As rounds three and four of the Champions Cup are fast approaching Gloucester and Exeter teeter on the edge of elimination nearing the halfway point of the group stages. Exeter and Gloucester sit on three and four points respectively. Although not a mathematical certainty, both sides realistically need two wins out of two to keep their hopes alive.
Here at Last Word on Rugby we will preview round 3 of pool 2 of the Champions Cup. Assessing all sides chances of qualification and as well as previewing this weekend’s matches. It promises to be a cracking couple of weeks of rugby which will determine these sides hopes in the competition.
Castres and Munster – The Front Runners
After a somewhat surprising win over Exeter in round two Castres find themselves with a genuine chance of qualification. However they are languishing in mid-table of the Top 14 with a mixed run of results in recent weeks. This weekend they travel to Munster which will be a very tough test for them.
Munster will see this weekend’s game as a chance to stamp their authority on the pool. If they can win at home they would command the pool and be in pole position to qualify. They will be boosted with the returns of Conor Murray and Andrew Conway back from injuries.
However coach Johan van Graan is not taking this weekend lightly. This week he noted the importance of “their distant kicking game” and their “poach” threat. He also believes that “parts of their game have definitely grown” since last season.
Most logic would suggest that this is one game too far for Castres. However last season’s Top 14 Champions have proven that it is a fools game to bet against them. Therefore this is one of the most difficult games to predict this weekend. If we were to come down on one side I would predict a hard fought Munster win.
Part Two of the Trilogy
Two weeks ago Exeter and Gloucester embarked upon a trilogy of matches against each other. Exeter won the first 23-6 at Sandy Park. Although the score line paints a picture of a comfortable win, coach Rob Baxter was quick to point out that the game was in fact much tighter than the score suggests.
Analysis of the game shows this as well. Exeter scored from an intercept and a cross field kick which are not tries that you normally associate with the Chiefs. The game was won and lost by Exeter’s ability to build pressure and force errors in defence. Whilst normally Rob Baxter’s side tend to build pressure through time on the ball.
Therefore although both sides will be increasingly familiar with each other, the Premiership clash between the two may not be a useful barometer for predicting Champions Cup results. Furthermore Chiefs have the luxury of welcoming back their international stars to their side. Not only were they not present against Gloucester a fortnight ago but they were also rested last week. This is something that Baxter expects to give his side the edge on Saturday afternoon.
Nic White looking towards Knockout Champions Cup Rugby
Nic White told us this week that it was “do or die” for his side. Therefore making their match against Gloucester effectively knockout rugby. How both sides deal with this may go a long way to deciding the outcome of the match.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) December 7, 2018
Gloucester have significant pedigree in the Challenge Cup. Perhaps their experience of winning knockout matches will play in their favour. However the Champions Cup is a step up and it remains to be seen whether this Gloucester side can handle that rise in intensity.
Compared to previous seasons Exeter now have a significant number of international experience to call upon. The likes of Slade, Moon and Skinner could be crucial in the key moments this weekend. Once again this is another tough one to predict. However at home it is hard to bet against Exeter. Despite this with Gloucester fighting for their lives in the competition, expect a fiery affair that could go either way on the day.
This weekend’s action could go a long way to deciding who progresses in this seasons Champions Cup. As Munster look to cement their position as pool leaders Gloucester and Exeter will aim to reel them in. Expect some very close games and maybe an upset or two along the way.
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