The December back to back fixtures in the Heineken Cup always throw up their fair share of drama and excitement and often can have a definitive impact on the shape of the pools. We look at four things to look out for this weekend.
While teams can’t win European rugby’s premier club prize in December, they can certainly lose it and poor results for three of the four Irish provinces this weekend could have dire consequences.
1. Munster in familiar do or die territory
Munster have built a legend around escaping from seemingly hopeless situations and following their tepid loss to Racing Metro in the first round of fixtures, they will need to once again channel their inner Houdini to be involved in the quarter final stage of the competition.
Saracens visit Thomond Park on Saturday evening containing four of the starting English line up that put a beating on the All Blacks last weekend and currently sit second in the Aviva Premeirship behind Harlequins.
Munster are three points behind Saracens in pool 1 and anything less than a victory this weekend will all but put them out of the competition after three matches. Knowing Munster, they’ll probably stick around for a bit longer.
2.Leinster face a daunting task in the Stade Marcel Michelin
Clermont have been knocking on the door in Europe for the best part of half a decade.
Unfortunately for the French side they have been repeatedly denied by agonisingly tight margins, often by Irish opposition, culminating in last season’s semi-final loss to Leinster. Joe Schmidt’s side have something of a hoodoo over the Kiwi’s former employers having won three of the last four meetings.
The return of Sean O Brien should boost the champions who are still without Rob Kearney and talisman Brian O’ Driscoll. Even with the Tullow tank back in harness, this challenge may prove too great even for Leinster. A bonus point loss would represent an excellent achievement and would put the three time winners in a good position to at least qualify as one of the best runners up.
While Leinster have repeatedly enjoyed the rub of the green against Clermont, their superb run against Vern Cotter’s side will have to end sooner or later and there is no more suitable place than the Stade Marcel Michelin for Clermont to re-affirm their potential Heineken Cup winning credentials.
Whoever comes out on the top over these two mouth watering games can justifiably claim to be favourites for the whole prize.
3.Ulster looking to make it 13-0
The news that Stephen Ferris had to undergo ankle surgery is a worrying development both for Ulster and Irish fans.
While a setback like this may have adversely affected Ulster in previous years, there is a sense that this group of players are made of even sterner stuff than last year’s vintage when they went all the way to the final. Mark Anscombe has presided over a supreme start to the season and the province’s form was duly recognised by the national team set-up for the November Tests.
A trip to Franklin’s Gardens to face Northampton on Friday night will provide a stern test to Ulster’s unbeaten twelve game record although even were the province to only gain a losing bonus point, they will still be in pole position in the group when they welcome Northampton to Ravenhill for the return fixture.
4.Connacht aiming for another major European scalp
Connacht’s development in the Heineken Cup will once again be tested on Friday night when the Westerners welcome European aristocrats Biarritz to the Sportsgrounds.
Following last season’s famous win over Harlequins, Eric Elwood’s side will be targeting another high profile upset and have a realistic chance of upsetting the Basque outfit who currently sit only in seventh in the Top-14.
Biarritz, do however possess a gargantuan pack and if Connacht are to have any hope of gaining an elusive victory, they will need to play an expansive brand of rugby not always suited to Decmeber conditions on the West coast of Ireland. The loss of captain Gavin Duffy to a hamstring problem is a blow but the form of second row Mike McCarthy, coming off the back of a personally successful November campaign for Ireland, should be a major fillip for Elwood’s side.
Although Connacht have lost their previous two Heineken Cup encounters with French opposition, admittedly Toulouse, they do possess a winning record against French sides in the Amlin Challenge Cup having won 27 and lost 20.