The January games in the Champions Cup are definitely my favourite, simply because everyone has something to play for. Every team is desperate for victory - The pool leaders are seeking vital for bonus points wins to set up home quarter-finals while others are just looking to keep their European dream alive.
Bath V Scarlets (Friday KO 7:45) – Selection: BATH (-6) @ EVS
Pool 5 is the tightest of all in the European Champions Cup with just one point separating Bath, Toulon and Scarlets. Bath won 18-13 at Parc y Scarlets in October where Rhys Priestland impressed in a man-of-the-match performance. I am keen to back them (-6) tonight at The Rec. The hosts will welcome the return of Sam Underhill, who is playing his first match since sustaining a second concussion of the season against Australia in November. The late withdrawals of Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny McNicholl are negatives for the visitor’s prospects. It should be an entertaining game but I expect Bath to come out on top.
Ulster V La Rochelle (Saturday KO 1pm) – Selection: ULSTER (+2) @ 10/11
La Rochelle have put in some outstanding performances in the Champions Cup this year but they’ve struggled a bit the last few weeks – A loss away to Wasps in Round 4 and a draw at Oyonnax on the weekend proves they are not invincible. Ulster have also been disappointing of late and will need a big performance on Saturday if they are to avoid defeat. However, I am happy to back Ulster with a two-point headstart on the basis of their great record against French teams at home. Players like Rory Best, Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey will also be looking to perform well and push on for 6 Nations squad places.
Northampton Saints V Clermont Auvergne (Saturday KO 5:30pm) – Selection: CLERMONT (-5) @10/11
This has the potential to be another heavy defeat for the Saints and I am surprised the line for this fixture is set at just 5 points as it originally opened 9. The Saints, who had lost 12 of their past 13 matches prior to last weekends victory, are playing a disappointing brand of rugby and I am expecting French juggernauts, Clermont, to capitalize on this. The visitors are currently 10th place domestically in the Top 14 and will now shift focus to the European Champions Cup where they are in contention to win some silverware. This is a must-win game for Les Jaunards if they are to top the pool and I expect them to be ruthless against a Northampton side that have nothing to play for.
Exeter Chiefs V Montpellier (Saturday KO 3:15pm) – Selection: EXETER CHIEFS (-6) @10/11
Exeter will need to beat Montpellier on Saturday if they are to have any chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages. Back-to-back Leinster losses put the brakes on what was a fine start to the Exeter European campaign but I expect the Chiefs to resume progress here and cover the (-6) spread quite comfortably. The task looks to be made that bit easier with key players Don Armand, Harry Williams, Jonny Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie all poised for a return in front of a sold-out Sandy Park.
Racing 92 V Munster (Sunday KO 3:15pm) – Selections: RACING 92 (-4) @10/11
Munster have beaten Racing three times over the last year but I am hoping for a different result on Sunday and will be backing Racing (-4). The hosts are a perfect 3/3 since moving into their new home, the U Arena which could prove to be a fortress in years to come. Racing will be looking to close the gap between themselves (11 points) and Munster who are leading the pool (15 points) while Castres and Leicester are out of European contention. There should be plenty of scores from both sides but I am confident Racing will edge it. All eyes will be on Munster's Simon Zebo who announced that he will be making a move to the Parisians next season.
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