The Guinness Pro14 takes a break for a couple of weeks, as the European competitions commence. With two Welsh regions in the Champions Cup, and two in the Challenge Cup, fans will have plenty to cheer about.
Here is the Last Word On Rugby preview to those sides first fixtures in Europe for this 2017/18 season.
RC Toulon v Scarlets – Sunday 15th
First up in the Champions Cup for the Scarlets is a tough away trip to Toulon, at the Stade Felix Mayol in France. The Scarlets faced the three timed champions last season in the group stage of the competition. Scarlets lost the away game 31-20, but managed to turn that around a week later in a surprise victory at Parc y Scarlets by a singular point, 22-21.
Although, this season is a completely different story with the current Pro12 champions one of the favourites to win the competition with their brilliant and entertaining, attacking style of play.
The Scarlets are in the in form team heading into the game, winning five of their first six league fixtures this season and are top of their Conference in the Guinness Pro14. Scarlets are coming into the match off a good, tight victory over local rivals the Ospreys. Where as Toulon have struggled for consistency in the early part of their season, winning four and losing three, Including losing their last match in another tight encounter with the Bordeaux Begles and currently sit sixth in the Top14.
The champions were in a fight but they just came through this tight cracker #OSPvSCA
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) October 8, 2017
Key Battles #1 Josua Tuisova V Steff Evans
Josua Tuisova, Known for his strong running and physical play, is nicknamed ‘the Bus’ and the ‘Human Bulldozer’ for a reason. Tuisova has a great try scoring record for Toulon scoring 29 tries in 71 games, including four tries in three games this season. His opposition on Sunday will be tough, he will be up against the in-form player in the Pro14 and possibly Europe in Steff Evans.
Evans is dominating the Pro14 and has been immense all season, leading the stats for assists, meters gained, defenders beaten and most off-loads. The Welsh winger also knows where the try line is having scored three tries in six games himself. The contest on the wing is mouthwatering for the spectators, with both teams hoping their wings continue their fine form.
#2 Guilhem Guirado V Ken Owens
The set piece is going to be a massive factor on Sunday afternoon, the massive pack of Toulon take on the agile and skilful pack of the Scarlets. The two hookers on Sunday will be mostly responsible for how their teams set piece goes. The line out accuracy of both will be instrumental to both teams getting a foothold in the game and being able to play off the front foot.
Scrum time could be the crucial key to either team, and can often be the case where a game can be won and lost. The hookers will have a crucial role to play in the set piece working efficiently for their team. The dynamic ball carrying of both will lead to a great contest around the park.
The Kicking Game
Anthony Belleau, Luke McAlistair and Francois Trinh-Duc are all good kickers in their own right, and whoever is chosen on Sunday will need to have ‘their kicking boots on’. They will be up against former team mate and one of the best goal kickers in world rugby British and Irish Lion, Leigh Halfpenny. The match on Sunday could come down to just a couple of points and the kickers could be the hero or possibly the villain for their teams.
Scarlets face Bath Rugby only five days later on Friday, October 20 in the same competition. The Scarlets will find the close turn around tough, especially at this level of Rugby. Wayne Pivac will need to utilise his squad wisely in trying to take two victories from the first two group matches.
Ospreys V ASM Clermont Auvergne – Sunday 15th
The Ospreys face last seasons runners up Clermont Auvergne in the Champions Cup, at The Liberty Stadium on Sunday. Ospreys failed to qualify for the Champions Cup last season, but did reach the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup winning all six of their group games. They lost to another French team in Quarter Final at home to Stade Francais 21-25. Clermont on the other hand were in the Champions Cup and managed to reach the Final but missed out on the trophy to fellow group member this season, Saracens.
The Ospreys have surprisingly struggled this season only picking up one victory and have lost their last five matches. The poor run of results, has left them at the bottom of their conference in the Guinness Pro14. They will be coming into the match on the back of a tight loss to the Scarlets last weekend. The Ospreys are massive underdogs coming the game and will be hoping they turn their fortunes around against the French outfit.
Clermont on the other hand are similar to Toulon, they have struggled for consistency. They have won all three games at home this season but have also lost all four away, something the Ospreys could use to their advantage on Sunday. Clermont currently sit ninth in the Top14 table somewhat an unfamiliar position for them over the last few years.
— Ospreys (@ospreys) October 9, 2017
Key Battles – #1 Dan Biggar V Camille Lopez
The battle of the fly half’s will be absolutely key to either team taking victory at The Liberty Stadium. Dan Biggar, who has recently announced he’s leaving the Ospreys for Northampton Saints will be hoping to finish his final season on a high. Despite the Ospreys results on the field, Biggar has been in fine form with the boot scoring all 18 points in their loss to the Scarlets.
Camille Lopez has nearly amassed 500 points for the French side and has been crucial to their recent successes over the last couple of years. The game could come down to the fine margins and the teams kickers could have all the pressure come game time.
#2 Alun Wyn-Jones V Sebastien Vahaamahina
The set piece especially the line out could be crucial to both teams game plan on the weekend. The battle in the ‘boiler house’ in the line out and across the pitch is always an intense battle to watch. The experience and quality of Alun Wyn Jones who has been so consistent at a high level for a number of years could be the key factor in the battle of the second rows.
25 year-old, Frenchman, Sebastien Vahaamahina won’t be a walk over, standing at six foot eight and nearly twenty stone he is a big unit to try and bully around the park and at the set piece. The battle in the ‘boiler house’ will be an interesting contest and could be key to the result.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Ospreys they face defending champions Saracens a week later on Saturday the 21st of October. In what many call the ‘group of death’ Ospreys will need to pick up some points early to stand a chance against both of last year’s finalists.
Cardiff Blues V Lyon – Friday 13th
Cardiff Blues first fixture in this years Challenge Cup comes against French outfit Lyon at the Cardiff Arms Park on Friday night. The Blues got to the quarter final last season before missing out to Gloucester at Kingsholm. They had a chance to qualify for the Champions cup through a play off but again fell short losing to Stade Francais 46-21, at the Stade Jean Bouin.
Lyon finished tenth last season in their return to the Top14, and finished second in their Challenge Cup group. Disappointingly for the French team it wasn’t enough to qualify for the knockout stages as one of the best runners up. They will be hoping to go one better in the group stage this year and have a shot at the title.
The Cardiff Blues have struggled this season and have probably underachieved, with only two victories in their opening six matches. They currently sit fifth in Conference A of the Pro14 with only Connacht and the Ospreys below them. Although the Blues are coming into the game with a little bit of form, following their six try victory over fellow Welsh region, the Dragons.
Lyon on the other hand, have had a blistering start to their Top14 season sitting pretty at the top of the pile following six wins from seven matches. The French outfit currently have the best defence in the league. The Cardiff Blues will be underdogs heading into the fixture despite being at home, especially with the form Lyon have been in this season.
The Blues ran in 6️⃣ tries in an impressive win #CBLvDRA
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) October 8, 2017
Key Battles #1 Josh Navidi V Liam Gill
Caridff Blues back row forward Josh Navidi has been one of the most consistent performers in the league in recent seasons. His ball carrying and high work rate in both attack and defence has earned him rave reviews, and a lot of people believe he’s deserved more Welsh caps than he already has. Although Navidi will be up against it this weekend when he will be facing Aussie Liam Gill.
The 15 timed capped Australian International has been in fine form since his move to Lyon from fellow French outfit Toulon. Gill developed a reputation for his exceptional work rate and consistency, similar to that of Josh Navidi in Wales. The back row contest especially at the breakdown between these two will be mouthwatering to watch and could be a key high quality contest on display.
Danny Wilson may feel the Blues will need the victory at home to Lyon, with their next game away to Toulouse in France on Friday the 20th. Both games will be tough for Cardiff but they have quality in their line up to pick up a win in their first couple of European matches.
Newcastle Falcons V Dragons – Saturday 14th
Finally Dragons kick off their European campaign when they travel to Newcastle to take on the Falcons at Kingston Park. The Dragons managed to finish second in their Challenge Cup group last season, with three wins and three losses. Fourteen points wasn’t enough for the Gwent side to take one of the best second place spots for the knockout stages.
In 2017/18 will be hoping with an exciting backline this season they can go at least a step further. Newcastle had a disappointing campaign last season finishing third in their group with just the two victories.
Newcastle have started turning things around this season in the Aviva Premiership and currently sit fourth after six games with four victories. The Falcons will be hoping to take their league form into Europe and advance far in the competition. Although they are coming into the game on the back of a 34-24 loss to defending champions the Exeter Chiefs.
There is a slight optimism around Rodney Parade this season compared to previous seasons. The additions of Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchener to their back line has giving the Dragons that bit of extra quality where they were lacking. They have two victories from their first six matches but the style of play has improved. Their away form would be a concern, coming into their two European away matches off the back of a loss away to local rivals, the Cardiff Blues.
— Dragons Rugby (@dragonsrugby) October 9, 2017
Key Battles #1 Toby Flood V Gavin Henson
A former England international up against a former Welsh international, the game could get tasty between the two fly halves. Both have had fine starts to the season with Flood’s Falcons currently fourth in the Aviva Premiership. The Dragons haven’t had the results they have wanted, but Henson has been impressive this season and leads the Pro14 in most successful penalties to goal. With both players in fine form it could be the most exciting battle as well as the key battle in the match.
#2 DTH Van Der Merwe V Hallam Amos
Van der Merwe’s seven seasons in the Pro 12 saw him dotting down an impressive 46 tries in 106 outings, his last season at Parc Y Scarlets seeing him score a try in the Pro 12 Final as they lifted the title. Making his international debut for Canada in 2006, he has played in three Rugby World Cups, scoring in every single pool game during the 2015 tournament, and in 2017 became national team co-captain.
His opposite number will be young Welsh International Hallam Amos, who will be hoping to make serious impressions on the Welsh coaching team. The battle between these two on a wing will be entertaining to watch, the veteran try scorer in DTH Van Der Merwe against a young up and coming creative winger.
The Dragons start their Challenge Cup campaign with two away trips. The first against the Falcons followed by a long trip to Russia to take on Enisei- STM in Moscow on Saturday the 21st. Tough start for the Dragons, but Bernard Jackman will know they will have plenty of home matches in the last few rounds where they can take advantage as well as defeating the Russian side at the same stage last season.
The Last Word with Gavin
The Welsh regions have all been handed very tough starts to their European campaign, although each of the games could be very tight. They key battles in each game is what it might come down to, with fine margins deciding who the victors may be. It is gonna be hard to predict this weekends results but all four of the Welsh regions will be hoping to kick off their European campaign with a victory.
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