After three rounds of European Cup action the list of quarter final contenders has been whittled down, but not as much as you might think. This season three second-placed teams will grab quarter final slots as opposed to the two in the Heineken Cup (may it rest in peaceful slumber). In terms of keeping teams interested that extra slot could be a game-changer.
It also helps the lower placed sides that thus far in the competition bonus points have been thin on the ground. The five teams currently in first place have notched up 12 wins between them but Clermont have been the only side to pick up a try bonus point. A team like Wasps, having lost their first two matches to Leinster and Harlequins, remain with hope having picked up three bonus points so far. A big win for Wasps on Sunday (-17 favourites against Castres) could make Pool 2 very interesting indeed.
Clermont pulled off a major fillip last weekend becoming the first French side to beat Munster in Thomond Park in either the Heineken Cup or its replacement, the European Rugby Champions Cup, or, as the PR folks might suggest, ‘Europe’s Top Tier’. The Stade Marcel Michelin will be heaving this weekend for the return leg. Clermont are favoured by ten points and could be good value to beat that handicap given Munster’s severe front row injury troubles.
Elsewhere in Pool 1 Saracens will look to give Sale a hiding at Allianz Park. Gut call says Sale finish within the twenty-two points by which Sarries are favoured. If Charlie Hodgson were starting at fly half instead of Owen Farrell that gut call might go the other way.
Leinster welcome Harlequins to Dublin on Saturday night with revenge on their minds after last week’s defeat at the Stoop. Despite being one of just two sides in the competition to win each of their first three games Quins are getting scant respect from Paddy Power. They’re 20/1 to win the title (to Leinster’s 9/1) and second favourites to win Pool 2 despite being three points clear of Leinster at the half way point of the pool stage.
The Irish side will fancy their chances on Saturday night, however, as the Londoners travel without the services of club captain Chris Robshaw and goalkicking fly half Nick Evans. Leinster, 11 point favourites, have named an exciting midfield with Ian Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald in the centre and will look to test Evans’ replacement, Tim Swiel, more than they did last week. As a team they’ll want to improve in some key areas before getting too excited about things; over the first three rounds according to Opta Leinster rank in the bottom three in tackle, lineout and scrum success rates.
Toulon, losers at Welford Road last week to Richard Cockerill’s Leicester, are favourites across the board: 9/4 for an unprecedented third successive European Cup title; 1/10 to win Pool Three and a virtually unbackable 1/40 to qualify for a quarter final. It seems very harsh for Leicester to complain about their former prop Martin Castrogiovanni calling their head coach a c**t (allegedly) when he’s obviously merely trying to do his old team a solid by removing himself from the fray this coming weekend. Excellent sportsmanship, Castro, and an excellent mastery of the swearier parts of the English language. Toulon, yet to lose a game at home in the European Cup, are 1/7 favourites to split the December double-header.
But it’s almost Christmas. It’s the season to wander out with a fistful of dollars, meet friends in as many of the 12 Pubs of Christmas that one might deem appropriate, and return home on the back of a pocketful of shrapnel. A three team accumulator could help. It’s how Santa would want it.
Andy’s 6/1 festive treble:
Northampton (-36) v Benetton Treviso
Sale (+22) v Saracens
Clermont (-10) v Munster
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