It’s crunch time in Europe, so Robin Davey looks at the big questions. Do the Scarlets have a backstop position against Ulster even though Leigh Halfpenny is injured? Can the Cardiff Blues avoid a very hard border crossing when they go to Saracens? And what was the advice from the WRU given to the Dragons before they published their teamsheet?
Europe is back on the rugby agenda and though it’s only the second block of the pool stages at least one Welsh region is in danger of crashing out without a deal.
Last minute soundings are being taken with some final persuading to be done as the Scarlets count down to the crucial Heineken Champions Cup vote tonight.
Beat Ulster at Parc-y-Scarlets and back on the agenda will be the possibility of repeating last season’s miracle escape act when they also lost their opening two pool matches but recovered to reach the semi-finals.
But lose the vote tonight, hand Ulster the spoils, and they will leave Europe without any kind of deal at all. For they lost their first two matches against Racing 92 and Leicester so they need a positive outcome.
Coach Wayne Pivac says the players have prepared well this week while key player Jonathan Davies admits, “It’s a massive game for us, it’ll be like a Cup final, really.”
There’s mixed news on the injury front with concussion victim Leigh Halfpenny and lock Jake Ball both missing but the inspirational Ken Owens and Samson Lee return to action.
The Scarlets lie in second place in the Guinness Pro 14 Conference B table, one place ahead of their opponents. That will surely be reflected in tonight’s clash with the Scarlets emerging triumphant ahead of the return in Belfast next week.
Staying with the Champions Cup, Cardiff Blues have got the proverbial mountain to climb when they travel to Allianz Park on Sunday to take on former champions Saracens.
Defeat wouldn’t rule them out of Europe, for they have a notable victory in Lyon under their belts in their opening group match, though they then spoiled things by losing against Glasgow at the Arms Park.
But Sunday’s task is a monumental one against the star-studded Saracens outfit who lead the Premiership table having won all their nine games.
They are fresh from demolishing Wasps last week and they will be further boosted by the return of lynchpin Owen Farrell who was rested against for that victory.
The 27-year-old is now England captain and with some years left at the top yet is the second highest points scorer behind Johnny Wilkinson on 726.
Maro Itoje has recovered his best form after something of a dip while key prop Mako Vunipola is expected to return from injury against the Blues.
Saracens will obviously target this one to virtually wrap up their pool. They are already four points ahead of Glasgow, with the Blues a further point behind. And next season they will be further strengthened by the expected arrival of Elliot Daley from Wasps, sources claiming it’s a done deal.
But for now Cardiff Blues have to man the barricades, and they won’t be helped by the absence of Ellis Jenkins who badly damaged knee ligaments in the final moments of Wales’ game against Australia last month.
But if they can win in France, where they shocked Lyon, anything is possible. They’ll probably be happy to come away with a losing bonus point, though, to at least keep their qualification hopes alive.
The Ospreys and Dragons battle it out in the Challenge Cup competition on Saturday, where they both face tough opposition – the Ospreys up against Stade Francais while the Dragons travel to Northampton.
The Ospreys will be strengthened by the return of former Scarlets centre Scott Williams whose appearances for his new team have been limited to just four because of injury.
They’ve had a mixed season, lying fourth in the Guinness Pro 14 Conference A table, beating Pau 27-0 then losing 27-21 against Worcester in their opening two Challenge Cup pool games.
Stade are not enjoying a great season, down in eighth place in the Top 14 competition, and much will depend, as it often does, on how seriously the French outfit take this competition. I’ll go for the Ospreys to win either way.
As for the hapless Dragons, enduring another awful season and suffering a horrible 59-10 thrashing at the hands of Leinster on their own Rodney Parade patch last Saturday, they now travel to Franklins Gardens.
And they do so having decided to leave out most of their Wales squad players, though the WRU are said to have had an influence because of their policy of limiting the appearances of squad players.
Given that the Dragons have a relatively small squad they want to prioritise the holiday derbies against Cardiff Blues (away), the Ospreys (home) and the Scarlets (away) and have all their leading players fit.
Northampton are, in fact, struggling this season and surprisingly are involved in what is already a relegation dogfight near the foot of the Premiership table.
But they won their opening pool game at Rodney Parade 35-21 as well as a pre-season friendly when they possessed too much power up front each time, so they know how to beat the Dragons.
The Saints will go for the jugular again and it looks like being another long afternoon for Bernard Jackman and his team.
It will get even harder for next week they travel to France to face Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne.
Good luck with that!