Heineken Cup - Round 3 preview
Saints look for Leinster redemption
December 6, 2013
Leinster broke Northampton hearts in the 2011 final © Getty Images
In the last few weeks we have seen Heineken Cup posturing, u-turns and talk of boycotts - now we finally get to see some European rugby once again. English clubs will not take part in the competition next season as they hold out for an alternative Rugby Champions Cup but, for a small time at least, this will be pushed to one side as the four Premiership sides look to keep their on-field European ambitions alive.
The middle set of fixtures in the tournament are often the most decisive - with each team playing the same opponent home and away in the space of two weeks knowing full well the possible consequences of back-to-back defeats. Ospreys and Harlequins sit on the verge of Heineken Cup elimination already while Northampton will look to exorcise some of the demons from their 2011 final defeat to Leinster as they welcome the Pro12 champions to Franklin's Gardens on Saturday for what could the first of two absolutely thrilling encounters.
Saracens are on the back of a five-match winning run and the smart money would be on them extending it to seven over the next two weeks. The Premiership leaders take on Zebre, second-from-bottom in the Pro12, and should win both comfortably, though they will no doubt have one eye on the outcome of the encounters between Toulouse and Connacht, who are both currently above the Allianz Park side in Pool 3.
Top 14 league-leaders Clermont are also enjoying a healthy run of form, but their five-game unbeaten will be put to the test by a Jekyll and Hyde Scarlets outfit who sit top of the pool. Bolstered by Castres-bound wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was on absolutely electric form in the opening two rounds, Clermont know they be in a very strong position if they can navigate past the Scarlets at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Irish regions Leinster and Munster are both undefeated in the RaboDirect PRO12 since their league encounter on October 5. Leinster travel to Northampton on Saturday looking to make it four wins from four against the Saints in the competition, while Munster welcome Perpignan to Thomond Park on Sunday looking to take control of Pool 6 with a win before a crucial trip to France for the return fixture.
Out of form
Since their 27-22 victory over Perpignan in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, Gloucester have won just one match in seven and enter a key series against Edinburgh looking to revive their season and keep their European prospects on track. They travel to Murrayfield off the back of narrow Premiership defeats to Harlqeuins and Leicester which left them languishing in tenth place in the league, knowing that another loss to Edinburgh could be potentially fatal in a group also containing Perpignan and Munster.
Cardiff Blues stunned Toulon last time out in this competition but they return to European duties on a domestic slide of their own, with their struggles best summed up by their 26-26 draw with Treviso in the league - which was only secured by a late Gareth Davies penalty. Each team in Pool 2 has one win to their name and with the first of back-to-back fixtures against fellow Pro12 side Glasgow Warriors - who currently sit third in the league - to come, Cardiff will need to hit the ground running at Arms Park this Saturday to keep their European hopes alive.
Since earning promotion to the Premiership in 2010 Exeter have proved they are no pushovers but they welcome reigning European champions Toulon to Sandy Park on Saturday after defeats to Saracens and Bath, though Bernard Laporte's side are still reeling from a shutout 26-0 loss to Stade Francais in the league last weekend.
Tie of the round
Rematches of great finals always make for compelling encounters and that is certainly the case this weekend as Northampton Saints welcome Leinster - the team who broke their hearts in 2011 with a memorable 33-22 comeback victory after trailing 22-6 at half-time. Memory of that defeat still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for any Saints fan, but everyone affiliated with the Franklin's Gardens outfit knows that both these fixtures will be a barometer of where Jim Mallinder's team really sits amongst the European elite.
Saints have exited at the group stage for two straight years since their 2011 nightmare and in a group also containing Castres they will be wary of the consequences of suffering back-to-back losses. Seven straight wins will mean little for Northampton against a side containing 14 of the Ireland side who pushed New Zealand right to the bitter end in the autumn internationals, though the Franklin's Garden faithful could play a crucial role in the Saints' biggest match of the season so far.
The bookies are not confident of a Premiership club ending England's tenure with the Heineken Cup in style, with bet365 putting Northampton and Leicester at 20/1 to win the competition outright. Top 14 duo Toulon and Toulouse are 4/1 favourites to lift the trophy. Exeter top their pool and if you think they can navigate past the reigning champions and stay at the Pool 2 summit then 9/1 is the price.
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