Leinster kick off another promising weekend of European Rugby Champions Cup action this weekend and with Guinness PRO12 sides leading three of the five pools, which sides can maintain their excellent starts?
Byrne gets Champions Cup chance:
Leo Cullen’s men have brought in all their big guns for Friday night’s clash with Northampton Saints, but the inclusion of winger Adam Byrne – who has excelled during the autumn Tests in the Guinness PRO12 – is an eyecatching move from the head coach.
Byrne appeared as a precocious 18-year-old back in 2012, but his career was put into jeopardy by two broken legs, one after the other.
He has proved the value of the autumn period for those outside the Test scene, taking his chance with five tries in four Guinness PRO12 appearances and forcing his way into Leinster’s Champions Cup starting line-up.
With only two points separating top from bottom in Pool Four, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, as well as Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Sean Cronin, Josh van der Flier and Jack McGrath all start, while Devin Toner will make his 50th appearance for Leinster in Europe’s top flight competition.
European heavyweights collide as scrum-halves go head to head:
Few European grounds inspire as much awe as Thomond Park, but Munster know that no one is as undaunted by the Limerick amphitheatre as Leicester Tigers.
Richard Cockerill’s side are the only team to win there on two occasions, becoming the first to win there in 12 seasons of European rugby in 2007.
Munster are in better form – their huge 38-17 win against Glasgow Warriors has precipitated a six-game unbeaten run – while Leicester have fluctuated wildly this season.
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) December 9, 2016
After riproaring autumn Tests for England and Ireland, two men in fine fettle are Conor Murray and Ben Youngs.
Arguably Europe’s two best scrum-halves, they are hugely influential and as Youngs tipped games on their head against South Africa and Australia, so Murray left the All Blacks reeling in Chicago.
Murray’s game management is viewed as world best, while Youngs looks sharp, fit and ever-maturing under Eddie Jones’ watchful eye.
Whoever comes out on top in this British & Irish Lions showdown will have a big say in who moves up the ladder in Pool 1.
French challenges await:
A double-header against Racing 92 is a task that Glasgow Warriors must surmount if they are to make the Champions Cup knockout stages for the very first time according to Gregor Townsend.
Townsend’s side handled them well at Scotstoun last year, winning 22-5, but they lost the corresponding fixture in Paris.
Jonny Gray is back to captain the side after a stellar autumn, while Finn Russell is in at fly-half and Stuart Hogg at full-back as Pool 1’s second-place side aim to make history.
— Glasgow Warriors 🏉 (@GlasgowWarriors) December 6, 2016
Les Kiss’ Ulster face a similarly gargantuan task in taking on Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne on consecutive weekends.
The Top 14 leaders arrive at the Kingspan Stadium top of Pool 5 with a perfect ten points from ten, while Kiss’ side are third with four points.
Yet Kiss has named a formidable backline capable of taking on the French – Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey all starting, with Paddy Jackson at fly-half and Iain Henderson an imposing presence up front.
Zebre meanwhile will try to claim their first ever Champions Cup win against four-time winners Toulouse at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Bundee v Beale:
Pool 2’s pacesetters Connacht and Wasps go head-to-head at the Ricoh Arena on Sunday and all eyes will be on the blockbuster showdown between Wallabies centre Kurtley Beale and last year’s Guinness PRO12 player of the season Bundee Aki.
While Aki is central to everything that Connacht do, Beale is making his first appearance in a Wasps shirt, but the 60-cap Wallaby is known as one of the game’s most talented backs and has created a lot of expectation at the Ricoh.
Connacht lead the way with nine points from ten in the group, but a Wasps win could upset their stellar momentum in the Champions Cup.
Aki, Tiernan O’Halloran, Ultan Dillane and Niyi Adeolokun all start for Pat Lam’s side and they will need to be at their peak for a Wasps side brimming with international talent.
All-Welsh at the back in France:
— Scarlets (@scarlets_rugby) December 9, 2016
Wayne Pivac’s side must become the second side ever to win at the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday if they are to keep pace with Toulon in Pool 3.
Scott Williams returns from a fine autumn to start opposite double World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu and French giant Mathieu Bastareaud.
Liam Williams starts at full-back in an all-Welsh showdown with Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny, while Olympic silver medallist James Davies clashes with Georgian talisman Mamuka Gorgodza at openside.
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