Only two of the three Irish provinces competing in the Champions Cup saw action last weekend, as all the games due to take place in France were cancelled after Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
A week later and the knock on effects from those attacks are still being felt. Munster were due in Paris to take on reigning Top 14 champions Stade Francais, but that game was postponed late on Tuesday night, which means for the second consecutive weekend the provinces’ full list of European Cup fixtures won’t be fulfilled.
As such, all the attention will be focused on Ulster, who belatedly kick-off their campaign on Friday night while Leinster will desperately need a win to get back on track this Saturday evening.
Ulster vs Saracens, Friday, 7.45pm
The Ulstermen may not not have thought it at the time, but the decision to postpone their clash with Oyonnax may be a blessing in disguise by the time the final permutations of this pool are to be calculated in the new year.
While Saracens were sailing to a facile win against a lacklustre and distracted Toulouse, Ulster were sitting back, stalking their prey from afar having not had to navigate their way through a potentially emotional and physical battle on foreign soil. Les Kiss would have preferred if Saracens had been through a more demanding test, but the ease with which they beat Toulouse will be offset by the frustration of not having registered a try-scoring bonus point.
This clash with Saracens has now become something of a grudge match for the northern province, as they have been eliminated twice at the quarter-final stage of the tournament in recent seasons by the English champions. Winning your home fixtures is a must in this competition if you harbour intentions of progressing beyond the pool stage and Ulster will immediately be on the back foot if they don’t reverse the recent defeats against the English visitors.
Ulster are without the injured Irish duo of Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne but are able to welcome back the barnstorming Iain Henderson to the side for the first time this season. They will need the Irish international, picked at blindside flanker, to be at his abrasive best to punch holes in a notoriously physical Saracens defence. With a backline that can cause anyone problems, breaking the gain line regularly enough to open space for those wearing the double digits will be vitally important for Ulster’s big carriers up front.
The home side will be buoyed by how badly Saracens tailed off towards the end of their clash with Toulouse last week. They led 32-0, with three tries on the board by the 45th minute but a subpar French side rallied, taking over up front and preventing the English side securing the all important fourth try. Saracens don’t have an abundance of attacking, clinical players so breaking even with them up front is a major step toward securing a positive result.
Key Man: Rory Best
The veteran hooker has a huge role to play in galvanising his troops in the pack to keep Ulster on the front foot. His line out throwing was impeccable for Ireland during the World Cup and against a side like Saracens, who pride themselves on their set-piece his work out of touch and at the scrum has to be spot on.
Opponent To Watch: Alex Goode
The fullback doesn’t have the skill set of your archetypal full back but thanks to his distribution and vision he can often get an underwhelming set of backs playing to a level above their talents. Standing slightly deeper as a second receiver he rarely makes the wrong choice in possession while his lengthy boot offers Saracens another clearance option.
It’s looking like a tall order for Ulster who don’t appear to have the ballast up front to compete with a team that has won five from five so far this season in all competitions, while the Irish province have struggled for consistency. Home advantage will help, but not the requisite amount. Saracens by six.
Bath vs Leinster, Saturday, 3.15pm
Questions have been asked and now it’s time to answer. From the management to the players, Leinster were shambolic in defeat to Wasps last weekend when they opened their European campaign without so much as a whimper.
Having gotten off to such a derisory start at home, the boys in blue are now entering must win territory from here on out in order to keep alive their hopes of adding to their three European crowns of the Joe Schmidt era. The size of the task has only gotten bigger as they now now travel to The Rec to face a mega rich Bath side, who are fresh having not played last week.
The only positive for Leo Cullen and his charges is Leinster can’t possibly produce such a poor showing again. None of their international stalwarts were anywhere near the required level of performance and they looked jaded and disorganised while Wasps were energetic and penetrative. Although the province are likely to still be missing a number of key players to injury, they have enough resources to field a team jam packed with internationals.
Leinster are sweating on the availability of Sean O’Brien, Isa Nacewa, Luke Fitzgerald and Ben Te’o and should any of them be absent if will weaken the travelling side’s hand significantly. Dave Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, who are two of the team’s more experienced campaigners, were particularly disappointing last weekend and will need to bounce back strongly in order to avoid a repeat result.
Bath play an expansive brand of rugby and have been one of the more exciting Premiership sides to watch in recent seasons. Their owner, Bruce Craig, was one of the driving figures behind altering the constitution of the old Heineken Cup, so he will be desperate for his side to make a mark in Europe having not lifted the biggest prize since 1998. With a mix of speed and smarts in the back division, coupled with a rugged and somewhat underrated pack on paper, they pose an even tougher proposition than Wasps.
Key Player: Johnny Sexton
The prodigal son has returned but the estate has fallen to ruins. Leinster are a shell of the side the out half left behind a couple years ago and so deep was the malaise even he wasn’t able to prevent the embarrassing defeat. If his side are to rebound this week it will almost certainly be down to his input.
Opponent To Watch: Kyle Eastmond
Before Bath invested heavily in Sam Burgess they had cherry picked another leading light from rugby league. Eastmond made the move as a raw 22-year-old in 2011 and has taken his time to settle in the sport, but any regular Premiership watchers have marvelled at the ability he possesses. Physically speaking (five foot, seven inches and 13 stone) many would expect the centre to struggle in the modern game but his speed, footwork and intelligent angles make him a defender’s nightmare.
On the basis of last week Leinster wouldn’t beat an English Championship side, let alone one of the Premiership’s best teams. There will be a response but Leinster no longer have the great players of years gone by to mask collective failings and pull off unlikely wins. Bath by ten.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena