Roll up, roll up!
The Big Top is once again erected across Europe this weekend as we really get into the meaty stuff in the Champions Cup.
With Gloucester, Exeter and Newcastle clinging on and Wasps, Bath and Leicester out — only Saracens looking relatively serene — it could be another chastening watch for English rugby fans.
By Sunday night we'll have a firmer idea of March's likely quarter-final line-up… so let's have it, shall we?
Aside from European wranglings, the Six Nations comes into view, too; so keep up with it all with Scrum's the Word
NEWS FROM ROUND THE GROUNDS
Winner between TOULOUSE
in prime place for a quarter-final, and home draw, with the loser still likely through. WASPS
Tightest of the lot. Only gets remotely solved this weekend if MUNSTER
well and CASTRES
draw – that would see the Irish through. Otherwise going to the wire with both English sides probably needing at least nine points from two games to make it.
beating CARDIFF BLUES
will send them through as – probably – a best second slot. SARACENS
need one more win to make the quarter-finals. Cardiff and LYON
could make it – but won't – with a maximum of 16 points possible. RACING 92
will surely secure a home quarter-final, and ULSTER
are gunning against other fastest losers to go through too. SCARLETS
Two wins puts NEWCASTLE
in the hunt – the only problem is that they must go away to MONTPELLIER
. The latter's exit will surely be confirmed this weekend, with EDINBURGH
in a rare race for the knockouts that they should win.
Ten months a long time in sport, so the phrase doesn't go.
Last year who were the pin-up boys for British rugby, aside from the obvious?
Probably Newcastle – who ascended to a wonderful fourth in the Premiership, and then were hailed as a model club who had completely nailed it, had the best coaches you'd ever seen and better players – and the Scarlets.
They made the European semi-finals, and were definitely brilliant, with most of the Welsh team, Wales's coach-elect, with the old days back, Hymns, Arias and all down at Parc y Scarlets.
Fast-forward a bit and the Scarlets have won three in their last eleven, are having to play Ken Owens at No 8 as their casualty list is so long, and Wayne Pivac – he who must take over from Warren Gatland after the World Cup – is struggling.
And Newcastle are four points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership and despite two amazing early European results, beating Montpellier and Toulon, are pretty much one defeat from the exit door too.
Feast and famine, eh?
Odd image, this.
Billy Vunipola sat down with Her Majesty's Press this week, and was on typically good form, but his first remarks as he plonked into the chair left more questions than answers.
Intrigued about the recent goings-on at Sale with Steve Diamond – who effectively offered out one of our number at the end of last year when vexed by a critical piece written three months earlier – Vunipola told us of a chance meeting with the Sharks leader.
'I get on with him actually,' he said. 'Every time I have met him he's been a nice guy.
'It sounds weird but I met him in a spa near where he lives. That was it! We had a chat and that was it!
'Then we chatted about it again on Friday (after Sale beat Saracens)… anyway…'
Can you imagine it? 'Pour some water on those coals won't you, Dimes?'
NO KIT CHAOS
Remember when Glasgow last played Cardiff Blues in Europe? When you couldn't quite tell who was on which side as both teams wore a light blue/grey/white combo?
Well common sense has prevailed this weekend – Warriors will be in their black home kit, and Blues will wear white.
Not hard, when you think about it, is it?
THE SIX NATIONS?
Italy and France were the first to declare their Six Nations squads this week – with a few new names.
Montpellier's Paul Willemse – beautiful French name, to twist a phrase from the Pub Landlord Al Murray – is in the French squad as the latest South African-born player to qualify on residency.
Fijian Alivereti Raka, another 'naturalised' (which we can all admit is a horrible phrase) Frenchman could have been in too. He took the step of securing a French passport – such is the demand of union chief Bernard Laporte – in November having married a French national and had a child with her.
But the winger won't make the tournament as, according to reports in France, he needs an operation on his hand because of an infected mosquito bite, of all things.
However, there is plenty more of the foreign legion in Italy. David Sisi – a former England U20s, Bath, London Irish, London Scottish, Yorkshire Carnegie and now Zebre flanker – is in the Azzurri squad.
The 25-year-old, who was born in Germany, has been a mainstay for his club and qualifies through his dad.
So, the Six Nations has an ever-growing cast of those with links and ties elsewhere… and with them comes the gloriously named Cherif Traore, the Guinea-born Italian prop.
The 24-year-old already has five caps, but this will be his first Championship if he's allowed to swing open the doors to the Six Nations saloon.
Six Nations no longer, more a celebration of a globalised world nowadays.
OK, here at Scrum's the Word
we have one wish for the Six Nations. Just one.
Please France, can you unleash Demba Bamba?
He's raw – sure – but bloomin' Nora let him go! The 20-year-old Saint-Denis born prop is a giant at 19st 7lbs and eviscerated poor kids in the U20 World Cup last summer.
Bamba is currently on loan at Brive, in the second tier of French rugby, from Lyon and is one of the brightest young talents in the game.
He's played handball, hence the mad offloads, and judo, hence the super-strength, as a kid. Once he has cut his teeth on the mean streets of Pro D2 he's going to be a serious force.
Do yourself a favour and watch 'L'incroyable performance' in the below clip.
OK, it's a highlights reel but mercy me what a bloke. If you can't work out why we're so excited, you don't have eyes.
CLARETY AT SARRIES
Sean Dyche – no, not Quins back-row James Chisholm dressed up, the actual Burnley manager Sean Dyche – was at Saracens this week giving a motivational talk. It seemed to have gone down well.
But seeing as the Clarets' foray into Europe this season saw them crash out at the play-off stage of the Europa League over two legs to Olympiacos, maybe the two-time Champions Cup-winning Londoners should have been advising him, not the other way around.
could equal Munster's record of knockout-stage appearances with victory over Leinster on Saturday.
6 OF EIGHT
wins against Irish opposition for Gloucester in Europe. But the two defeats came against Munster – and they have lost five in a row by more than 12 points to the southern Irishmen.
made by Montpellier this season – almost 100 more than anyone else. Ulster are next with 663.
4 JACOB STOCKDALE
is the only man this season to have scored in every round. The Ulster and Ireland wing is top try-scorer join with Sean Maitland (Saracens), Juan Imhoff (Racing 92), Sofiane Guitoune (Toulouse).
have never won four matches in a row in the Champions Cup. If they beat Cardiff Blues they will do it, having won their last three.
missed by Wasps this season – the most in the tournament. And they play a Bath side who have the worst tackle-conversion in the competition (84%).
defeats in a row for Leicester. All but one of those defeats have come by 10 points or more. They go to Scarlets on Saturday night.
in 19 for Edinburgh on French soil, losing the other 17. They beat Castres in 2008-09 and Racing in 2011-12.
have never gone three consecutive home games without a win. They have lost one and drawn one of their last two – against Gloucester and Munster.
lost by Saracens all season. They have a 98% completion rate, making 53 out of 54 on their own throw in Europe this year.
EUROPEAN MATCH GUIDES
GLOUCESTER v MUNSTER
Friday 7.45pm Kingsholm LIVE BT Sport from 7pm
Danny Cipriani and Ollie Thorley boost Gloucester's chances of victory with their returns from injury.
Ben Morgan captain's the Cherry & Whites and former Munsterman Gerbrandt Grobler features too.
Munster have Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander and Chris Farrell all starting.
: Home win – Danny to champion the world (Irish).
MONTPELLIER v NEWCASTLE
Saturday 1pm Altrad Stadium LIVE BT Sport 3 from 12.45pm
: Away win
LEINSTER v TOULOUSE
Saturday 1pm The RDS LIVE BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm
: Home win
BATH v WASPS
Saturday 3.15pm The Rec LIVE BT Sport 3 from 3pm
: Home win
ULSTER v RACING 92
Saturday 3.15pm Kingspan Stadium LIVE BT Sport 2 from 3pm
: Away win
SCARLETS v LEICESTER
Saturday 5.30pm Parc y Scarlets LIVE BT Sport 3 from 5.15pm
: Home win
TOULON v EDINBURGH
Sunday 1pm Stade Mayol LIVE BT Sport 2 from 5.15pm
: Home win
EXETER v CASTRES
Sunday 1pm Sandy Park LIVE BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm
: Home win
GLASGOW v CARDIFF
Sunday 3.15pm Scotstoun LIVE BT Sport 3 from 3pm
: Home win
LYON v SARACENS
Sunday 3.15pm Matmut Stadium LIVE BT Sport 2 from 3pm
: Away win