Nine British and Irish clubs and seven French teams have reached the last 16 of the European Championship Cup, and this Friday, Saturday and Sunday sees the sides play the first of the two legs with the winners going through to the last eight.
There’s plenty on offer for punters, and at this stage of the competition, it’s hard to offer advice in most of the fixtures as the teams are evenly matched.
What can be guaranteed is two successive weekends of entertaining, highly competitive and skilful rugby as all teams will have their best international players on show now that the Six Nations has finished.
The action starts on Friday evening at the Sportsground in Galway where two of Ireland’s provinces..Connacht and Leinster..clash in what should be a thrilling contest, kicking off at 20.00.
The sensible approach is to back Leinster, champions in 2009, 2011,2012 and 2018, and currently top of their league, the United Rugby Championship.
With so many Ireland stars in their team,like Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose, Leinster prepared more than satisfactorily for the Connacht game by beating rivals Munster 34-19 at the weekend, so they’re in good nick and ought to be too powerful for the Galway side.
Having said that, Connacht won 21-17 against Benetton, so they, too, will be confident, but having lost three games in the competition in the earlier stages whereas Leinster won three, their record so far this year is not that impressive.
Champions Toulouse Are At Home to Ulster
As is abundantly clear, French rugby is extremely strong just now… France are the Grand Slam winners and Toulouse are the reigning European Cup champions..so you’d expect their teams to be favourites to achieve distinction again in the Heineken Cup.
Toulouse, fifth in the Top 14 league, take on Ulster this Saturday, but need to be in much better form than in their last league game in which they were beaten 19-13 by Castres.
Ulster, too, lost by 34-16 to Bulls, the South African team, but the Northern Ireland squad can be confident as they’ve been successful in their Euro-campaign so far, winning four games out of four in Pool A, so the outcome of the contest between the two in Toulouse may be a lot closer than some observers think.
Two Premiership Clubs Clash in the North West This Saturday
Meanwhile, the AJ Bell stadium in Manchester on Saturday is the scene for the battle between two English clubs… Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears.
Just as Toulouse will have French scrum half and Grand Slam winner, Antoine Dupont, playing against Ulster, Sale’s World Cup winner, Faf de Klerk, also a scrum half, will be a major component in the Sharks’ team.
Sale will be aiming to produce a positive performance following the defeat by 18-12 at the AJ Bell ground against Saracens..they were unable to score a try unlike Bristol who scored four, although they were ultimately beaten 39-22 by Northampton in the Premiership.
Sale, sixth in the domestic league, are better placed than Bristol who’re 10th with 14 losses in the league, and with home advantage, you’d fancy the Sharks to go into the second leg with a slim lead.
Later in the week, we’ll be previewing the clashes between Bordeaux-Begles and La Rochelle, Exeter Chiefs against Munster, the Paris derby involving Stade Francais and Racing 92, Harlequins’ game in Montpellier, and Leicester Tigers, who’re also in France, as the Premiership leaders take on Clermont Auvergne.
* Heineken Cup odds correct at the time of writing. All rugby odds subject to changes.