With domestic duties dealt with, for the time being, all the focus now is on the two key European competitions. The Welsh regions leave behind their derby games from last weekend and will hope to ‘light up the cup scene’ once again.
Robert Rees gives us your Welsh regions European preview.
Key European competitions (1) Champions Cup
Group: Racing 92, Ulster and Leicester Tigers.
Heading into the European window with four wins out of six in the Pro14 and fresh from a triumph over west Wales rivals, the Scarlets will feel confident as they host Racing at Parc Y Scarlets this coming weekend.
Having got off to a slower start than they ended last season with, mainly down to 15 injuries before the first game away to Ulster, Pivac’s men have started to get the ‘Scarlets rugby’ going again.
A tough group, but definitely one they feel they can top as long as they carry their form through and keep as many first team squad members fit. The crucial fixtures will probably be the Racing games with Ulster and Leicester both having mixed starts to the season in terms of performances.
Key men to watch
Blade Thompson. The Scarlets’ latest ‘gem’ signing. Coming up from the Hurricanes over the summer he has torn apart opposition defences with his rhino-like carrying. A single man on a mission that teams have yet to fully deal with. A menace around the set piece game and breakdown, he has an ability to mix it up and help start the Scarlets to play the open game they can straight from scrappy ball.
Rhys Patchell. Wales’ in form fly-half alongside Gareth Anscombe at the Cardiff Blues, Patchell has been mixing it up throughout this season with a strong territorial kicking game matching his distribution along the line. If he leads his men as well as he has in the Guinness Pro14 then the Scarlets will be creating plenty of chances to defeat their rivals.
Group: Lyon, Glasgow Warriors and Saracens.
Drawn into what appears to be the group of death, the reigning Challenge Cup champions will hold no fear heading into this group. Having struggled to hold out in their first three games, Cardiff Blues fans may have had a reason to be anxious about facing such seasoned opposition in Europe’s elite competition.
However, their run of three consecutive wins following a triumph over the Dragons last Saturday means they like the Scarlets head in to their group in good form. This will put them in good stead against a faltering Glasgow side, but they face off against a strong Lyon side who currently sit third in the Top14 table.
Lyon will pose their on threats as they bring a huge set piece game and some feisty ball carriers.
Key men to watch:
Josh Turnbull. One of the very few men who have made 100 appearances with two sides in the pro14, he’s a really overlooked player in Welsh rugby. Carrying a strong set piece game and a versatility that can see him cover the second and back rows means he has plenty to offer.
Owen Lane. One of Wales’ top three wingers on current form, George North and Liam Williams being the others, Lane will be looking to keep the opposition defenders on their toes when he gets ball in hand. A great finisher with lightning speed is someone who has the possibility to worry other defences.
Key European competitions (2) Challenge Cup
Group: Pau, Stade Francais and Worcester Warriors.
Despite coming off the back of a loss away to the Scarlets the Ospreys sit pretty in second in their Pro14 conference, winning four games so far this season. A real solid forward platform is giving them a chance to get the ball out and dominate a lot of sides. Returning international George North on one side and Luke Morgan on the other, these are two players who can certainly bang in the tries when they want to.
A tough group is all the sides play their best rugby, but a group that the Ospreys can comfortably top if they carry current Pro14 form through. Stade Francais will really give them a battle up front and Worcester, who recently thrashed Bristol will be looking to run that form through with a great backline marshalled by Duncan Weir.
Pau first up will be a physical battle, but one that the Ospreys can avoid by getting the ball away from the contact area when possible. Pau lost to the Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in last year’s semi final of the Challenge Cup and will want to make a better go of their second visit to Wales in as many years.
Key men to watch:
Justin Tipuric. One of the in form flankers in the pro14, Tipuric hosts a real open game plan with the flair and poise of the world’s greatest. An ability to carry hard and distribute well balances nicely alongside his forceful defending and smash mouth style around the breakdown zone.
Luke Morgan. Having had a cracking game against the Scarlets last Saturday Morgan stands as a real threat to the opposition defence. Having broken into the Ospreys squad under Allen Clarke his composed yet clinical nature has proved satisfying for those who have watched him perform. Look out for him to bag some more tries and possibly look to get in the Wales autumn international squad announced next week.
Group: Timisoara Saracens, Northampton Saints and Clermont Auvergne.
Despite only winning two games this season leaving them in a state of bad form there are some positives in their recent performances to take into their opening game against Romanian qualifiers Timisoara. The likeliest ‘easy’ game, despite the first match-up being away is a game that Head Coach Jackman will want to win.
The long trip will not be an excuse for the Dragons as Timisoara’s last Challenge Cup group stages yielded zero point and a minus 254 points difference. So far this season Jackman’s men have only managed to slot together 30-40 good minutes of rugby in a game and need to generate more chances in order to be more clinical. This may be the ideal game for them to do that in.
Key men to watch:
Ollie Griffiths. One of Wales’ in form opensides, Griffiths has displayed several man of the match performances this season whilst causing turmoil for the opposition back row. A turnover machine who works all over the park allows the team to be a strong defensive pillar around him, whilst sparking into life if they break away.
Josh Lewis. Having shared the starting fly half jersey with Gavin Henson at the start of the season Lewis has now put his name firmly on the back of it following an injury to Henson and a good string of performances. Slightly loose whilst kicking, but making up for it in his distribution which created one try and scored him another against the Cardiff Blues.
Welsh regions European preview
Following the success of the Scarlets in the Champions Cup and the Cardiff Blues in the Challenge Cup last season it’s sure to be another promising campaign ahead for the four Welsh sides.
Plenty of talent and form to challenge for more silverware and even hopes of a double shows how far Wales has come in a few years. A strong domestic and European campaign could well be the cure for long term success for the Welsh regions.
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