2011 has been a long year for Irish rugby, and let’s not forget – in the most part it has been an extremely successful one at senior level.
The Six Nations started badly but ended on a high, two provinces won major silverware, and at the Rugby World Cup, we toppled Australia and won our pool. Though what happened immediately after that in Wellington was of course a huge disappointment that still hurts, we mustn’t let it pour cold water on the year as a whole.
This weekend sees Round 4 of the Heineken Cup and if all goes well, we could well have as decent shot at getting three provinces into the final eight of the competition, somehow even surpassing the successes of last season.
First up are Ulster, who completed half their immediate task last Friday with a comfortable bonus-point victory at Ravenhill over Aironi, and will be looking for a similar outcome at lunchtime on Saturday in the return fixture.
But they already have first-hand knowledge of how difficult it is to get that bonus in Viadana, having failed already this season in Round 2 of the RaboDirectPRO12 when they got try number 3 after 55 minutes then couldn’t manage to find a fourth.
There’s only one change to the lineup from the first encounter, with Tommy Court coming back into the side to form an impressive front row alongside Rory Best and John Afoa. No doubt they will be looking to last week’s try-scorers like Ferris, Trimble and D’Arcy for a repeat performance.
Next up on Saturday afternoon we have Connacht. Of course all hopes of playing European rugby beyond January faded with last weekend’s loss at home to Gloucester, and now coach Eric Elwood must surely have his sights set on his two derby holiday fixtures in the hope that he can close the 5-point gap on Ulster in the domestic league.
Not that the westerners will be heading to Kingsholm to make up the numbers, but Gloucester will be well aware they have a chance to pinch second place in the pool given that Harlequins face such a difficult trip to Toulouse on Sunday.
Just two changes from the Connacht lineup at the Sportsground last weekend, with Eoin Griffin coming in to partner the impressive Dave McSharry at centre and Johnny “Concrete” O’Connor, who along with John Muldoon signed a new deal with the province during the week, makes a timely return to replace the injured Ray Ofisa.
Traditionally Sky Sports aim to reserve what they consider “the tie of the round” for their 6pm slot on a Saturday evening. If that’s true then it’s a bit strange that the team to have won two out of the last three Heineken Cups are only featuring in it for the first time in round four!
Leinster are the hosts, the Aviva Stadium is the venue, and Bath are the visitors. As has been widely reported during the week, Joe Schmidt wasn’t exactly over the moon with his side’s performance at the Rec last Sunday, but to waste so many chances yet still come out victorious on the road is an outcome most coaches would die for.
And even though the reigning champs have a slightly imperfect record after their opening round draw in France, they remain just one point off the pace across the pools so will be looking to make full use of their good form at HQ to keep a home quarterfinal a distinct possibility.
Well the coach has certainly shown his willingness to change things and has made some interesting calls, not least of which at centre. I thought Gordon D’Arcy did well at the Rec but it has to be said the two form centres at the province are Fergus McFadden & Eoin O’Malley and the two get their chance to show what they can do in front of a 47,000 crowd – it really is a good opportunity for the pair.
Meanwhile in the forwards Sean O’Brien makes yet another move in the back row but this time finds himself wearing his more familiar 6 jersey where he’ll be relishing the chance to front up against South African Francois Louw, who skippers Bath in Dublin this time round. Both flankers have errors against their name from last Sunday they’ll want to rectify so it should be quite the battle.
Last up for the Irish provinces we have the only one with a perfect record to date, and that’s Munster. They showed great resilience in defence to come away with the spoils against a Llanelli side who would have been very disappointed not to recreate the form they showed in the opening two rounds.
Victory for Tony McGahan’s side could put them as much as six points clear in Pool One with two matches to play, a situation that would have been considered improbable back when the draw was made.
With all the injuries they have suffered of late, Keith Earls’ return is welcome, and with Eoin O’Malley & Darren Cave impressing at outside centre for their own provinces, he’ll have the chance to stake his claim on the coveted 13 jersey for the upcoming Six Nations campaign.
Meanwhile in the forwards the famous O’Callaghan/O’Connell pairing is reunited in the second row while Denis Leamy is chosen to take over from the injured Peter O’Mahony at 6.
Prediction time: By that I mean it’s time to make the predictions most of which you should ignore because I’ve been terrible so far in this campaign! But maybe that’s good news for Connacht. For the past four weeks I’ve tipped them to come out on top so hopefully by plumping for Gloucester, by at least 10 points, I’ll give them a boost.
By contrast I sincerely hope I’m not jinxing the other provinces but I really do think they will all come out on top, though with just Ulster getting the try bonus and Munster letting the Scarlets away with the losing one. At the Aviva I reckon there’s enough in the Leinster side to establish a lead and plenty on the bench to stretch it even further in the closing stages.
That’s it for the Heineken but let’s not forget the three provincial “A” sides taking part in the British & Irish Cup…it’s the final round of pool patches and all three have a shot at making the final eight. As always it’s a great competition for stars of the future to develop, for example Andrew Conway and Jordi Murphy will be lining out for Leinster at Donnybrook against London Welsh on Sunday afternoon.
That’s it for me until the New Year…best wishes for the season to you all and enjoy your Christmas rugby wherever you are! JLP
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