Will there be changes to the Heineken Cup format after this season? That hangs in the balance as talks at the ERC continue. At least we fans have the 2012/13 tournament kickoff to focus on now, and all four Irish provinces can look forward with a degree of confidence.
This season as well as covering the Irish provinces I will also take a brief look at the other matches in each round.
Friday, 12 October 2012
Ospreys v Treviso, Pl2, 20:00
Doubt the Italians will come to make up the numbers but the RaboPro12 champions need a good start in a tough pool and are running into form. Ospreys by 11.
Ulster v Castres, Pl4, 20:00
The only unbeaten team left in Europe, the Ulstermen kickoff their campaign with high expectations, and with their good home record in this competition together with the French reluctance to travel thrown into the mix, must make them hot favourites here.
And making a welcome return to the matchday squad is South African Ruan Pienaar. He’s on the bench and can of course replace either of the two young half-backs Paul Marshall or Paddy Jackson if required. Their back three is full of experience with Trimble, Bowe and Jared Payne, who is no doubt happy to be finally making his bow in this competition.
In the pack, youngster Iain Henderson gets to celebrate the pro contract he signed during the week with a Heineken Cup start and joins a pack the rest of which all started the final in Twickenham last May, albeit with Ferris now lining out at number 8.
On the Castres side of things, I bet Pedrie Wanneburg didn’t expect to be returning to Ravenhill so soon! His new team currently lies 6th in the Top14 after a mixed start to the season but most recently put no less than Clermont to the sword thanks to a late penalty from full-back Romain Teulet. The rule is that French clubs’ interest in this competition wanes as it progresses, so Mark Anscombe’s men will certainly need to be at their best to beat them tonight.
Overall I feel it will be a tough battle in the forwards but Pienaar’s presence should be key in bringing about a home victory. Ulster by 5.
Saturday, 13 October 2012
Edinburgh v Saracens, Pl1, 13:35
Sarries know how to get out of a Heineken Cup pool as well as challenging in the Premiership, a rare quality across the pond these days. Still, I think Edinburgh will be strong in this pool, especially at home. Edinburgh by 3.
Racing Metro 92 v Munster, Pl1, 13:35
After a good start to the season, Rob Penney’s Munster have fallen back in the last couple of weeks with defeats to the Ospreys and Leinster, and they have had mixed news on the injury front during the week before their trip to Paris.
The surprise return of talisman Paul O’Connell to the starting lineup was tempered somewhat by Keith Earls and Donncha O’Callaghan being ruled out for a number of weeks. Still, Ian Keatley impressed in his brief cameo at the Aviva Stadium and slots in at full-back, while the Downey/Laulala centre partnership that impressed in the early weeks gets re-united. Also back to the senior squad is Danny Barnes who is on the bench.
In the pack Munster will rely heavily on their back row of Ryan, Dougall and O’Mahony. While the Munster front row will have plenty to contend with in Lo Cicero, Szarzewski and Ducalon.
For Racing, the name that jumps off their team-sheet is Olly Barkley, who started the season ready to play in the Amlin with Bath but got the call when they faced an injury crisis at 10. He will definitely be tested against Ronan O’Gara, that’s for sure!
I may be going with my heart but despite recent results I simply can’t bet against Munster in this competition…they have shown too many times they know how to pull results out of the fire. Munster by 4.
Zebre v Connacht, Pl3, 13:35
As the excellent TG4 documentary “The West’s Awake” showed during the week, Eric Elwood and his Connacht squad are well used to being the underdogs, which makes this first match in their second Heineken Cup campaign very unusual. They will be expected to come away from Parma with a win but they will also know exactly how the home side will feel having nothing to lose as they take their bow on the European stage.
But despite their reversal last week in Belfast, the westerners seem to have enough to get the job done…experience in the forwards like Nathan White and John Muldoon, and in the backs like Dan Parks, plus the promising youngsters like McSharry, O’Halloran and Henshaw; all of whom have impressed this season.
Though Parks has introduced some innovative play to their backline, I feel the key to success in Parma for them will be through the forwards. Once they keep the penalty count down and establish a lead in the first quarter to silence the home crowd, I believe Connacht can earn their first away win in the competition and set themselves up nicely for next week’s visit of Harlequins.
They certainly won’t have it all their own way, but I’m confident they’ll come out on top. Connacht by 7.
Clermont Auvergne v Scarlets, Pl5, 15:40
Just knowing Leinster are in their pool will give Clermont an extra spring in their step, as if they need it in this competition. The Scarlets have looked good so far under Simon Easterby by may hold back a bit for their clash with Leinster next week. Clermont by 7.
Leinster v Exeter, Pl5, 15:40
I’d have to check the records but it has been a while since Joe Schmidt has started the same back-line out two weeks in a row, certainly not this season. This should definitely help their defensive record which surprisingly for them is currently the 2nd worst in the RaboPro12.
One of the champions’ main problems had been at the 12 position but Fergus McFadden went a long way to putting these to rest against Munster last Saturday, while at full-back Rob Kearney isn’t quite ready to return so Ian Madigan makes his third start of the season there.
In the pack, Damien Browne has impressed enough to earn a start in the second row alongside his skipper Cullen and the front row from last year’s final is restored as Cian Healy is fit and ready for duty. Kevin McLaughlin’s knock last weekend isn’t as bad as first feared and he starts in the back row with Jennings and Heaslip.
The visiting Chiefs may be taking their Heineken Cup bow but will certainly be no push-overs, having topped domestic champions Harlequins only last week. Watch out for their Wallaby lock Dean Mumm and at number 8 skipper Tommy Hayes (the Bull’s brother).
This pool is going to be a long haul and I believe the Chiefs will bag an upset win or two along the way, but I doubt it will be tomorrow – superior experience in this competition all over the park should be enough to bring home the spoils, though I fear a bonus point may be just out of reach. Leinster by 13.
Harlequins v Biarritz, Pl3, 18:00
Fascinating Anglo/French battle at the Stoop. Former Leinster Kiwi starts for the visitors, who will make things difficult but I’ll back Conor O’Shea to turn his side around after the heavy defeat in Exeter last week. Quins by 7.
Sunday, 14 October 2012
Northampton v Glasgow, Pl4, 12:45
I have this one pegged as my “eyebrow-raiser of the round”. Saints had a good start but slipped against London Irish last week, while the Scots have done well on the road. Glasgow by 4.
Sale v Cardiff Blues, Pl6, 12:45
Both will see this as a chance to reboot their seasons after poor starts. I reckon the home side showed enough last weekend, even in defeat, that they can make use of home advantage. Sale by 3.
Toulouse v Leicester, Pl2, 15:00
Two European heavyweights do battle in the arguably the tie of the round. Richard Cockerill will show no fear leading his troops to the Stade Ernest-Wallon but you can never bet against the 4-time Euro champs on home soil. Toulouse by 6.
Toulon v Montpellier, Pl6, 20:00
They say only Toulouse and Clermont really care about the Heineken Cup but I suspect Toulon would like to join them. Montpellier by contrast are likely to take a step back and try and focus on their good start in the Top14. Toulon by 13.
And provincial fans don’t forget; the British & Irish Cup also gets underway this weekend, with all the “A” sides playing on Saturday. Ulster host Bridgend while Leinster welcome Leeds Carnegie to Donnybrook shortly after their senior side finish playing Exeter. Munster travel to Plymouth while the Connacht Eagles make their début in the competition with a trip to Newport.
So as you can see, a packed weekend of action all over Europe! I’ll be back next Friday to look forward to the second series of matches, in the meantime be sure and enjoy your rugby wherever you are. JLP
You’ll find my blog at www.harpinonrugby.net