Without question, the tie between the Glasgow Warriors and Munster is the biggest game of the weekend. There is an awful lot riding on it and it’s almost impossible to call.
Perhaps it’s written in the stars that Munster will go on to win and challenge Saracens at the end of the season, but Glasgow are one hell of a side.
Not only does Gregor Townsend have the Warriors playing an attractive brand of rugby, but more importantly, winning rugby. They dismantled both the Leicester Tigers and Racing 92 in Scotstoun, showing little regard for the reputations of either side.
The key performer in both games was Finn Russell. He ripped Racing apart in the back-to-back fixtures and embarrassed Dan Carter in Glasgow.
In fact, I’d go as far to say that he’s the form fly-half in the game at the minute. Yes, I know Beauden Barrett is probably the best 10 in the game, but the southern hemisphere season has yet to begin.
Russell though is playing every week, and doing so to a really hight level. Johnny Sexton has only come back from injury, Owen Farrell is playing really well for Saracens but lines out for England at 12, and Dan Biggar is being challenged by Sam Davies at the Ospreys.
For me, Russell has to be in the Lions equation. He likes to play fast and loose, a trait that neither Sexton, Farrell, and Biggar are comforable with.
George Ford plays with the same freedom, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Warren Gatland won’t select the Bath fly-half because of his size. That opens the door for Russell, who would be an ideal player to have in reserve or play the mid-week games.
Given the way in which Munster defend, Saturday’s fixture will prove a massive test for Russell. Rassie Erasmus likes his team to be aggressive in the contact, in order to slow the attacking patterns of the opposition.
Munster’s work rate in defence is off the charts. Quite often you might see three or four players contest the breakdown, but immediately retreat if possession is lost.
Those players join a defensive line that bolts into action once the trigger is heard, closing down the space in front of the opposition. This will make it difficult for Russell to impose his dangerous running game, so he will have to employ an intelligent kicking strategy when necessary.
Whether or not he will be able to kick Glasgow to victory is debatable, I simply cannot pick a winner from what will be an absorbing fixture.
One club who are all but out of the European Rugby Champions Cup is Toulon. Although they should beat the Sale Sharks on Sunday, I can’t see them winning at Saracens next weekend.
The three-time champions are a shadow of their former selves. I was at Toulon’s 30-6 mauling at the hands of Clermont, and it really was a drubbing.
They look to be without structure and lack leadership throughout the team. Mourad Boujellal didn’t help when he openly talked about selling the club, or by appointing Diego Domínguez only to sack him a few weeks into the season.
On the field, Toulon look clueless, and the job facing Richard Cockerill in restoring their fearsome reputation as a powerful forward pack is frightening.
Clermont demolished Toulon’s scrum to the extent that Mike Ford took off both starting props after 28 minutes. This is sadly the base from which Cockerill will be working.
But, Cockers’ strengths lie in his attention to detail and ability to upskill players, particularly in the forwards. He will challenge the Toulon pack to focus their efforts on clearing out, forming mauls, and most importantly the little details that prove so important at scrum time.
Saying that I was surprised Cockers took the job so quickly after being let go by the Tigers. He and Ford have a little bit of history between them, but that must now be water under the bridge.
Richard has a lot of work to do, and we must remember that Toulon’s front five is nowhere near the standard of the team that won three consecutive European cups.
Against Clermont, Toulon looked rudderless at times. Pierre Bernard started at ten, but was replaced by James O’Connor when he went off injured – despite having Jonathan Pélissié on the bench who can play in either half back position.
There then looked to be very little communication between Sébastien Tillous-Borde and O’Connor, which led to a scenario whereby Ma’a Nonu was kicking the ball all too often from inside centre.
It just demonstrates the lack of clarity and purpose that currently exists at Toulon. However, in order to turn things round, Ford and Cockers will need more than just a few months.
I just don’t know if Boudjellal will afford them such time, but then this is Toulon and nothing should surprise us.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena