- La Rochelle to win (10/21, SBK)
- Leinster by 1-10 pts (21/10, Boyle Sports)
- Newcastle +12 (4/9, William Hill)
- Ulster 1-10 pts (9/4, Paddy Power)
La Rochelle v Sale Sharks
Sharks Alex Sanderson likes to talk in themes. Last week it was about slaying the Welsh dragon i.e. the Scarlets, by dousing the Llanelli-based team’s fire.
It worked perfectly. The Scarlets found themselves in deep water, and the Sharks thrived, turning in a performance as good as anyone from the north west can remember in winning 57-14 at Parc y Scarlets.
Sale made a mockery of pre-match predictions – ours included – which suggested their lack of European pedigree would see them come unstuck again. And, once again, they will relish going into another match as underdogs.
What words Sanderson has chosen to say this week in his pre-match rhetoric have so far stayed in-house. But given where they are playing this Saturday you wouldn’t put it passed him putting up posters of Nicolas Cage and blasting out the theme music to The Rock.
La Rochelle do not lose at home. They have been beaten just once at Stade Marcel Deflandre since 2019. But there is a modicum of good news in the bad – that loss came in 2021, against Toulouse.
Sale will go there with the belief that they can breach La Rochelle’s almost impenetrable fortress, especially with the muscle they have on their side. But this could be one assignment too far for a side whose defensive structure will be tested to the max by La Rochelle’s ability to offload in contact.
France star Brice Dulin returns to start at full-back in a rejigged La Rochelle backline, while Sale have the luxury of sticking with an unchanged matchday 23.
With a bit of rain forecast for the south-wet France coastal region, and the fact this is knockout rugby, this has led to a low total match points line of 43.5 points.
We’re going to avoid the temptation of going over and stick with a simple win bet on La Rochelle at a best-priced 10/21 (SBK)
La Rochelle: 15. Brice Dulin, 14. Dillyn Leyds, 13. Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12. Levani Botia, 11. Raymond Rhule, 10. Ihaia West, 9. Tawera Kerr Barlow, 1. Reda Wardi, 2. Pierre Bourgarit, 3. Uini Atonio, 4. Romain Sazy (c), 5. Will Skelton, 6. Grégory Alldritt, 7. Kevin Gourdon, 8. Victor Vito.
Replacements:16. Facundo Bosch, 17. Dany Priso, 18. Arthur Joly, 19. Thomas Lavault, 20. Wiaan Liebenberg, 21. Thomas Berjon, 22. Jules Plisson, 23. Pierre Aguillon,
Sale: 15. Simon Hammersley, 14. Byron McGuigan, 13. Sam James, 12. Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11. Marland Yarde, 10. AJ MacGinty, 9. Faf de Klerk, 1. Bevan Rodd, 2. Akker van der Merwe, 3. Willgriff John, 4. Jacobus Wiese, 5. Lood de Jager, 6. Jean-Luc du Preez, 7. Tom Curry, 8. Dan du Preez.
Replacements: 16. Curtis Langdon, 17. Ross Harrison, 18. Coenie Oosthuizen, 19. Josh Beaumont, 20. Cameron Neild, 21. Raphael Quirke, 22. Robert du Preez, 23. Luke James,
Exeter v Leinster
If ever a fixture backed up a theory that European Cup rugby is as close to Test match rugby as you get, this is it.
It is easier to count the non-internationals in the respective line-ups than those with caps as the best of England, Wales and Scotland take on the best of Ireland in a battle between the reigning champions and four-time winners of the competition.
Exeter came back from 14-0 down to beat Lyon in the Round of 16, while Leinster, disappointingly, had a weekend off after their match against Toulon was cancelled.
Momentum is a big thing at this stage of the season so there is a danger that Leinster could go into the match a little off-the-pace; however, we believe the extra week’s rest will have worked in their favour in giving their multitude of Six Nations stars the chance to freshen up.
This is a clash of two Titans. No-one has beaten Exeter across their last 11 Champions Cup matches when they have been allowed to compete.
But, in Leinster, they could met their match. The Dubliners have won each of their last six away games in this tournament and are bidding to the be the first team to win seven in a row on the road in the Champions Cup.
This is the fifth time the sides have met in the European Cup and Leinster have, thus far, an unblemished record.
Irish sides as a whole have historically come out on top against the Chiefs, and with Sandy Park not quite the fortress it once was – they have lost to Bristol and Northampton already this year – we think the Chiefs’ reign as champions of Europe will come to an end on Saturday afternoon.
Amongst the Leinster squad, there will be a burning desire to put right the wrongs of last season’s quarter-final when they came unstuck against Saracens’ power game and exited the competition.
None of the four previous encounters have ended with more than 10 points between the teams, so Leinster by 1-10 points (21/10 Boyle Sports) is our pick here.
With points normally at a premium in this fixture, the total match points line of 46.5 points looks too high. Bet 365 are offering 10/11 if you opt to go over.
Exeter: 15. Stuart Hogg, 14. Olly Woodburn, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ollie Devoto, 11. Tom O’Flaherty, 10. Joe Simmonds (c), 9. Jack Maunder, 1. Ben Moon, 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Tom Francis, 4. Jonny Gray, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Dave Ewers, 7. Jacques Vermeulen, 8. Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16. Jack Yeandle, 17. Alec Hepburn, 18. Harry Williams, 19. Sam Skinner, 20. Jannes Kirsten, 21. Stu Townsend, 22. Harvey Skinner, 23. Ian Whitten,
Leinster: 15. Hugo Keenan, 14. Jordan Larmour, 13. Rory O’Loughlin, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. James Lowe, 10. Johnny Sexton (c), 9. Luke McGrath, 1. Cian Healy, 2. Ronan Kelleher, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Scott Fardy, 5. Devin Toner, 6. Rhys Ruddock, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16. James Tracy, 17. Ed Byrne, 18. Andrew Porter, 19. Ross Molony, 20. Ryan Baird, 21. Hugh O’Sullivan, 22. Ross Byrne, 23. Dave Kearney.
Leicester v Newcastle
If Newcastle can sort their discipline out, they have a real chance of pushing the Tigers all the way.
Dean Richards never needs any extra motivation returning to his old stomping ground, where his legendary status as player and coach still did not prevent him getting sacked.
But the Tigers’ decision to rest their entire first-choice front row to the bench alongside fly-half George Ford, their tormentor-in-chief in the Falcons’ 26-12 defeat at Welford Road a fortnight ago, will have definitely not gone unnoticed.
The loss of Jon Welsh to injury and Darren Barry to the sin-bin cost Newcastle dearly on their last visit there. They trailed 16-0 at half-time but rallied well to ‘win’ the second half, thanks to tries from Sam Stuart and Will Welch.
Tigers’ impressive home record – they have won their last five at Welford Road in all competitions, including a crushing Round of 16 victory against Connacht – makes it difficult to justify backing Newcastle to make it through to the last four at their expense.
But the confidence the Falcons will have taken from winning at Ospreys last weekend means they should be good with a +12 start (4/9, William Hill).
Falcons winger Ben Stevenson made close to 100 metres and several clean breaks in a losing cause against Tigers last time around and is an inviting 9/4 to be an anytime try-scorer.
Leicester: 15. Freddie Steward, 14. Harry Potter, 13. Matias Moroni, 12. Matt Scott, 11. Kini Murimurivalu, 10. Johnny McPhillips, 9. Richard Wigglesworth (c), 1. Luan de Bruin, 2. Charlie Clare, 3. Joe Heyes, 4. Harry Wells, 5. Cameron Henderson, 6. George Martin, 7. Tommy Reffell, 8. Hanro Liebenberg.
Replacements: 16. Tom Youngs, 17. Ellis Genge, 18. Dan Cole, 19. Tomas Lavanini, 20. Jasper Wiese, 21. Jack van Poortvliet, 22. George Ford, 23. Dan Kelly,
Newcastle Falcons: 15. Tom Penny, 14. George Wacokecoke, 13. Matias Orlando, 12. Peter Lucock, 11. Ben Stevenson, 10. Brett Connon, 9. Micky Young, 1. Trevor Davison, 2. George McGuigan, 3. Logovi’i Mulipola, 4. Greg Peterson, 5. Sean Robinson, 6. Will Welch, 7. Mark Wilson (c), 8. Callum Chick.
Replacements: 16. Jamie Blamire, 17. Kyle Cooper, 18. Mark Tampin, 19. Rob Farrar, 20. Gary Graham, 21. Louis Schreuder, 22. Joel Matavesi, 23. Cooper Vuna.
Northampton v Ulster
Ulster overran a shadow Harlequins team in the Round of 16 on what was, remarkably, their Challenge Cup debut, but they will face a much sterner test today against Saints.
Saints have a good record in Europe’s second-tier competition, winning it twice in 2009 and 2014, and they have a proud home record.
Northampton have won eight of their last nine home games in the Challenge Cup but will need to shore up their defence, having conceded five tries against the Dragons last week, if that trend is to continue.
An Ulster side without Marcel Coetzee’s hard running and Iain Henderson’s leadership and lineout ability is infinitely weaker than one with them in the team. But they should still enjoy set-piece dominance against a Saints pack that tends to be heavily penalised, captain and loose-head Alex Waller especially.
It is 15 years since Ulster lifted any form of silverware and by dropping down from the Champions Cup to the Challenge Cup, the opportunity to end their trophy drought won’t be lost on them.
Saints are a dangerous side on their day but Ulster are arguably the more rounded of the two outfits, even without two of their star men, and a place in the last four appears to be theirs for the taking.
Ulster 1-10 points (9/4, Paddy Power)
Northampton: 15. Tommy Freeman, 14. Ollie Sleightholme, 13. Rory Hutchinson, 12. Piers Francis, 11. Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Alex Mitchell, 1. Alex Waller (c), 2. Sam Matavesi, 3. Paul Hill, 4. David Ribbans, 5. Alex Coles, 6. Nick Isiekwe, 7. Lewis Ludlam, 8. Teimana Harrison.
Replacements: 16. Mikey Haywood, 17. Nick Auterac, 18. Ehren Painter, 19. Alex Moon, 20. Tom Wood, 21. Tom James, 22. Ahsee Tuala, 23. Fraser Dingwall,
Ulster: 15. Michael Lowry, 14. Rob Baloucoune, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney, 1. Eric O’Sullivan, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Marty Moore, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Kieran Treadwell, 6. Sean Reidy, 7. Jordi Murphy (c), 8. Nick Timoney.
Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Andy Warwick, 18. Tom O’Toole, 19. Cormac Izuchukwu, 20. Matt Rea, 21. Alby Mathewson, 22. Ian Madigan, 23. Ethan McIlroy,