1. Wembley Awaits Saracens
Saracens pick up their 100 per cent record and transport it to Wembley on Friday night to get the weekend off to a rousing start. If they can top the 83,671 they attracted for last year’s clash with Harlequins it will be a huge boon for the club, and club rugby in general.
Toulouse will arrive with a less than impressive record on English soil but they are coming off a confidence-boosting win against Zebre in Round One. With Toulon appearing hot favourites to retain their crown, this clash could show us who is the most likely to challenge that perception.
Saracens have always made the most of matches under the lights at Wembley, with half time drop goal contests and big name music acts, and with tickets starting from five quid, you can only applaud them for raising the game’s profile.
2. The Miracle Match Anniversary
When Munster run out against Gloucester at Thomond Park on Saturday it will mark ten years since they did the unthinkable against the Cherry and Whites.
Needing to win by 27 points with a four-try bonus point to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2003 competition, the men from Limerick did exactly that in the greatest pool match ever played.
It’s fair to say Rod Penney’s men are in another do or die situation with just one game gone. A surprising defeat to Edinburgh last weekend has put the two-time champs on the back foot and in need of a performance to reassert themselves in the pool.
Gloucester, on the other hand, have a spring in their step after beating a strong Perpignan side at home. They did so after going behind early and soaking up a lot of Catalan pressure during that match—decent preparation for their trip across the Irish Sea.
No one will go out tomorrow, but a second defeat for Munster will leave them praying for another miracle a decade since their last helping hand from him upstairs.
3. High hopes for Hook
If anyone of British or Irish extraction could have seen a negative side to the performances of Leigh Halfpenny for the Lions this summer, it might have been James Hook.
Plying his trade away from the home nations microscope may have limited his international chances, but with Halfpenny firmly in the full back box seat for Wales, Hook’s hopes for a return to the No. 15 jersey seem faint. He is in great form though, as he showed last weekend with all 22 points for Perpignan at Kingsholm.
He will further his claims for a recall with another good display against a resurgent Edinburgh. If not at full back, then the No. 10 shirt would fit this talented, versatile player equally well. Are you watching Warren?
4. Saints and Ospreys go head to head
Two teams who misfired badly in their first game last weekend meet at Franklins Gardens with players all over the park in need of big performances.
In the front row, injury to Alex Corbisero has robbed us of the chance to see Lions one, two and three reunited, but Adam Jones and Richie Hibbard will still have their hands full with Saints hooker and skipper Dylan Hartley, who will also doubtless be keen to prove his worth after missing out on a tour (through his own fault) that saw Hibbard lay claim to be the best No. 2 in these isles.
Elsewhere in the pack, England captaincy candidate Tom Wood will earn a few more brownie points if he goes well against the obdurate Ryan Jones, while Lions stand-in skipper Alun-Wyn Jones will need all his experience to combat the all-action Courtney Lawes.
Out wide, it’s the first time George North plays against a Welsh region since crossing Offa’s Dyke, while England call-up Luther Burrell has a chance to impress Stuart Lancaster.
The loser’s season takes a depressing turn signposted Amlin, and Saints boss Jim Mallinder knows it.
5. Quins must quit the habit
If Harlequins lose to Clermont Auvergne in France on Sunday, it will make it four consecutive defeats for the men from the Stoop. If any team in Europe needs to rid itself of a streak this weekend, it’s the lads in the multi-coloured jerseys.
Defending appeared optional at times for Conor O’Shea’s back line against the Scarlets, which will be music to the ears of the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Co. Defeat would spell the end of this year’s challenge.
6. Delon out to do damage
Toulon travel to Cardiff this weekend with the taste of blood on their lips. Having demolished a gallant Glasgow at home last weekend, they face a Blues side licking its wounds after a mauling at unfashionable Exeter.
If one man in the French side’s ranks has cause to do them further damage its Delon Armitage. Overlooked by England despite a fine start to the season, he now comes up against the best full back in the British Isles if his Lions form hasn’t deserted Leigh Halfpenny.
Behind a pack predicted to be in the ascendency, it could be a good night for Armitage to prove a point or two.
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