The Heineken Cup swings back into action this weekend with much interest for the Irish provinces.
Not only are we on the verge of getting three provinces into the knockout stage for the first time in the competition’s history, but there’s also the small matter of Declan Kidney’s Six Nations squad announcement next Wednesday so it’s the last chance for hopefuls to impress.
First up we have what surely must be the “tie of the round” on Friday evening at Ravenhill. Ulster’s perfect ten over Aironi in December leaves them sitting atop Pool 4 for the time being, and although they have a proud record in this competition at home they certainly won’t be taking two-time champion Leicester for granted.
The Tigers may not be having an ideal season by their standards, but still their pedigree shows that once they can get themselves there or thereabouts towards the business end of competitions they know how to grind out results and you can be sure Bryan McLaughlin & his squad will be well aware of this.
The Ulstermen had a lot of good news during the week…not only did they secure the long-term signings of Ruan Pienaar and Paul Marshall, they also had their injury list reduced by two as both Paddy Wallace and Ian Humphreys were declared fit to start. Now, with the possible exception of Jared Payne, they can select pretty close to their ideal starting XV.
For the visitors Richard Cockerill doesn’t have the same luxury, as among his wounded stars are England internationals Toby Flood & Manu Tuilagi. Taking Flood’s place at outhalf is a prospect whose name appears to have hopped right out of a Dickens novel, Billy Twelvetrees.
It hasn’t been “hard times” for the youngster this season however, as he leads the Tigers in Premiership scoring. His battle with Humphreys could be key.
Then on Saturday afternoon we have two Irish provinces playing at the same time. And if ever there was a game played in this competition that could be described as a “home banker” from a bookies’ point of view, it’s the one taking place at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
In the visiting dressing room, there’s Connacht, whose season has gone from bad to worse to the emergency room since their last victory, which was over the Dragons way back in September. As for the home side, sure it’s only the four-time European champions, reigning Top14 champions AND table-topping Toulouse.
And to add to Eric Elwood’s misery on the flight to France, Guy Noves can’t really afford to take this game lightly as it’s his last home game of the pool stage and he has Harlequins breathing down his neck in Pool Six and thus needs every point he can get.
The home side’s lineup certainly looks like one aiming to do just that as it reads like a who’s who of recent French rugby success with names like Medard, Clerc and Dusautoir, with Luke McAllister pulling the strings at 10.
On the Connacht side, Frank Murphy’s groin injury is yet another blow and Paul O’Donoghue deputises at 9. Niall O’Connor assumes the out-half duties while they will be relying heavily on the experience in the pack of Swift, McCarthy & Muldoon to compete up front.
Meanwhile over at Thomond Park, the only team with 100% record through four rounds Munster host Castres, and a victory will virtually seal a home quarterfinal.
Since the French side are riding high in the Top14 and no doubt want to consolidate their position in the playoff places over there, you’d be forgiven for thinking they won’t exactly give this game their full attention as they sit rock bottom of Pool 1. Their team selection goes along with this theory as they make as many as 10 changes to the side that lost their last Top14 match in Paris against Stade Francais.
Munster are the only Irish province to name an unchanged starting lineup from the last round of Pro12 matches. The biggest debate for Tony McGahan of late has been over who to partner Paul O’Connell in the second row and once again he goes for the Donnacha with the extra “a” in his name. Ryan has a perfect opportunity to book himself a starting berth on Ireland’s Six Nations opener with Wales in a couple of weeks.
Last but certainly not least this weekend we have the reigning champions Leinster who travel to Firhill to face the Glasgow Warriors. There’s no doubting the visitors will be the favourites at kickoff time but with two wins and a draw from their four matches to date, Sean Lineen will definitely fancy his chances of getting his team to some type of European quarterfinal and thus will fight for every point.
Though there’s a notable name or two missing from Joe Schmidt’s match day squad like Luke Fitzgerald and Richardt Strauss, he has still managed to put together quite the strong attacking lineup clearly planning to compete all over the park.
David Kearney joins his brother and Isa Nacewa in the back three, while all eyes will be on Fergus McFadden as he teams up with D’Arcy in the centre to stake a claim for the Irish 13 jumper. Jonathan Sexton will hope to add to his tournament-leading haul of 60points.
Up front for Leinster Sean O’Brien will be looking to hook up with Heaslip as effectively as he did in Cardiff last week and arguably the province’s best lock pairing of Cullen & Toner are reunited.
The key to success for the reigning champions will no doubt be discipline – a high penalty count will give Duncan Weir the opportunity to keep the home side close before what promises to be a record crowd at Firhill.
Time to make my predictions… a combination of history and form means I have to favour Leinster, Munster & Toulouse to come out on top, with all three favourites to get bonus points as well. If I had to pick one who could fail to do so it would be my own beloved Leinster.
The one that’s too close to call is at Ravenhill, and to be honest I’m swaying back and forth every time I try to think about it. So I’m going to land on an extremely narrow thrilling home victory as I really believe we can get three past the pool phase this year.
So that’s it, I’ll be back here next week looking ahead to the all-important final series of games when the quarterfinal shakeup will be decided. Enjoy your Heineken Cup rugby wherever you are this weekend. JLP
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