It's make or break time in the Heineken Cup as the third and fourth round double-headers get under way this weekend. Unbeaten Harlequins welcome French champions Toulouse to the Stoop and Clermont Auvergne host Leicester in a thrilling weekend of European rugby.
Castres Olympique v Northampton Saints Saturday 14:30
The bottom two sides of Pool 1 meet at the Stade Pierre Antoine as Castres take on Northampton. Both sides have performed well in the league, although both suffered set-backs last weekend.
Last year's finalists Northampton will need to perform miracles if they are to repeat last year's performance after defeat in Ireland and a dire performance at home to the Scarlets has left them without a win so far. Their task will be made all the more difficult due to the absence through suspension of Chris Ashton for his hair-pulling antics at the weekend, and Phil Dowson who will also miss both games against Castres, after being found guilty of a dangerous tackle against Saracens.
Fortunately for the Saints, Tom Wood will be available “ after Citing Commissioner Mike Rafter deeming Wood's red card sufficient punishment “ as will Courtney Lawes, who escaped punishment for his role in the brawl at Welford Road last weekend.
Castres, still flying high in the Top 14 are also without a win in Europe so far “ Ronan O'Gara's party piece of a final minute drop-goal denied them a tie against Munster “ and they are likely to face the full brunt of the Saints backlash this Saturday. Both sides know defeat will end their chances of progression and Northampton must not only win, but take a winning bonus point if they are to stand a chance of sneaking through to the quarter-finals. Northampton by more than 5.
Scarlets v Munster Saturday 15:40
Ronan O'Gara will make an incredible 100th appearance in the Heineken Cup on Saturday as Munster make the trip to the Welsh coast to face the Scarlets. Were it not for the boot of the veteran fly-half, Munster could very well have been heading into the weekend with a defeat and a draw to their name. The Irish province will be face a tough challenge to maintain their 100% record, although it is hard to imagine any Munster fans complaining if it takes another 85th minute O'Gara drop goal to secure a third straight victory.
Munster's hosts have been in incredible form in the tournament so far “ Scarlets simply out-performed and out-classed an under-strength Northampton in the previous game, with World Cup hero Rhys Priestland commanding the game. The Pool 1 leaders are confident that both George North and Jonathan Davies will be fit “ the former went off injured against Australia at the weekend, whilst the latter missed Wales' match on Saturday and will undergo a late fitness test. Priestland and Matthew Rees both return to the squad from international duty to boost the Scarlets as they look for a first victory over Munster in thirteen matches. Munster by less than 5.
Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh Rugby Friday 20:00
Cardiff will look to bounce back from their record 52-9 defeat against Leinster in last weekend's Pro12 fixture as the host Edinburgh on Friday night. The Blues will be without veteran flanker Martyn Williams, who has failed to recover from a broken arm. Gavin Henson likewise is not yet fit to make his Blues debut, but Scottish international Dan Parks is set to recover from a hand injury in time to start for the Welsh province. The Blues will also welcome back nine players from international duty who missed last week's crushing in Ireland.
Edinburgh have pulled off two strong victories this season, including the 48-47 thriller against Racing Metro to leave them at the top of the table with their hosts. The Scottish side are without a win in six games against Cardiff, but Edinburgh will hope to keep up their good run of form and record a third win in three in Europe this season. The Blues shouldn't be too badly affected by last week's result, as the core of their team who missed the game return and should be strong enough to overcome their visitors. Blues by more than 7.
Racing Metro v London Irish Saturday 16:40
Pool 1 and 2 have a very familiar look, with an English side and a French side occupying the bottom two places without a win to their name. Racing Metro will be wondering how they didn't win in the Scottish capital, after throwing away a 24 point lead in the second half. London Irish have been poor so far, and sit at the bottom of the table.
As with Northampton and Castres, defeat for either side will essentially spell the end of their campaigns, but with a handful of bonus points between them, the game is not up yet. Both sides lost local derbies at the weekend, Racing Metro's particularly painful and the home side could be vulnerable to Irish if they can find some of the league form on Saturday.
Tom Homer will be the key man for Irish, the kicker is the Premiership's top scorer this season, and so far his kicking has held his side afloat in the league. Racing will be physical up front, and Hernandez at fly-half is always a threat, and it should be a close game. Racing by less than 5.
Glasgow Warriors v Montpellier Sunday 12:45
Glasgow have had a mixed start to this season's competition. After a dramatic last-gasp victory over Bath, they were comfortably demolished by 5-try Leinster in the second round. The Scots will be boosted by the signing of Rory Lamont, who moves to the side after terminating his contract at Toulon last week. The Scottish full-back has been registered as an 'additional player' for the tournament, and could appear against Montpellier on Saturday.
Pool 3 is incredibly close, and with things so finely balanced the double-header ties could go a long way to shaping how the group will pan out. Following a slow start to the season, Montpellier are currently in fine form, and are unlucky not to have picked up a victory in the Heineken Cup. Glasgow will have to be wary of the threat from the French pack who were so effective against Bath in the previous round, and fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc is always a threat. Montpellier by less than 7.
Bath Rugby v Leinster Sunday 12:45
Bath will have arguably the toughest pair of fixtures this week and next, as they take on reigning champions Leinster. Following the news that Lewis Moody will be out for up to 12 weeks, the West Country side will be boosted by the news that Stephen Donald, who controlled Bath's win over Montpellier, is likely to be fit for the clash at the Rec, as will Springbok Francois Louw. Bath's recent form has been nothing short of abysmal, but the Heineken Cup is an element unto itself and victory at home could give Bath a huge boost heading to Dublin next weekend.
Leinster, who are without talisman Brian O'Driscoll, ran in six tries against Cardiff last weekend, and are a threat to any side. Last year's winners were comfortable victors last time out in Europe, but their last away match saw them only manage a draw at Montpellier, and this will give Bath a glimmer of hope as the sides clash on Sunday. Leinster by less than 3.
Ulster Rugby v Aironi Rugby Friday 19:30
In spite on their impressive opening weekend victory over French giants Clermont Auvergne, Ulster will be hard pressed to repeat their feat last year of reaching the quarter finals. If they are to stand a chance they must pick up a bonus point victory over minnows Aironi on Friday night. History is on their side “ The Ulstermen are undefeated in nine games at home in Europe, whilst Aironi are yet to record a victory on the road. Ulster's squad will be bolstered by the arrival of South African full-back Stefan Terblanche. A brace of bonus point victories has to be Ulster's aim to keep them in contention, and whilst Aironi are constantly improving, it remains a realistic target. Ulster by more than 7.
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers Sunday 16:00
Leicester head to the south of France as the only side in Pool 4 with a 100% record, and will face their toughest challenge of the pool stage as they hope to maintain their perfect start. Clermont “ defeated in the opening game by Ulster “ bounced back with a crushing victory over Aironi in the second week, and a couple of blips aside have been going strong in the Top 14. The hosts will welcome back veteran lock Nathan Hines, a member of the Leinster side that defeated Leicester on the way to last season's triumph and his experience in such tight fixtures could prove invaluable.
The Tigers will be boosted by the return of England internationals Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft. Tuilagi, who has been ruled out since October may not have be guaranteed a place, considering the success the partnership between Matt Smith and Billy Twelvetrees have had in the midfield lately, but extra strength in depth will be vital against a Clermont side with quality all over the field and in the replacements. Clermont by less than 5.
Benetton Treviso v Biarritz Olympique Saturday 14:30
After coming so close to defeating the Ospreys in the second week of the tournament, Italian side Treviso will feel they have what it takes to secure a first win in the competition as they host struggling Basque side Biarritz on Saturday. Despite victory over Saracens last time out for Biarritz, they are still floundering at the bottom of the Top 14 with just a victory over rivals Bayonne to their name since September. They do however remain just a point behind both Saracens and the Ospreys in Pool 5, and of all the teams in the group to have a double-header against, Treviso would be the French side's most preferable choice.
That is not to rule out Treviso, however. The stronger of the two top Italian sides have come a long way in the last year and will prove a challenging obstacle for Biarritz, especially in this fixture at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Treviso by less than 3.
Saracens v Ospreys Saturday 18:00
The reigning Aviva Premiership champions again make the switch to the home of football as Saracens face the Ospreys at Wembley Stadium on Saturday evening. The home side will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last season's fixture at Wembley, where they fell to eventual winners Leinster. Following a scrappy defeat to Biarritz in the second week of the competition, Sarries will need to secure a strong victory before they travel to Swansea next week in one of the closest groups in this season's Heineken Cup. Alex Goode's late try against Biarritz secured a second bonus point in two games for the English club, whilst the Ospreys are yet to pick either a winning or losing bonus point in all competitions this year. In such a close pool, it could be small factors like that that could decide who goes through and who goes out.
The Ospreys welcome back their internationals, including Shane Williams who makes his first appearance after international retirement. The Welsh region will be hoping that history doesn't repeat itself “ the only time the sides have met in the competition Saracens knocked their Welsh rivals out of the quarter finals in 2008. Saracens by less than 7.
Harlequins v Toulouse Friday 20:00
Historically one of the most successful sides of all time come up against the most successful side of the 2011-12 season in one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the season so far. Harlequins have now notched up 14 wins in all competitions this season, but will come up against their toughest test so far as they face the four times Heineken Cup champions Toulouse on Friday. Following their Challenge Cup victory last season, Quins are also on a run of 10 wins in a row in Europe including victories away to Stade Francais and Munster. If they can overcome the French champions at the Stoop on Friday, they will have every reason to believe they can upset Toulouse in their own back yard, especially considering how close Gloucester came to defeating them earlier in the season.
Both sides have no fresh injury worries as they head into a sold-out clash in West London, and Harlequins will hope to garner the energy from the immense support to take control of Pool 6, and continue their incredible run. Harlequins by more than 3.
Connacht Rugby v Gloucester Rugby Saturday 13:30
Connacht have performed well so far in their maiden Heineken Cup season, with no reward to show for it. After making Harlequins really work for their victory at the Stoop in week 1, the Irish province gave as good as they got against the mighty Toulouse at the Sports Ground in the second week. Although they were comfortably beaten, they didn't concede a try bonus point to the French giants. They will go in search of their first points against a side stuck in a rut at the moment. Gloucester have won just one game in seven in all competitions, and last week's defeat to Premiership basement side Newcastle will have been an even bigger psychological blow.
It will take a massive performance for Connacht to defeat Gloucester, even in their current run of form and even with home advantage, but this is the Irish side's best chance of taking a first victory in the Heineken Cup, if not their first points. Both sides are essentially out of the competition, and that may just take any wind out of Gloucester's sails and an upset could be on the cards. Connacht by less than 5.