

Paul Gustard’s men mark their return to Challenge Cup competition with a first meeting with Agen at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday – and have history on their side.

The French outfit will be the 19th club from the country Harlequins have face in Europe, with the hosts winning nine of their previous ten encounters against Top 14 opposition on their own turf.

While it has not been a perfect start to the season for Quins, they came agonisingly close to toppling defending Premiership champions Saracens last time out before falling 25-20.

Bears roar again after absence

Bristol Bears have already lit up the top flight on their return to the Premiership this season – and they will look to do the same when they welcome Zebre Rugby to Ashton Gate.

After a one-year absence from the competition, Pat Lam’s side will face off against the Italians for the first time as they look to kick off their European campaign with a victory.

The hosts will be feeling confident about their chances having won eight of their previous eight games against Italian opposition, including their biggest ever European victory (89-5 against Viadana in December 2005).

Tough examination for Warriors

Coming off the back of a huge victory against Bristol Bears last weekend, Worcester Warriors will be in buoyant mood when they travel to the French capital to tackle Stade Français.

The hosts have won both of their previous meetings with Warriors in the 2011/12 Challenge Cup, with a formidable record of 23 wins from 26 home games in the pool stage overall.

Meanwhile, Worcester have lost their last 11 away games in the Challenge Cup, although they have picked up losing bonus points on their travels in three of their last four games.

Gloucester ready for war

Riding high after an impressive victory against Wasps, Johan Ackermann’s side face a huge challenge this weekend as they take on the team that claimed French rugby’s top prize last season.

Castres Olympique have begun their Top 14 title defence with three wins from four games, but with Danny Cipriani pulling the strings for the Cherry and Whites the hosts will be tough opposition.

Gloucester are no strangers to European success either, having won the Challenge Cup on two occasions and finishing runners-up last season after losing to Cardiff Blues in the final.

Falcons dreaming of home final

With one win from their opening six games, it has not been the start to the 2018/19 Premiership campaign Newcastle Falcons would have wanted after finishing in the top four last season.

As such, their return to Europe’s top table will provide a welcome distraction when they line-up at Stade Felix-Mayol on Sunday to face three-time champions Toulon.

While their focus will be on progressing from Pool 5, Dean Richards and Co will be dreaming of a potential home final at St James’ Park, where the showpiece will be held on May 11.

Saracens ready to regain crown

The reigning Premiership champions travel to Glasgow Warriors in the opening round of the Champions Cup as they look to wrestle back the title they won in 2017.

Dave Rennie’s outfit are bang in form, though, and have won five of their opening six matches in the Guinness PRO14 to lead the way in their conference.

The hosts’ most successful season in the competition was in 2016/17 when they reached the quarter-finals, but it was the Men in Black who halted their challenge before winning the title.

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