A lot of things have happened on the club rugby front during the international break, and while it has only been a few weeks since the second round of the European rugby competitions finished, we have the highly anticipated back to back weekends ahead of us.
Here is how we see the landscape for Europe right now:
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European Rugby Champions Cup Power Rankings
1. Toulon (Last Position 1 - No Change)
1st in Pool 3, 8 pts
Still the de facto best team in Europe. Much like the international rugby rankings, I view Toulon as far out in front as New Zealand are in world rugby. They go into their mouth-watering back to back clash with Leicester as top of their pool with two wins from two. Domestically in the intervening period, wins over Grenoble and Clermont, offset by a loss away to Castres maintains their good start.
Away to Leicester, Sunday 5.30pm
2. Clermont (2 - No Change)
2nd in Pool 1, 6 pts
If Toulon resemble New Zealand atop the world rankings, then Clermont are similar to South Africa in the gap between them and the rest. They look like they finally have an outhalf in Camille Lopez, and come into Limerick on Saturday chasing down Munster in the pool.
Away to Munster, Saturday 5.30pm
3. Northampton (11 - Up 8)
2nd in Pool 5, 5 pts
Continuing on with the comparison with the international rugby rankings, while there may be a gap between 1st and 2nd and another gap between 2nd and the rest, there is very little gap between 3rd and 10th in these rankings.
A single loss to an in form Exeter Chiefs side was the only blip on Northampton's copybook this month. It used to be the case that Northampton couldn't record any results without their internationals, and now they beat Saracens away who still had the likes of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, David Strettle, Jacques Burger and Billy Vunipola.
Away to Treviso, Saturday 1pm
4. Leicester (7 - Up 3)
3rd in Pool 3, 4 points
After an injury related slow start, things are starting to look good for Leicester. Two wins and a draw against Saracens represents a good November for the Tigers. A supremely difficult back to back clash with Toulon awaits, as their fate, and potentially Ulster's depend on the results.
Home to Toulon, Sunday 5.30pm
5. Munster (5 - No Change)
1st in Pool 1, 8 pts
Munster have gone quietly about their business recently. After a rocky start to the Axel Foley era, Munster have gone on an unbeaten stretch. This will be tested in the next two weeks as the powerhouses of Clermont come to town. Munster were lucky to come out of Friday's game with a win after being dominated in the first 30 minutes, and allowing Ulster back into the game only for a missed conversion to allow them the win.
They'll have their full team back this weekend, and they'll need it. This is potentially the game of the weekend, definitely for Irish provinces anyway.
Home to Clermont, Saturday 5.30pm
6. Leinster (4 - Down 2)
2nd in Pool 2, 8 pts
The positive thing about Leinster at the moment is that they are grinding out results. Admitedly, these are against teams that they should be steamrolling. They have got into some sticky situations recently, the draw with Treviso and struggling against the Ospreys second string are not good showings. They seem to struggle to cut teams open, but still manage to eke out results. Their season will be defined on how they do against the better teams, and the sense I get from watching them play in 3rd gear at the moment is that they may not know how to get out of 3rd gear when the situation calls for it. I've been proved wrong before though.
Away to Harlequins, Sunday 3.15 pm
7. Glasgow (3 - Down 4)
1st in Pool 4, 9 pts
Given the gulf between the two Scottish sides in the Pro 12, it's only natural that Glasgow struggled during the international window. Shorn of the majority of their front liners, they still managed to record two wins, although a loss to the Scarlets was bad. Their internationals will come back buoyant after a good November, supplemented by Josh Strauss, Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakawara, Glasgow are a rising force in Europe, and finally the English and French are realising it. Sneaking a win away to Toulouse would just let them know what we already know.
Away to Toulouse, Sunday 3.15 pm
8. Saracens (6- Down 2)
3rd in Pool 1, 5 pts
That loss away to Munster looks to have shaken the High Wycombe franchise. Several key players were excluded from England duty like Chris Ashton and David Strettle, while Billy Vunipola had a horrible November with England. Their Premiership form was poor aswell, as a sole draw with Leicester their only decent result amongst two losses. The sole bright point of their November was the inclusion of highly touted lock/backrow Maro Itoje while the internationals were away.
Away to Sale, Saturday 1 pm
9. Racing (12 - Up 3)
1st in Pool 5, 8pts
Jonny Sexton's Racing Metro have started the European season very well. A big win over Northampton could have kept their interest in this competition alive, and this away game against the Ospreys will tell us everything we need to know. Racing won both their home games in the Top 14 in the last month, only losing away to Castres. Sexton will be back to full fitness after his injury pre November which will help the Parisian club.
Away to Ospreys, Saturday 3.15 pm
10. Ulster (8 - Down 2)
4th in Pool 3, 1 pt
Two big defeats in Europe already sees the Northern club up against it. They will be going for the full 10 points minimum if they want to proceed in this competition. Scarlets are no mugs themselves, and will provide stern opposition to the Belfast based province.
Home to Scarlets, Saturday 7.45 pm
11. Harlequins (9 - Down 2)
1st in Pool 2, 8pts
Harlequins had a poor month, winning only one game, losing to Sale at home and Bath away. In the first meeting of the two sides since bloodgate, what odds on a Nick Evans drop goal in the last minute to win 8-6?
Home to Leinster, Sunday 3.15 pm
12. Scarlets (13 - Up 1)
2nd in Pool 3, 4 pts
10th v 11th this weekend in what is sure to be a big game. Scarlets win over Leicester provides them with some breathing room for qualifying compared to Ulster, but both sides need as many points as possible from these two weeks to have any hope of qualifying for the knockout stages. The Scarlets were having a great autumn before Connacht's comeback last week, and their talismanic outhalf Rhys Priestland struggled with Wales. James Davies looks like a great player at openside for them though.
Away to Ulster, Saturday 7.45 pm
13. Toulouse (10 - Down 3)
2nd in Pool 4, 8pts
The fallen French giants have actually gone two from two so far in this European campaign. Bath and Montpeiller aren't too stiff of an opposition. Glasgow will provide a real test for Guy Noves's men who just lost to Bernard Jackman's Grenoble at home last weekend.
Home to Glasgow, Sunday 3.15pm
14. Ospreys (15 - Up 1)
3rd in Pool 5, 5pts
The Ospreys have slowed down somewhat since their blistering start to the Pro 12. After blitzing Connacht in last October, they have lost the last two. One of those was a narrow loss without their internationals to Leinster, which isn't too bad.
This clash hosting Racing Metro could define their pool.
Home to Racing Metro, Saturday 3.15 pm
15. Bath (17- Up 2)
4th in Pool 4, 1pt
Bath players had a fantastic November. 3 wins from 3 including a big win over Harlequins, George Ford has finally established himself as the England No.10, while Anthony Watson and Semesi Rokodungi also featured on the national stage.
Away to Montpeiller, Friday 7.45 pm
16. Montpeiller (14- Down 2)
3rd in Pool 4, 2 pts
Rene Ranger and co just haven't delivered in Europe. Montpeiller seem to be in a mess. 8th in the Top 14 with two losses in the Champions Cup already. They will need a maximum 10 points from their games with Bath to have any chance, but I suspect they will refocus their efforts on the Top 14.
Home to Bath, Friday 7.45 pm
17. Wasps (16 - Down 1)
3rd in Pool 2, 2 pts
Wasps new signings seem to be taking their time to bed in. 2 losses in the last three Premiership games, coupled with two losses in Europe have Wasps on the verge of ending their interest in Europe for this year. They could well end up with 10 points from their games with Castres, so Leinster will have to be wary of them when they meet in Coventry.
Away to Castres, Sunday 1 pm
18. Sale (19 - Up 1)
4th in Pool 1, 1pt
Familiarity with Saracens may help them in these fixtures, but they were so poor in the opening two rounds. The international break helped them move up a place in these rankings after recording three wins, but the bottom three teams are a distance from the rest of the competition.
Home to Saracens, Saturday 1 pm
19. Castres (18 - Down 1)
4th in Pool 2, 1 pt
Their improved performances, their history and their Top 14 status all suggest that they are going to concentrate on their domestic league. In terms of power rankings and this competition, they will continue to perform as a bottom three side. If they consistently tried and actually started players like Rory Kockott and Ibrahim Diarra, then they might lift a few places.
Home to Wasps, Sunday 1 pm
20. Treviso (20 - No Change)
4th in Pool 5, 0 pts
Treviso are not the team they were after the first two rounds of European rugby. The international break has given time for their new squad to bed in, and they are performing a lot better than previously. They are still the worst team in the competition, but they might now be competitive against Northampton, and will be looking for their first points of the tournament.
Home to Northampton, Saturday 1 pm
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