European Rugby Champions Cup: What to Look Out for in the Third Round

Dan Carter
Dan Carter of New Zealand evades a tackle by Fourie Du Preez of South Africa during their Rugby World Cup semi-final match at Twickenham in London, October 24. Carter makes his debut this weekend against Northampton. Reuters/Paul Childs

As the battle for the Champions Cup begins to hot up, some of rugby's best teams are either desperately trying to cling on to the gains they made in the first two rounds or hoping they can kickstart their campaigns with a much needed stellar performance.

Here are the main things to look out for this weekend:

Dan the Man

Such is the excitement and interest surrounding Dan Carter's debut for France's Racing 92 on Saturday it would be easy to forget that the Northampton Saints are traveling to France not as a support act to the Carter show but to cement their place at the top of Pool 3.

The Guardian reported on Monday that the French club had hired former New Zealand All Black Ali William to be Carter's "minder", tasked with fending off the avalanche of media requests. But unlike during their days as All Black teammates, the 6-foot-6-inch Williams won't be on the field to protect Carter from the Saints' formidable forward pack.

Je ne sais quoi

When Toulon added Duane Vermeulen, Quade Cooper and Ma'a Nonu to a squad that already included Steffon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud and Bryan Habana, many assumed the team would turn its record-breaking hat trick of consecutive Champions Cup titles into a foursome. But after Toulon's heavy 32-6 loss to the London Wasps in their opening pool game, another defeat at the hands of Leinster on Sunday could lead to whispers about whether this current crop of galacticos is here for the fight or the South of France sunshine.

Three-time European champions Leinster are also under pressure after back-to-back Pool 5 defeats to the Wasps and Bath. It's still early days in the competition, but with both pride and precious points at stake between the heavyweights of European Rugby, this match is shaping up to be the game of the weekend.

Can Bath avoid a deadly sting?

The other game in the so-called Group of Death sees the high flying London Wasps take on a Bath side which, despite its impressive home win against Leinster in the previous round, is struggling to find any consistent domestic form and is languishing in 8th position in the Aviva Premiership.

The Wasps, however, will go into the game at the Ricoh Arena full of confidence. Their fans will find it hard to decide which has been their most impressive performance in the competition to-date: the 33-6 win at Leinster, or the 32-6 demolition of defending champions Toulon in Coventry. Either way, Bath will need the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Francois Louw to be at their absolute best to upset the odds and return to Britain's West Country with maximum points.

Toulouse feel the pressure

Most sports teams and players try to avoid any talk of pressure, often coming out with cookie-cutter statements about focusing on the next game and doing it for their moms.

French side Toulouse—which has a win and a loss from its opening two games—has gone a different direction and been open about the must-win nature of its upcoming back-to-back games against Ulster, starting in Belfast, Ireland, on Friday.

"The next two games in the European Cup are essential to qualification. We will have to go and get a result in Ulster, that's obvious," winger Vincent Clerc told the media on Wednesday "We are in a situation where we have the pressure. We must negotiate our way through these ties."

Unlike their French opponents, Ulster are playing down the occasion, the EPCR reports.

"There are a lot of permutations that don't fit the normal European year," Ulster's Director of Rugby, Less Kiss said. "Losing can put you on the back foot, but it would be remiss of anyone to define a competition after two games. I don't think anyone's been defined after round two in this competition before."

Rugby fans will soon learn whether the home team supporters at Belfast's Kingspan Stadium will match Kiss' calmness if Ulster fails to win under the lights on Friday.