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How are the Irish provinces' opponents shaping up for Europe?

Bath, Clermont, Stade Français, and Wasps provide the opposition this weekend.

Updated Dec 6th 2021, 8:21 PM

THE 2021/22 SEASON of the Heineken Champions Cup kicks off this weekend with all four Irish provinces set for important openers.

Leinster host Bath at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport] before Ulster face Clermont in France that evening [KO 5.30pm Irish time, BT].

On Sunday, Connacht welcome Stade Français to Galway [KO 1pm, BT] and Munster are the last of the Irish in action as they take on Wasps in Coventry [KO 3.15pm, BT].

Here, we outline how the Irish sides’ opponents are shaping up for these European clashes.

Bath

bath-rugby-v-exeter-chiefs-gallagher-premiership-the-reacreation-ground Bath flanker Sam Underhill has been in good form. Source: PA

It has been a nightmare season so far for Stuart Hooper’s side, with last weekend’s 40-19 defeat to Northampton meaning Bath have lost all nine of their games in the Premiership so far.

Bottom of the table in England, they are limping towards this clash with Leinster in Dublin.

Bath’s injury crisis only grew on Saturday as starting halfbacks Danny Cipriani [head] and Ben Spencer [leg] both succumbed to injuries that make them doubts for the Leinster clash, while locks Josh McNally and Mike Williams were also injured.

Bath had already lost England internationals Jonathan Joseph and Ruaridh McConnochie before the Northampton clash, as well as promising out-half Orlando Bailey.

Bath’s very lengthy injury list also includes Wales number eight Taulupe Faletau, Scotland centre Cameron Redpath, South African out-half Tian Schoeman, impressive back row Miles Reid, England wings Joe Cokanasiga and Anthony Watson, international prop Beno Obano, and South African back row Jaco Coetzee.

Off the pitch, Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper has come under pressure, while the club is currently without a defence coach. They have conceded 38 tries this season so far – with only Worcester having a worse record – and Leinster will have identified plenty of weaknesses during their analysis of Bath.

Sam Underhill is a key man and has been in excellent form despite Bath’s struggles, while young backs Max Ojomoh and Tom de Glanville have quality.

Leinster are deservedly the overwhelming favourites for this clash against a club in turmoil.

Clermont

stade-francais-v-asm-clermont-auvergne-top-14 JJ Hanrahan moved to Clermont last summer. Source: Matthieu Mirville

Jono Gibbes’ men warmed up for the visit of Ulster by beating Biarritz 39-11 at Stade Marcel Michelin last weekend, a win that lifted them up to seventh in the Top 14 table.

As always, ASM have been strong at home this season, winning five of their six games in Clermont-Ferrand but have struggled on the road with only one victory in six.  

A hat-trick for hooker Yohan Beheragaray against Biarritz was a timely reminder for Ulster of Clermont’s ability to generate scores and pressure at maul time.

Argentina lock Tomás Lavanini will miss this weekend’s game due to his suspension for a red card against Ireland last month, but Clermont have powerful forwards in the likes of lock Sébastien Vahaamahina, flanker Arthur Iturria, and the experienced Fritz Lee.

France wing Damian Penaud played at inside centre for Clermont last weekend – his fourth appearance of the campaign in midfield – while there is lots more firepower in the backline in the form of Alivereti Raka, George Moala, and Japan fullback Kotaro Matsushima.

There is, of course, a familiar face for Irish rugby fans in ex-Munster man JJ Hanrahan, who scored a try off the bench against Biarritz last weekend, although Camille Lopez has remained the first-choice in Clermont’s number 10 shirt.

A tough evening awaits for Ulster in front of a raucous Clermont crowd.

Stade Français

stade-francais-v-stade-rochelais-top-14 Stade Français centre Ngani Laumape. Source: Matthieu Mirville

The Parisians pulled off an impressive comeback win against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle last night to end their three-game losing streak. They were trailing 6-20 after just half an hour but turned things around to win 25-20 at Stade Jean-Bouin.

Powerful Fijian centre Waisea Nayacavelu was central to the victory with two tries and he is always a threat in midfield for Stade, who are up to 10th in the Top 14 table after this fifth win of the season.

Gonzalo Quesada’s side have been poor away from home, winning just once so far, and Connacht will look to make their lives difficult in what could be wintry conditions at the Sportsground on Sunday.

24-year-old out-half Joris Segonds has emerged as a key man for Stade over the past two years, particularly with Argentina international Nicolás Sánchez having been injured at the start of this season.

Whoever is at 10 against Connacht may be able to call on the power and skillset of former All Black Ngani Laumape in Stade’s midfield, although the Parisians have yet to get the best from him.

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France back row Sekou Macalou, who just signed a new five-year contract with the club, missed the La Rochelle game due to injury but may come back into the frame for this weekend, while Argentina’s Marcos Kremer was rested.

France international lock Paul Gabrillagues is at the heart of a pack that is capable of grizzled performances. However, Quesada’s men have been inconsistent this season so far and Connacht will be aiming for a home win to open their European campaign.

Wasps

wasps-v-worcester-warriors-gallagher-premiership-ricoh-arena Wasps veteran Jimmy Gopperth. Source: PA

While Munster have had their well-documented challenges ahead of this game in Coventry on Sunday, the hosts have been on a bad run.

Saturday’s 32-31 defeat away to Worcester made it five losses in a row for Lee Blackett’s side in the Premiership and Premiership Cup. 

They have only won three of their nine Premiership games this season so don’t bring any imposing form into this weekend’s European clash.

They do have some strong players up front, though, in the likes of Brad Shields, Thomas Young, and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen – who has admittedly been part of a poor Wasps scrum so far this season. Former All Blacks lock Vaea Fifita was forced off injured against Worcester but Wasps hope to have him available for the Munster game.

Thrilling young back row Alfie Barbeary is one to watch out for, while Irish-qualified number eight Tom Willis has been in excellent form.

23-year-old Jacob Umaga is the first-choice out-half, although 38-year-old former Leinster man Jimmy Gopperth is still a big influence and started at inside centre last weekend. 

On-loan Munster man Alex McHenry made his third Wasps start in the number 13 shirt against Worcester and is registered to their European squad, but it remains unclear if McHenry’s loan terms allow him to feature this weekend.

Wasps have some big names on their injury list at present, including captain Joe Launchbury, clever scrum-half Dan Robson, ex-All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa, England international Jack Willis, and thrilling wing/centre Paolo Odogwu.

The English side still have lots of quality in their squad but with ex-Wasps defence coach Ian Costello running Munster’s preparation this week, the southern province might sense an opportunity even with all their own disruptions and unavailabilities.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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