Simon Mail previews a selection of games on the opening weekend of this season's Champions Cup with holders Saracens visiting rivals Northampton Saints...
"While Ulster have won five of their opening six games in the Pro14, Wasps have slumped to four consecutive defeats."
Ulster v Wasps
Live on BT Sport 2
This season's Champions Cup gets underway this weekend with Ulster hosting Wasps in the opening match. It brings together two teams with markedly different form at the start of this season. While Ulster have won five of their opening six games in the Pro14, Wasps have slumped to four consecutive defeats. Dai Young's side have been crippled by injuries and this game looks to have come at the wrong time for them.
The Premiership side have only had a short turnaround after losing 38-19 at Saracens on Sunday and it is very difficult to see them ending their barren run in this weekend's clash at the Kingspan Stadium. Ulster have won all four of their home games this season by at least seven points and the hosts look worth backing to cover a four-point handicap against an under-strength Wasps side.
Back Ulster -4 to win @ Evens (Sportsbook)
Racing 92 v Leicester
Live on BT Sport 2
Racing 92 have made a stuttering start to the season after losing four of their opening seven games in the Top 14. Their inconsistency in France could refocus them for Europe and Racing have pedigree in the competition after reaching the final in 2016. Leicester come into this weekend's game off the back of four successive Premiership wins although they were pushed all the way in their 28-27 victory at London Irish on Saturday.
Leicester have found it tough going in France in recent years and were well beaten during a 34-3 defeat to this weekend's opponents back in January. Despite their mediocre league form, Racing are dangerous opponents especially in front of their own fans. The Tigers should be more competitive than on their last trip to Stade Yves-Du-Manoir but Racing are fancied to cover a six-point handicap.
Back Racing -6.5 to win @ 20/21 (Sportsbook)
Bath v Benetton Rugby
Live on Sky Sports Arena
Bath will expect to get their Champions Cup campaign off to a fast start with a convincing home win over Italian side Benetton this weekend. Todd Blackadder's team have won their last two matches including a 25-9 win at Wasps recently. Four wins from their opening six Premiership games is a promising start to the season and Bath will be focused on making progress this year in Europe although they will face much tougher tests ahead with Toulon in their group.
Benetton have mixed three wins and three defeats in the Pro14 this season although it will be much harder for them in this competition after missing out on the tournament last season. The Italian side are expected to prop up the group this year and Bath should make short work of beating them. The handicap mark is pitched at 26 points and Bath can cover this assuming they get off to a fast start.
Back Bath -26 to win @ 10/11 (Sportsbook)
Harlequins v La Rochelle
Live on Sky Sports Action
Harlequins begin their European campaign at home to La Rochelle and this is seen as an evenly-matched contest with the visitors travelling in good form. Quins have struggled for consistency, sharing three wins and three defeats this season, but their best work has come at home. Their five-try 42-26 victory over Sale last weekend should send them into this opener with momentum.
La Rochelle were the surprise package of the Top 14 last season after finishing top of the regular season. Their reward is a first shot at the Champions Cup and their form this season, with five wins from seven games, bodes well. But French clubs are not renowned as strong travellers and home advantage could give Quins the edge. This could easily be a tight encounter though and preference is for a narrow win for the Premiership side.
Back Harlequins to win by 1-12 points @ 17/10 (Sportsbook)
Exeter v Glasgow
Live on BT Sport 2
One of the most intriguing clashes of the opening weekend pits Premiership champions Exeter against Pro14 pacesetters Glasgow. The Chiefs failed to make an impact in Europe last season and will be determined to make their mark this time around. Rob Baxter's side look well placed to do this and are second in the league after winning four of their opening six games.
Glasgow's form has been even better after winning all six of their matches in the Pro14 under new head coach Dave Rennie. The Warriors reached the quarter-finals last year and are undoubtedly a threat to Exeter especially after the way in which they have started the season. But the Chiefs are unbeaten in 11 games at Sandy Park and this could prove a key factor with the hosts backed to claim a slender win over Glasgow.
Back Exeter to win by 1-12 points @ 6/4 (Sportsbook)
Northampton v Saracens
Live on BT Sport 2
There is a Premiership tussle at Franklin's Gardens as two old rivals collide again with defending champions Saracens heading to Northampton. The Men in Black have an outstanding record in the competition after winning the tournament for the last two seasons. Sarries will be aiming to emulate the Toulon team which won it three successive years prior to them although this will be a daunting prospect in a pool also featuring Clermont and the Ospreys.
Northampton have responded strongly, to a crushing 55-24 defeat to Sarries at Twickenham in their season opener, with four wins from their last five games. But their record against Saracens in recent years is poor and it will take all their efforts to deny the holders. Sarries' winning mentality and strength in depth has to be an advantage and the visitors are taken to grind out a much tighter win over the Saints.
Back Saracens to win by 1-12 points @ 7/4 (Sportsbook)
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