European club rugby is back and things are starting to heat up in the two continental competitions as teams chase a spot in the knockout stages.
ESPN’s experts predict which teams are set for a big weekend, which players will shine and where your attention should be trained across the two competitions.
Player to watch
Champions Cup (Martyn Thomas): Danny Cipriani (Wasps). Dai Young’s Wasps take on something close to mission impossible on Sunday lunchtime as they head to La Rochelle knowing defeat would all-but rule them out of quarterfinal contention. Cipriani steered his side to an impressive comeback win against Leicester last weekend and will be keen to drive Wasps on again in France. Not least as his future remains unclear and he is reportedly being courted by a number of Top 14 sides.
Challenge Cup (James Harrington): Matthieu Jalibert (Bordeaux). The road to first-choice France fly-half is littered with promising young cast-offs, but Jalibert looks the real deal. The 19-year-old has made the most metres of any player in the opening two rounds — smashing through 200 metres in 14 carries, and has impressed with his mature running of the game. It’s no wonder Simon Hickey is heading to Edinburgh. An honourable mention, too, for Cardiff Blues’ Gareth Anscombe, who needs just seven points against Sale to reach 100 in the competition.
Game of the weekend
Champions Cup: Saracens vs. Clermont, Sunday, 3.15 p.m.
Fans across Europe, not just of these two clubs, would have salivated at the prospect of back-to-back clashes between the two powerhouses when the Champions Cup draw was made. But few would have envisaged the two teams limping quite so badly into the first repeat of last season’s final. Holders and hosts, Saracens, have lost their last five in all competitions while Clermont have been crippled by injuries and currently sit ninth in the Top 14. Europe offers salvation, however, and both sides know victory would land a psychological blow in the race to top Pool 2.
Challenge Cup: Toulouse vs. Lyon, Thursday, 7.45 p.m.
This is the second of three meetings in as many weeks between the two sides. A fortnight ago, Toulouse travelled to Lyon in the Top 14 — and came away with a shock 17-9 victory. But they have struggled in the Challenge Cup, drawing at Sale, then losing at home to Cardiff to find themselves well off the Pool 2 pace. Maybe last week’s first home defeat to Top 14 neighbours Castres in nearly 40 years will relight their fire. Lyon will fancy their chances, though, despite losing four on the bounce domestically.
Champions Cup: Toulon vs. Bath, Saturday, 3.15 p.m.
Pool 5 has already become a straight shootout between Toulon and Bath for top spot, meaning an away win in either of the two back-to-back games between the sides will more than likely prove decisive. Stade Felix-Mayol is an intimidating place to go and get a result, but Bath proved at Scarlets that they know how to eke out a win on the road. Todd Blackadder’s side should be back to full strength with Rhys Priestland pulling the strings at fly-half and Taulupe Faletau adding power to the pack. Toulon have struggled domestically this season, and their visitors might spot an opportunity.
Challenge Cup: Newcastle vs. Bordeaux, Saturday, 3.15 p.m.
Remember round two? Newcastle were 17-7 down at the start of the second half at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban Delmas. But they roared back, scoring two converted tries in 20 minutes to win the game 21-20. That win ensured they kept their perfect record against Jacques Brunel’s side. Defeat left Bordeaux three points adrift of Newcastle in Pool 1 — and they will be determined to make up ground at Kingston Park.
Big weekend for…
Champions Cup: Castres. Pool 4 is by far the most open after the first two rounds of action. Despite being without a win in those two games, Castres find themselves just three points adrift of group leaders Leicester. Racing 92 are the visitors on Saturday, and following five successive Top 14 wins the hosts will be confident they can kickstart their continental campaign.
Challenge Cup: Edinburgh. The only side in the competition with a perfect 10 from their opening two matches could take another giant step towards the knockout phase with a big win over London Irish in their first Challenge Cup outing at Myreside on Saturday evening. The hosts will be looking to the tournament’s leading points-scorer Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to keep the scoreboard ticking over.