By Phil Rice
Back-to-back European Champions Cup matches in early December generally go a long way to determining the teams likely to make the play-off stage of the competition.
This year brings some outstanding clashes and none more so than Exeter, the English Champions versus Leinster, three times European Champions.
With maximum points from their European Champion Cup matches to date, Leinster visit Sandy Park, the home of the English champions and current leaders of the Premiership this Sunday evening.
The West Country club are in fine form with successive victories in the past two weeks over European champions Saracens, and Bath. Up until recently Exeter were an unfashionable club in Devon, something of a backwater when it came into Premiership Rugby.
But not so now, as Rob Baxter has done an outstanding job of moulding a team largely made up of home grown talent with a sprinkling of imported players.
Their forward pack is unrivalled in English club rugby, they are an extremely efficient unit and rarely leave their opponents 22 area without scoring points.
Leinster will have to be at their very best to come away with anything to show from their visit. The Dublin based side have been in impressive form themselves recently, having lost only two games all season to date, and it promises to be a titanic battle between two of the leading sides in Europe.
The only other occasion the sides have met in the European Cup was in the 2012/13 season when the Irish side won 9-6 at home, and recorded a 20-29 victory in Exeter.
Since then Exeter have improved significantly, culminating in victory in the play-offs for the Premiership title last season.
However, success has eluded them in Europe and they are targeting the Champions Cup this year. In round one they fought back against Glasgow to beat them 24-15 at home, and they followed this with an impressive away win in Montpellier, 24-27.
This is a tight group and there is every chance that only one team will progress, which makes this a crucial couple of weeks for these two teams.
After a successful autumn series Leinster’s international players will return to action for their club. In addition, Garry Ringrose will be available for selection after a try scoring return to action last weekend against Treviso.
Joey Carbery will be out of action until the New Year with a broken wrist, but Rob Kearney will return to full back and Johnny Sexton (right) will resume his partnership with Luke McGrath at half back.
Robbie Henshaw’s fitness will be determined this week, while new recruit New Zealand Maori James Lowe made an auspicious start for the province last weekend scoring two tries. It is up front where Leinster will need to at least match the formidable Exeter pack.
If they achieve this their backline are well capable of effectively using the possession. The other two sides in this group Glasgow and Montpellier get things under way this weekend with a Friday evening kick-off in Scotstoun.
Elsewhere, Munster face Leicester in Thomond Park on Saturday evening. These sides have met in European competition on several occasions. In the first round Munster hung on for a 17-17 draw in Castres and then beat Racing 92, 14-7, at home in their second match.
Leicester lost away to Racing 92 and smashed a weakened Castres at home 54- 29. There is considerable media conjecture at present as to whether Peter O’Mahony (left) and CJ Stander will be tempted to follow Simon Zebo to France when their contracts expire at the end of this season.
While the financial benefits are considerable it would be a surprise if these two pillars of the Ireland team are prepared to potentially walk away from international rugby at the peak of their rugby careers.
Munster would certainly be devastated if they lost two of their finest. This is a difficult match to call as both teams have been inconsistent this season but with Munster expected to field a near full strength side they should make home advantage pay and gain a close victory.
Ulster’s long-suffering supporters will trek to The Stoop in Twickenham for a match with Harlequins at lunch time on Sunday. Yet again they built a significant lead against the Dragons last weekend, only to leak two tries and surrender their lead with two minutes to go.
To their credit, they rallied to score with the last move of the game but Christian Lealiifano missed the straight forward conversion and the match ended in a draw.
Harlequins gained an impressive victory over Saracens last Sunday and their confidence will be high for this week’s game.
Ulster beat Wasps in their first group game but lost heavily away to an impressive La Rochelle in their second match.
This is also expected to be a tight group and with the likelihood of only one team making it to the play-offs, victory for Ulster may be a requirement if they are to feature in the latter stages.
Connacht travel to Brive in the Challenge Cup with a 9pm kick-off on Saturday night. With two victories already the Westerners can put themselves in a very strong position with an away win this weekend.