At the halfway mark in the European Champions and Challenge Cup pool stages, and with the 2019 Guinness Six Nations looming, there are some mouth-watering match-ups that will take place across both competitions this weekend.
Many of last weekend’s results left certain teams’ chances of qualification hanging by a thread, while others have firmly taken control of their pools.
But this weekend’s set of match-ups gives players a chance to scope out their competition for when February rolls around, not to mention the extra layer of narrative the rivalries add to proceedings. Here’s a look at some of the standout individual head-to-heads. OPEN BATTLE Reigning champions Leinster will be hoping to keep the pressure on Pool 1 leaders Toulouse with a win against Bath at the Aviva Stadium, and all eyes should be on the battle of the openside flankers – Josh van der Flier and Sam Underhill – after a battle in the mud last weekend.
It was a battle in which England flanker Underhill excelled. He won four turnovers, carried the ball six times, and made 21 metres in the process. Van der Flier also carried six times, but he was only able to make three metres in the whole match, due to some astute Bath defence.
But the Leinster man’s work-rate sets him apart from the rest. He made 16 tackles – over a tenth of his side’s total number. Despite losing out to Underhill in the battle of the numbers, he was there when it mattered. His kick-chase and jackal secured the penalty for Leinster that put them ten points clear with eight minutes to play.
Leinster have not lost at home in Europe since December 2015 and, with howling wind and rain forecast at kick-off in Dublin, Bath will need Underhill’s wet-weather style to come to the fore if they are to have any chance of upsetting the odds. DOMINATING NEGRI Harlequins have been dogged by inconsistency in previous years, and this season is proving to be no different. After a stunning win against Exeter Chiefs at the Twickenham Stoop in the Gallagher Premiership, in which Alex Dombrandt was the star, they travelled to Benetton Rugby full of confidence. But they came out on the wrong side of the 26-21 final score.
However, blindside flanker Dombrandt was once again Quins’ star. The former Cardiff Met student scored two tries and made more metres (40) than any other Harlequins player, a rare feat for a forward. He carried the ball eight times, made two clean breaks, and made more than a tenth of his team’s tackles. He looked lethal in the wide channels, where Benetton’s defence struggled to stop him.
But his opposite number, Italian international Sebastian Negri, also put in a strong display. Despite being sin-binned in the 70th minute, he carried the ball four more times than Dombrandt (12). However, he was part of a superior back-row unit; Benetton’s all-international unit nearly made more metres between them than the entire Quins forward pack.
Quins will be looking to get their season back to winning ways this weekend, and if Dombrandt can continue his recent rampaging form, then Negri’s ferocious work-rate might not be enough to stop them. And, with Eddie Jones’ inclination towards England squad “apprentices”, might we see Dombrandt in a white shirt sooner than we think? STAND-OFF AT NO.10 When Cardiff Blues went in as 13-18 leaders at half-time at Allianz Park last weekend, few would have predicted a 51-25 loss. A Saracens second-half barrage blew Cardiff away, but it was the battle between the two international fly-halves that caught the eye.
Owen Farrell and Gareth Anscombe, seemingly now first choice for their respective countries at fly-half, both kicked effectively out of hand and both carried seven times. Anscombe was more precise off the tee than his English counterpart, but Farrell – as always – was instrumental to his side’s second-half onslaught.
Working with Richard Wigglesworth and Alex Goode, Farrell’s tactical kicking gained Saracens a total of 345 metres throughout the match, often allowing them to pressurise Cardiff Blues lineout, which only had a 77% success rate.
With Saracens and Glasgow Warriors pulling away in Pool 3, a win at Cardiff Arms Park this week is vital for Anscombe’s men, and he will need to be at his Autumn best to orchestrate it. HOOK LINE AND SINKER Rory Best’s Ulster overcame Ken Owens’ Scarlets last Friday night in Llanelli, with Ulster reinvigorating their hopes of qualification and Scarlets now looking unlikely to progress.
The two British & Irish Lions hookers, who both enjoyed successful Autumn international campaigns with their two respective sides, are both expected to be Guinness Six Nations starters in February when the world’s second and third best sides come head to head.
But last Saturday it was Best who got the better of his opposing captain. Ulster’s scrum had a 100% completion rate, Best did not miss a tackle and managed a trademark turnover.
Owens did however have more success at the lineout: Scarlets had a 100% completion rate whereas Best’s Ulster could only manage 80%.
With big names such as James Davies and Rob Evans missing through injury this weekend, as well as more long-term absentees Leigh Halfpenny and Aaron Shingler, Owens will have to put in a captain’s performance to stop Ulster’s charge to the knockout stages. GENGE MODE It was not the nine tries that stole the headlines at the La Défense Arena. Nor was it the electrifying feet of Juan Imhoff, nor the telepathic footballing ability of Finn Russell. It was Ellis Genge, Leicester Tigers’ bulldozing loosehead prop. In one mammoth carry which left four defenders in his wake, The England international set alight a match that was in danger of fizzling out.
He made 48 metres in the match, with only Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May making more for his side. He made nine tackles and won a crucial turnover too. Leicester also left Paris with a near flawless scrum success rate.
His opponent in those scrums last Sunday, and likely to be his opponent this Sunday too, was French international Cedate Gomes Sa. Racing’s tighthead had a quieter afternoon, carrying for 16 metres and making only four tackles, but he won a vital scrum penalty when Genge collapsed under pressure.
Leicester’s hopes in the Champions Cup are hanging by a thread, but for them to have any chance of progressing to the knockout stages, they must win at Welford Road against Racing on Sunday. Gomes Sa may not be able to match Genge in the loose, but his Racing side will look to pressure a Leicester scrum that was solid but not spectacular in Paris.