Ozer McMahon previews a hugely important Heineken Cup weekend for the Irish provinces.
The penultimate round in a golfing tournament is often referred to as “moving day”, when players in contention for the ultimate prize, either position themselves accordingly for their shot at victory or fall by the wayside. Well this weekend of Heineken Cup action has that “moving day” feel to it. The majority of the groups are hanging in the balance, particularly those containing the Irish sides. Munster, Ulster and Leinster all top their groups, while Connacht have honourably been dispatched from the race for quarter final spots. Despite currently being top, none of the three provinces are guaranteed progression, much less the relative security of a home tie in the first of the knock out stages.
From an Irish perspective Ulster get the ball rolling tonight (Friday), with a home clash against Montpellier. Having ticked every box so far in the group Ulster would be excused for thinking the hard work would be done by this stage of the pool. A comfortable victory at home to Leicester in Round 1, an excellent victory away to Montpellier followed by the expected 10 point haul after back to back clashes with Treviso had Ulster sitting pretty atop the group. However, Leicester’s last gasp victory against Montpellier in Round 4 keeps the outcome of the group in the melting pot. All eyes will be fixed on Welford Road next week for an intriguing winner takes all clash. In the meantime Ulster must not take lose sight of the prize, with a massive potential banana skin on the horizon this weekend.
With their interest in the competition all but done and dusted Montpellier travel to Belfast with a second string side in hope rather than expectation. The French outfit are bringing a team shorn of many first team regulars including French internationals Francois Trinh-Duc, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Nicolas Mas, while Ulster old boy Timoci Nagusa also remains in France. The return of Rory Best is a huge boost to Ulster and this fixture will be a great chance to shake off the rust after a lengthy spell on the sidelines ahead of the pivotal Leicester clash. With Nick Williams and Johann Muller also returning to the side, Ulster are at full strength with the exception of Tommy Bowe. A bonus point victory should be attainable for Ulster provided they don’t let next weekend’s task cloud their vision.
On paper Munster seem to have to easiest conclusion to their pool of all the Irish teams. The first part of their double header sees them make the trip to Kingsholm. A trip that was often feared, but not anymore. Gloucester no longer possess the brutally physical pack that teams used to loathe and they now struggle to build a platform in most of their matches. The home defeat in Round 4 to Edinburgh was a shock and should offer Munster that extra bit of confidence to topple their once fearsome foes. Gloucester do however have one of the most exciting backlines in the Aviva Premiership and should Munster try and engage them in a 7’s like manner, throwing the ball around laterally as they have become accustomed to, they will be outpaced and outgunned by their hosts. The Cherry and Whites may not have an intimidating front five but in Matt Kvesic they have a genuine breakdown specialist at open side. Turnover ball is key to a Gloucester side boasting a set of backs with the creativity of Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetreees with the pace of Jonny May and Charlie Sharples. Munster’s ball carriers must be wary of getting isolated with Kvesic sniffing around.
Munster do possess a strong pack and that should be enough to steer them towards a defining pool victory, which would leave them well placed to close out the pool in a home quarter final slot. They showed in the second half of their Rabo Pro12 match against Ulster that they still have a well-oiled forward unit. Two drive over tries from mauls and a third that was held up over the line are testament to this. In order to cash in on a pack that is sure to dominate, they can’t afford to leave the 11 points behind with the boot that they did in Ravenhill. Conor Murray is set to return to the starting line-up following his knee injury, while Simon Zebo’s return to training will offer Munster some much needed, genuine cutting edge behind the pack. Munster should be heading home on Saturday evening with a victory secured.
On the flip side Leinster have the most daunting fixture of the Irish quartet this weekend. A trip to French champions Castres is quite undesirable at a point where the group is far from decided. French teams always front up at home and Castres have yet to lose a game at home this season. Leinster’s task is made all the tougher due to the absence of their destructive flanker Sean O’Brien, who will be sorely missed. Leinster will need Jamie Heaslip to step up to the plate and make the yards normally expected of the “Tullow Tank”. Leinster currently have the lowest points total of all the pool leaders and if they are to gather enough to sneak a home quarter final they need to beat their rugged French opponents. The scrappy performances they have put in over the last month since they torched Northampton in Round 3, will not be enough to secure the necessary result.
Leinster’s bid to be the first side to escape from the intimidating Stade Pierre-Antoine with a victory in this campaign has received a boost however, with news that Castres’ influential duo of Antoine Claasen and Rory Kockott are set to miss out through injury. Castres’ squad does not contain the same level of globetrotting superstars that many of their French rivals do, but are a well drilled and focused side, full of honest and hard workers but they will struggle to compensate for these losses. They will need huge performances from the likes of Scottish and Lions lock Richie Gray as well as highly rated backs French Geoffrey Palis and Brice Dulin. While Yannick Forestier and Remi Tales are also part of the current France 6 Nations squad. This promises to be a tight affair from which the home side may just prevail.
In their third season in the Heineken Cup Connacht have already pulled off the biggest scalp in their history and should they complete the double over Italian strugglers Zebre they will have recorded a commendable three victories from five ahead of their concluding fixture against Premiership pacesetters Saracens. However since beating Zebre in Round 2 Connacht’s results have been appalling, the Toulouse victory aside. The Westerners’ prop up the Pro12, having fallen behind their Italian opponents after last weekend’s round of domestic derbies. Pat Lam’s charges have been impressive in small doses but have failed to sustain their challenge over an 80 minute period. They will go into this clash wearing the favourites tag for a change, and it will be interesting to see how they react. Connacht would like to deliver a bonus point victory for their faithful, if often suffering supporters to cap off what has been a progressive European journey to date. While it is possible, it is likely they will have to settle for a straightforward win.
“Moving Day” is as famed for those that lose concentration and shoot themselves in the foot as it is for those who make telling advances. The three Irish provinces looking to keep alive their hopes of making the knockout stages must keep themselves in the running ahead of next weekend’s concluding round of fixtures. Progression cannot be ensured this weekend, but it can be endangered. Come the final round though we should be expecting the green flag to be heavily populating the leader board.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.
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