Weekend Preview: Glorious European weekend awaits

An unbelievable weekend of European rugby is on the cusp as Round Five of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup descend upon us on Friday.

An unbelievable weekend of European rugby is on the cusp as Round Five of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup descend upon us on Friday.

Qualification, or confirmed exit, is on the line for many clubs and for the players comes a chance to stake a claim for much-coveted 2020 Guinness Six Nations places.

We’ve picked out four game highlights to look out for this weekend, among a packed schedule.

Clermont Auvergne vs Ulster, Saturday, 1pm

At the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday it’s stand and deliver time for Ulster, who carry with them four wins from four, excellent Guinness Pro14 form and plenty of hype.

Dan McFarland’s men top the group on 17 points but Clermont sit just one behind. With home ties so important in the coming quarter-finals this is the match that will go a long way to deciding the fate of a European campaign.

Clermont will be as strong as ever at one of rugby’s great cathedrals but strangely have just one France player in their starting XV from the Championship squad – Damian Penaud – although Alexandre Fischer is on the bench.

No doubt Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will have an eye on Ulster, where the likes of John Cooney and Stuart McCloskey are in the form of their lives.

Next up in Farrell’s viewing will likely be Connacht v Toulouse at 3:15 where Bundee Aki and Jack Carty will lead the fight with Connacht not out of the reckoning yet, while the Leinster machine rumbles on at 1pm on Sunday at home to Lyon.

Glasgow Warriors vs Exeter Chiefs, Saturday, 3.15pm

Also on that jam-packed Saturday afternoon we have Glasgow Warriors v Exeter Chiefs at 3:15, as Stuart Hogg returns to Scotstoun for the first time and lock Jonny Gray faces his new teammates.

Hogg, starting at full-back, is in just as good a form as ever in an Exeter side four from four with 19 points – the Warriors though know that two bonus-point wins will likely see them through and will fly into this one at home.

Meanwhile Edinburgh are in action earlier in the day in the Challenge Cup, 12:45pm away to Top14 leaders Bordeaux Begles.

Both sides have been in excellent form in Europe and the likes of Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, Magnus Bradbury and Hamish Watson will all be keen to display their form ahead of the Championship.

Scarlets vs Toulon, Saturday, 8pm

Sticking with the theme of juicy Challenge Cup ties, of which there are plenty in this Round, we have a trio of Welsh clubs involved in that competition.

Castres v Dragons (Saturday, 1pm) and Leicester Tigers v Cardiff Blues (Sunday, 3:15pm) both feature the top two in their pools but our pick is Scarlets v Toulon (Saturday, 8pm).

Toulon lead Pool 2 on 18, Scarlets four behind, and in this decider the Welsh region have a fine looking XV including Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Hadleigh Parkes and skipper Ken Owens.

Racing 92 vs Munster, Sunday, 3:15pm

What a perfect way to round the European weekend off, at the La Defense Arena to sort out the perfectly-poised Pool 4 and two old rivals.

Parisians Racing 92 lead the way on 17 points, with Munster six behind and Saracens on 10, realistically any of those three could top this pool.

Racing lose at home incredibly rarely and have the talents of Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa and Finn Russell in their backline, but this is one stubborn Munster side and with scores of Ireland internationals in their 23 you wonder, could they?