BY ASH COOPER
The European Champions Cup gets underway this weekend, as the continent’s top sides begin their challenge to claim the coveted star trophy.
The action begins this Friday night at Welford Road, as Leicester Tigers will face last year’s Top 14 champions Stade Francais.
Toulon will begin their defence of the Champions Cup at home to Bath, as they aim to win their fourth consecutive title.
Here are five key clashes RUCK has identified to keep an eye out for this weekend:
Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais
Ben Youngs v Julien Dupuy
Two vastly experienced scrum-half’s, two international, and two playmakers who it takes to succeed at the highest level. The pair have struggled with consistency of late, but when at their best they have the ability to create something out of nothing.
Leicester’s Youngs organisation skills are essential for the Tigers, as he can control his forward pack, especially at the breakdown and mauls. The duo like to play the game at pace, and will both look to supply the outside backs quickly to get their side on the front foot.
Youngs seems to come alive at the fringes, squeezing through the slightest of gaps and can bring the Tigers big powerful runners into the game effectively. Somewhat of a maverick you never quite know what Dupuy will do next and this unpredictability makes the former Leicester scrum-half a nightmare for defences.
The duo could potentially steal the show.
Ospreys v Exeter Chiefs
Dan Lydiate v Dave Ewers
Dave Ewers has started this campaign in fine form so far, getting over the gain line almost every time he carries the ball with his exceptional speed and power. The Exeter man will face his toughest test of the season to date this weekend when he faces Wales and British Lions back rower Dan Lydiate.
Lydiate works tirelessly in defence and at the breakdown, and it’s hard not to get excited about seeing these man mountains go head-to-head. Both players love hitting rucks and mauls and will look to give their side the upper hand at the breakdown.
Whoever wins the battle of the breakdown will likely be the winning side with the two back rowers playing an important role.
Northampton Saints v Llanelli Scarlets
George North v DTH van der Merwe
Last season’s Champions Cup top try scorer, George North will face his former team Scarlets at Franklins Gardens.
Off the back of the Rugby World Cup, North will look to use his strength and size to overpower his opposite number, and continue his rich vein of try-scoring form in the Champions Cup competition.
However, he comes up against one of the best try-scorers in world rugby right now in DTH van der Merwe. The Canadian wing-wizard, who became the first player from a tier two country to score in all four Pool games, has carried on that form in the Pro 12, scoring three tries in two outings so far for the Scarlets.
In what could be a tight game the duo’s battle out wide, where they are both accomplished, could be the deciding factor in the match.
Toulon Vs Bath
Quade Cooper v George Ford
This dual will see the structured neat and tidy style of George Ford, come up against the flamboyant style of Quade Cooper.
Ford has started the season well particularly with the ball in hand and off the tee, and his goal-kicking could be vital if Bath are to stay in touch with the reigning champions.
Cooper can often frustrate fans, being fantastic one game then poor the next. The Aussie has often been criticised for often going missing in important matches. You cannot deny the former Queensland Red’s talent, though, and when Cooper is on form, there is nobody more enjoyable to watch on the planet. He also made an almost perfect debut for Toulon at the weekend setting up two tries, however, also had a pass intercepted gifting Montpellier with a try.
This clash could be closer than people think with George Ford needing to have a good kicking game from hand to gain good amount territory, and starve Cooper of ball in good areas where he can be so dangerous.
Saracens Vs Toulouse
Thierry Dusatoir v Will Fraser
2011 IRB player of the year Thierry Dusatoir will be in for a tough test this weekend, as he comes up against Sarries stalwart Will Fraser.
Both players are known for their defensive efforts, and never shy away from tackles. Fraser, who has won one England cap, plays at a high intensity and his aggressive style while Dusatoir is a lot more laid back character, but both are fantastic fighters, leading the back-rows by example with their incredible work rates.
In games like this defence is crucial, and these two back rowers are the best in the business at chopping down opposition runners.