“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”? After all the huffery surrounding the “new” European Rugby Champions Cup, much of Week 1 looked awfully similar to what we’ve seen before. An improbable Munster comeback sealed with a drop goal from the fly half. Leinster winning a loose, end to end match at the RDS. An Italian side getting hockeyed on their travels. Normal service resumed! Huzzah!
Only three teams scored try bonus points last week with Saracens, Glasgow and Ospreys now in happy positions atop their respective pools with an extra point in the pocket. Perhaps more importantly, however, five teams secured losing bonus points. In the first two rounds the difference of emerging from a loss with one point rather than zero can be colossal, provided that one can staunch that bleeding at a single loss.
In the halcyon days of the Heineken Cup and its elegantly concise #HCup hashtag (yes, #ERChampionsCup, I’m looking at you), losing both of your first two games signaled certain doom. One fewer pool means one extra slot for a pool runner-up to join the winners in the quarter finals; does it follow that two opening losses might not be as hopeless a position as before? Last weekend’s ten losers will be trying their best not to find out.
One Point Losers (odds to qualify for quarter finals)
Zero Point Losers
Friday: Munster v Saracens (7.45pm BT Sport 1)
Friday kicks off with a belter: Munster take on Saracens at Fortress Thomond. Or, at least, what had been Fortress Thomond up until the end of last season. The Limerick ground has seen an unusual number of defeats for the men in red since they hammered Toulouse in last season’s Heineken Cup final and both team and support will consider it time that Thomond’s fearsome reputation was properly restored. But which Munster will turn up? The Munster who dismissed Leinster in Dublin recently with a first half of brutal intensity at the breakdown? Or the Munster who conceded 20 points in 15 minutes against Sale last weekend (a total that should have been increased further before half time but for a referee’s early whistle) and allowed Sale centre Johnny Leota, who is not a superstar, to make a remarkable five line breaks? Munster to edge it at 8/11. I think.
Saturday: Ulster v Toulon (1.00pm Sky Sports 2)
Losing Andrew Trimble and Luke Marshall to injury is cruel luck for Ulster who desperately need to avoid losing their first two games of the competition and consigning themselves almost certainly to competition also-rans. Last weekend’s loss in Leicester was the first time since the 2008/09 season that Ulster lost their first game of a European campaign, and now they face the twice-defending champions Toulon. Ulster’s home record is impressive and they are the narrowest of favourites (-1 point) for this fixture. Last season Toulon came unstuck in their first away game in the pool stages, losing 19-15 to Cardiff. Don’t expect them to make that same mistake twice.
Saturday: Northampton v Ospreys (5.15pm Sky Sports 2)
A battle of league leaders in Northampton on Saturday as the Premiership and Pro12 pace-setters face off. Ospreys might well have had no wins in their last 14 away games in the Heineken Cup, or won any of their last eight away matches against English clubs, but 13 points seems like an awful lot of value when considering that Ospreys have won seven of seven to start this 2014/15 season. Northampton butchered a losing bonus point opportunity last week in France and a home win on Saturday is almost certain. But take Ospreys to finish inside that 13 points at 10/11.
Sunday: Castres v Leinster (1.00pm Sky Sports 3)
Leinster, two point favourites, face a Castres side who’ve given scrum half (and kicker) Rory Kockott and back row Ibrahim Diarra the day off. The Irish side has been hit badly by injuries to start the season but welcome back Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing, moving Zane Kirchner to full back and allowing playmaker Ian Madigan to move back to the centre where has spent much time this season. Castres were nullified by Harlequins at The Stoop last weekend, held to just 59 carries, losing 4 of 9 scrums and 5 of 12 lineouts. It’s hard to back a side travelling to France with any kind of certainty but this has all the ingredients for an 4/6 Leinster win.