The second round of Heineken Cup pool matches pose but one key question : how can they possibly hope to match the excitement of the first?
Even when you just look at the Irish provinces’ opening games you have examples of what make this one of the best tournaments in any sport, with two avoiding defeats with last-gasp super-kicks, one upsetting one of the tournament favourites despite injury troubles and the fourth putting up a valiant effort in their first ever appearance.
First up for us is Munster, who face their compulsory visit to France when they face Castres on Saturday afternoon. The home side will be keen to get some pool points on the board having been denied a losing bonus by a late Rhys Priestland drop goal in Llanelli. Given they lie 3rd in the Top14 with 7 wins which include a humbling of Toulouse, they’ll be expecting to give their fans something to shout about.
Tony McGahan’s men on the other hand will be looking to build on their incredible fightback in Thomond Park. It was their away form in this competition that cost them last season so to remain unbeaten after this trip will lay down quite the significant marker for them.
They have shown full faith in the team that beat the Saints by bringing over a completely unchanged starting XV. Danny Barnes continues to keep the Australian Will Chambers on the bench and much again will be expected of Peter O’Mahony for if his form in Munster’s backrow continues no doubt it won’t be long before Declan Kidney gives him a call-up.
Next up for the provinces is an unfortunate clash of fixtures. While Sky have chosen Leicester Tigers v Ulster as their feature match in the Saturday 6pm kickoff slot, Heineken Cup history will be made in Galway at the same time as the Heineken Cup will be played further west than it ever has done before.
Of course that trivia titbit will matter little to Eric Elwood as he and his squad set out to establish the Showgrounds as something of a fortress in the competition and given the prevailing weather conditions out there at this time of year, there’s a good chance that Guy Noves’ reigning French champions won’t be taking anything for granted.
Connacht make just one change in personnel from their heroics at The Stoop but shift their pack around a bit. Dave Gannon will partner Michael Swift in the second row while Mike McCarthy moves to flanker and Ray Ofisa adorns the bench. Miah Nikora retains the starting outhalf jersey and to be honest I’m surprised that Frank Murphy is once again a replacement as I felt their backline flowed a lot better with him on the park last Friday.
As for Ulster, they will certainly believe that there won’t be a better chance to come away from Welford Road with more than a losing bonus point. The Leicester Tigers may have kicked off their campaign with a commanding win in Viadana but their failure to get the fourth try plus their poor form back home will no doubt make them wary of their visitors on a high after toppling Clermont so convincingly.
Bryan McLaughlin is faced with more injury woes as Paddy Wallace has been ruled out for up to eight weeks with an injured thumb. Nevin Spence will take his number 12 jumper to form a promising young centre pairing with Darren Cave and otherwise the starting lineup remains the same. Ian Humphreys scored all of his side’s 16 points last weekend and will no doubt be hungry for more. Up front they will definitely need another man-of-the-match display from Stephen Ferris.
On the Leicester side look out for their Irish contingent with of course Geordan Murphy at full back and Jeremy Staunton and Niall Morris, who will hope to add to the last minute try he got at Aironi, on the Tigers’ bench.
Finally Morris’ former employers Leinster take the field on Sunday lunchtime against the Glasgow Warriors. Back when the draw for the pools were made, few would have this down as anything but a home win, but given the Scots top the pool AND snatched a victory at the RDS back in September, you wouldn’t be so sure.
After Brian O’Driscoll’s long-term injury problems, no doubt Fergus McFadden will be gutted to have picked up a dead leg during the week and must miss this key match. Eoin O’Malley takes his place at outside centre with Fionn Carr called up to the bench.
But this is not the only change to Leinster’s lineup – Sean Cronin’s try-scoring heroics in Montpellier earn him a start and Devin Toner gets the nod to partner his skipper in the second row. Finally, Boss’ poor outing by his standards last week see him take to the bench and Eoin Reddan getting the nod at 9.
Prediction time…let me get the romantic one out of the way before I change my mind – Connacht to beat Toulouse by four points. There, I said it!
Munster I fear will not be able to break their losing streak on the road though a bonus point is definitely on the cards. I’m going to back the Tigers to beat Ulster for two reasons – one, it’s the result I don’t want and I also got it wrong last week, but also there is just something about this competition that makes Leicester that much harder to beat whatever their form or injury status.
Finally I’m going to plump for a home win at the RDS though not without giving the home faithful a hiccup or two along the way. I found Leinster’s only problem in Montpellier was on the offensive side of things and have to back them to get things right in front of a home crowd.
That’s me done for another week – enjoy your rugby wherever you are and I’ll see you back here next Friday when the RabodirectPRO12 takes centre stage once more. JLP
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