Updated:Mar 30, 2023 2:57 pm
The dust has settled on another epic Six Nations that saw Ireland emphatically seal a Grand Slam. It’s hard to bet against their premier province, Leinster, in Europe, but the likes of Toulouse, Saracens, and last year’s winners, La Rochelle, will be gunning for them. All of Europe’s leading contenders have home advantage this week, and with last season’s two-legged format ditched, there’s less margin for error. With eight games taking place, it promises to be an enthralling weekend of rugby.
The weekend kicks off with Leicester taking on Edinburgh at Welford Road on Friday night. Mike Blair will be hoping his Scotland contingent can take the confidence from their Twickenham success, while Leicester’s England players will be baying for revenge. The Tigers have been in fine form in the Premiership in recent weeks, their attack purring under the guidance of fly half Handre Pollard, and they are bolstered by the return of several of their England stars, including Freddie Steward.
Edinburgh haven’t tasted victory since January but are strengthened by the return of their Scotland delegation. There’s a potentially tasty battle in the scrum, with Pierre Schoeman taking on Dan Cole, while Hamish Watson and Tommy Reffell’s contest at the breakdown will be similarly vital. Given their recent form, the Tigers will be quietly confident, and Edinburgh will have to find a way to stop their rolling maul. Leicester will be wary of Edinburgh’s firepower out wide, with the electric Darcy Graham and powerful Duhan van der Merwe back in partnership.
Saturday lunchtime sees the Sharks host Munster in Durban. The Sharks have stuttered somewhat since Christmas, but they are generally formidable at home, able to blend brute force with attacking ambition; they have the highest rate of gainline success in the tournament so far. The Sharks might fancy themselves at scrum time, an area where Munster have struggled slightly in Europe. Aside from their defeat against Glasgow last weekend, Munster’s form has been good this year, and Peter O’Mahony’s return will provide some welcome nous. Gavin Coombes has been one of the tournament’s standout players, but I feel they will suffer from the absence of the injured Tadhg Beirne.
Harlequins face a stiff assignment in Cape Town against the Stormers, who last week became the first side not to lose to Leinster this season. The Stormers have been in impressive form; conversely, Quins’ have faltered since Christmas, and they’ve looked vulnerably defensively in recent weeks. Slow starts have often hampered Quins, and they’ll need to come out the blocks quickly on Saturday, or they could be in for a long afternoon. The Londoners’ set piece is an area of strength, but they’ll have to front up physically and look to move the Stormers’ large pack around. You can never write Quins off, and if Marcus Smith can inspire some magic, they could pull off a shock.Embed from Getty Images
Leinster will welcome back their sizeable slam contingent for Saturday’s game against Ulster, though they will be without Jonny Sexton, who will hope he hasn’t worn the Leinster blue for the last time. Leinster have been unstoppable this season, yet to taste defeat after coming back to claim an impressive draw against the Stormers. Similarly to Ireland, there’s no apparent weakness in Leinster’s game, and they share Ireland’s ruthless streak in attack. It’s a monumental challenge for Ulster, but Dan McFarland’s side are in good nick; their season turned around following their gutsy defeat away at La Rochelle. It’s hard to look past Leinster, but Ulster will relish their role as the underdogs as they did in 2019, when they almost shocked the Dubliners in the quarter-finals.
Saturday’s final clash sees the holders La Rochelle take on Gloucester. The French side have won their last four matches and are formidable opposition at home, with a potent attack. Gloucester have struggled lately, losing to a fourteen-man Newcastle side last week, and they will need to produce something special to win in the south of France. La Rochelle topped Pool B by winning all four matches, conceding just 57 points. Gloucester qualified despite suffering two heavy defeats against Leinster, but they will take some heart from their impressive victory in Bordeaux. However, it’s difficult to look past the French side.Embed from Getty Images
Sunday lunchtime sees Exeter Chiefs welcome Top 14 champions Montpellier. Despite some inconsistent recent form, the Chiefs will fancy themselves at home, though their discipline will have to be considerably better than in their defeat against Bath last week. Some of Exeter’s best performances have come in Europe this season, while Montpellier were slightly fortunate to qualify with a singular victory. Montpellier currently sit ninth in the Top 14, and their away form has been their Achilles heel. However, they do boast a genuine match-winner in number eight, Zach Mercer, who will be keen to showcase his talents with the World Cup looming.
Toulouse welcome back their French superstars, including Six Nations Player of the Tournament Antoine Dupont, for the visit of the Bulls. Keeping the French dynamo quiet is the Bulls’ best recipe for success, but it is easier said than done. The Bulls have only won once this year and face a Toulouse side who have yet to lose at home all season. All signs point towards a home win, but Toulouse should be wary of the Bulls’ counter-attacking threat as they’ve scored more tries from turnovers than anyone else in the tournament. The set-piece battle promises to be bruising, but I expect Toulouse’s superiority to shine through.
The final match of the weekend sees Saracens host the Ospreys. The English side are sitting pretty top of the Premiership and played some scorching rugby in their victory over Harlequins last weekend, though they will be sweating slightly on the fitness of Owen Farrell. In what’s been a wretched season for Welsh rugby, the Ospreys’ performance in Europe has been a rare high point, and they qualified with superb victories away at Montpellier and Leicester. On league form, it’s hard to look past Saracens, who look the best-placed side to challenge Leinster alongside Toulouse. However, Ospreys have saved their best for the continent this season. Can they pull off another shock on Sunday?
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