European Rugby crunch time for Prem sides

European Rugby crunch time for Prem sides

The return of European action will see a host of Gallagher Premiership Rugby sides bid to secure safe passage to the knockout stages.

For the four English clubs unbeaten in the Investec Champions Cup, a third victory would all-but secure a place in the last 16, with the top four guaranteed to progress. 

The other five sides, meanwhile, will be looking to improve their position as the group stages near a conclusion – here is all you need to know ahead of the weekend’s fixtures.

All to play for in Pool 1

Both Saracens and Bristol Bears are one from two and occupy fourth and fifth place in Pool 1 ahead of Round 3.

Sarries are on the road this weekend with a daunting trip to pool leaders Bordeaux-Bègles, who ran out 36-17 winners over Bears last month.

If Mark McCall’s side can return home with points of some description, then they will look in good shape to qualify ahead of a home tie with Lyon next weekend.

Bears, meanwhile, host a Springbok-less Bulls on Saturday after they spared their big name stars for the long-haul trip.

Victory at Ashton Gate would take the pressure off Pat Lam’s side who travel to bottom-side Connacht in the final round.

Tantalising match-ups for Bath and Quins

Bath Rugby and Harlequins take on the two winless sides in Pool 2 but neither will be taking this weekend's assignment lightly.

The West Country club host Top 14 leaders Racing 92 while Quins cross the border to take on Cardiff Rugby – a fixture which has thrown up several classics in years gone by.

Quins edged a 36-33 thriller at Arms Park two years ago and have not lost to Cardiff in each of their last four meetings ahead of a frenzied night in the Welsh capital.

Unbeaten after their first two matches, Bath are in a strong position to qualify but will want to get the job done ahead of a trip to Toulouse in Round 4.

Finn Russell will be determined to secure a result against former side Racing, who have not yet been able to replicate their fantastic league form in Europe.


Saints and Chiefs with home advantage

Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs sit equally on nine points from their first two matches and can wrap up a last 16-place with a win this weekend.

Saints open the show against Bayonne on Friday night in the first ever meeting between the sides.

Unbeaten in their last seven matches in all competitions, domestic leaders Saints will not want to slip up against the Sky Blue and Whites who are ranked 10th in the Top 14.

Saints narrowly beat Glasgow Warriors in the opening round and the Scottish side now make the trip to Sandy Park to take on Chiefs.

After going down in dramatic fashion to Saints last weekend, Chiefs will be determined to bounce back quickly and keep fighting on two fronts, having progressed further than any of their domestic rivals in last year’s Champions Cup.

Huge tests for Sharks and Tigers

Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers make their longest trips of the season in a blockbuster Pool 4 double-header.

Sharks’ South African contingent will carry the fight to URC leaders Stormers on Saturday, including the outstanding Ernst van Rhyn who returns to play his former club.

Sharks have suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time this season and while the distance travelled will count against them in Cape Town, the local knowledge of several Sharks players makes them dangerous opponents.

Tigers then travel to holders La Rochelle, who welcome France No.8 Gregory Alldritt to their ranks for the first time in Europe this season.

Tigers trail their final round opponents Leinster on points difference at the top of the pool, but first head into unknown waters as they face Les Maritimes for the first time.

Gloucester on the brink in Challenge Cup

Gloucester hold all the cards in Pool 3 of the EPCR Challenge Cup and a win over Castres would consolidate their position at the top of the table.

George Skivington’s side swept aside Black Lion and Clermont Auvergne before Christmas and can seal the job against Castres, who are winless in their last four matches in all competitions.

Elsewhere, Newcastle Falcons could haul themselves into contention for a last 16 spot with a win over Benetton on Friday night.

Falcons forwards coach Micky Ward was a player when the two clubs last met during the 2000-01 Challenge Cup pool phase – Newcastle beating the Italians 30-19 at home after losing 28-15 in Treviso.

Competition format reminder

In the Champions Cup, the top four sides from each of the four pools will qualify for the last 16, with all fifth-placed teams dropping down to the Challenge Cup.

They will be joined in the Challenge Cup Round of 16 by the teams finishing in the top four of the three Challenge Cup pools.

The group stage action concludes at the end of January before single-leg knockout ties right the way through to the competition finals on the weekend of the 24th and 25th of May.

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