It’s a mammoth week of Heineken cup action for the Irish provinces, one that could see the country with three provinces in the hunt for a quarter-final spot at the end or could very easily leave just Ulster in the running writes The Daily Shift’s Sean Defoe…
Despite a tight home defeat to Northampton Saints in the last round of fixtures, Ulster remain 3 points clear at the top of their pool. While Glasgow’s cup form has not been fantastic, they are second in the Pro12 league and lost their two games to Castres by a combined 5 points.
This game should be won up front and if the Ulster pack can be dominant from the start their quality behind the scrum should be too much for the Scottish outfit. Glasgow are a low-scoring, physical side and will look to muscle the Northerners into submission. They may have the edge in the second row, with Tom Ryder and Alastair Kellock forming a formidable duo.
However across the pitch Ulster have far more talent and if the game opens up their back three of Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne could run rings around the Scots. Factor in that Glasgow have not won on Irish soil in the Heineken cup since 1997 and the verdict is clear.
Leinster – Scarlets
The three-time European champions are really one of the disappointments of this Heineken Cup season. They entered the tournament as one of the favourites to win it and now, after consecutive losses to fellow pre-tournament favourites Clermont Auvergne, stand on the brink of elimination.
Scarlets are on a poor run of their own however, punctuated by a 47-17 hammering in Ravenhill last week. The loss prompted a string of comments from captain Rob McCusker, suggesting that the team is smarting from the loss and out for some measure of revenge this weekend.
Despite the big talk however this is one few expect Leinster to lose. Realistically they need 9 points over the next two matches to finish as best runner-ups and advance to the quarter-finals. Exeter almost certainly won’t cough up a bonus point loss at home next weekend, so four tries is the imperative in the RDS this weekend.
However I don’t think Leinster will achieve that. They looked much improved on the return of Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll last week, with Sean O’Brien returning to form. However Scarlets are determined and have the potential to be a banana skin. I expect Leinster to win the game comfortably, but without the bonus point.
Verdict: Leinster, no bonus.
Munster – Edinburgh
Munster are another team with their season in the balance as they travel to face Edinburgh this weekend. Really they are relying on other results to go their way, as a win for them coupled with Racing Metro beating Saracens, would set up a shoot-out for progression in Thomond Park with Racing next weekend.
Edinburgh are having a shocking season and playing a brand of rugby that has seen them be annihilated at times this season, losing 45-0 to Saracens and 33-0 to Munster in the first two rounds. Yet Munster are coming off their worst performance of the season. They looked listless and uninterested at times during their 17-6 loss to the Cardiff Blues last weekend.
Word from the Munster camp all week has been about how disappointed they are with that performance and with letting the fans down. Rob Penney seemed in a state of shock after the game and Donncha O’Callaghan spoke this week about how they let the fans down. I expect a backlash now from the Munster men and a repeat performance of last week is out of the question.
Doubtless they have struggled to implement Penney’s game plan, but Edinburgh seem incapable of sticking to any successful game plan.
Verdict: Munster, with a bonus point.
Connacht – Harlequins
Connacht face a very difficult trip to the Stoop this weekend to face English powerhouse Harlequins. The Westerners have impressed many this season with their hard working style of play and refusal to roll over to bigger teams. However just when they seem to be developing, off the field incidents put the whipping boys of Irish rugby back in their place. Their search for a new coach has become an embarrassment and Mike McCarthy’s decision to leave for Leinster undermines their attempts to build an organisation capable of attracting quality players.
Harlequins meanwhile have been in excellent form in the Aviva Premiership and are probably the only English side who garner realistic hopes of winning this competition. They hammered Zebre in the last two rounds of the cup while Connacht did well to split two games with Biarritz. Harlequins will win relatively easily, however Connacht have yet to allow a bonus point in this competition even against the mighty Toulouse, and I don’t expect that to change.