The November internationals are over, the draw for RWC2015 has been made, and we no longer need to pretend to understand how or why ranking points work. It's time to return to the business of provincial rugby as the Heineken Cup returns for it's (in)famous “back-to-back” series. And what gems it has in store for the Irish sides, with all four taking on teams who have had success, be it domestic or European, over the years.
Friday, 7 December 2012
Glasgow v Castres, Pl4, 19:35
Tough one to read – the Warriors are virtually out with 2 defeats while the French sides seldom care about away matches. Neither are likely to progress from the pool so I reckon the home advantage will hold sway. Glasgow by 8.
Connacht v Biarritz, Pl3, 20:00
If Eric Elwood's men are to have any hope of progressing beyond this pool, a win of any description is essential tonight.
Missing such leaders as Gavin Duffy and Nathan White certainly will be of little help to their cause, though occasions like these are perfect for Dan Parks to prove his worth to the Galway faithful.
He does have good finishers in Tiernan O'Halloran and Danie Poolman, plus in Dave McSharry at 12 he has one of the most under-rated players in the country at a key position. Add all that to a pack that contains Mick McCarthy who is in the form of his life and you have a starting XV that can compete with the former champions of Europe.
They will, however, need to take each and every one of the chances presented to them on the night. Biarritz have none other than Imanol Harinordoquy on their bench, not to mention a proven finisher or two of their own in Ngwenya and Brew on their wings.
I see a classic battle at the Sportsgrounds, but sadly the visitors will still consider their campaign alive enough to give this their full attention and should have enough to prevail. Biarritz by 7.
Northampton v Ulster, Pl4, 20:00
Not sure what you have to do to have your match considered “tie of the round”, but clearly winning all of your first 12 matches of the season isn't enough! Still, this rematch of the 2011 quarterfinal has all the hallmarks of a classic.
The most interesting part of Ulster coach Mark Anscombe's selection is his bench, with new Test star Craig Gilroy kept in reserve behind Andrew Trimble. It seems the need is for experience from the off at Franklins Gardens, and they certainly have plenty of that in their backline with Payne, Bowe, Wallace & Pienaar as well.
It is a full-strength pack for the Ulstermen with number 8 Roger Wilson in good form and ready to face his former employers. And here too they have plenty in reserve as well, with wrecking ball Nick Williams ready to spring from the bench.
Despite losing in Castres the Saints will still fancy their chances of getting out of this pool, and they also have plenty of players looking to catch the eye at international (maybe even Lions) level once more like Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood.
They say all good things must come to an end so I'm going for Ulster's perfect start to do just that, but with enough positives to draw on for the return in Ravenhill next week. Northampton by 9
Saturday, 8 December 2012
Scarlets v Exeter, Pl5, 13:35
I reckon the Chiefs will just target their home matches in the remainder of this competition. Scarlets by 15.
Toulouse v Ospreys, Pl2, 13:35
Ospreys need something from this trip. I fear it may elude them, though their backrow should keep them competitive. Toulouse by 10.
Zebre v Harlequins, Pl3, 13:35
Would be an amazing upset if Zebre were to win and I must say I was impressed with them last week, but Conor O'Shea will be determined not to have his side involved in another team's maiden Heineken Cup victory, not to mention the fact he will fancy winning this pool. Harlequins by 18.
Sale v Toulon, Pl6, 15:40
I can give you many reasons why I feel the Sharks haven't a prayer. Wilkinson, Michalak, Sheridan, Giteau, Lobbe, Bastareaud, Bakkies, need any more? Toulon by 12.
Munster v Saracens, Pl1, 18:00
Two teams with clear intentions of reaching the last eight come head-to-head at Thomond Park. Saracens arrive in Limerick with two wins and nine points in the bag and with a backline full of confidence, many of them having just famously defeated the All Blacks at Twickenham.
Rob Penney has gone for James Downey at inside centre with Casey Laulala on the bench. Up front CJ Stander's unfortunate injury on his first start last week means James Coughlan comes in at number 8 while “the two Donnchas” O'Callaghan & Ryan form the second row.
Saracens' style in this season has been dubbed as “boring” - they have the best defence in the Premiership and only allowed 13 points in their opening two European matches.
The chances are Munster will need their new expansive style of rugby to click and create chances for their back three to cause some damage in behind their defence. In Zebo, Howlett & Jones they could well have the artillery to do just that.
If Munster can maintain their discipline and keep Charlie Hodgson away from the kicking tee I reckon they have just enough to come out on top. Munster by 4
Racing Metro 92 v Edinburgh, Pl1, 18:00
Michael Bradley's side have seen improved form of late but their two humiliating whitewashes in rounds 1 & 2 have ruled them out of this competition, so despite the fact that he sends a strong side to Paris I can only see one result. Racing by 14
Sunday, 9 December 2012
Cardiff Blues v Montpellier, Pl6, 12:45
I can't see anyone but Toulon emerging from this pool, but Cardiff could well grab one of the Amlin spots and a win here will help that cause. Cardiff by 11
Clermont Auvergne v Leinster, Pl5, 15:00
When the pool draw was made this was always going to be the stand out match. The classic case of irresistible force meeting immovable object as the champions go to the Stade Marcel Michelin where Clermont are protecting a long unbeaten record.
Joe Schmidt has had to cope with a lot of injuries this season and has named what he feels is the best side available to hi for what should be an extremely physical battle. Sean O'Brien shifts from 8 to 7 to accommodate Heaslip while Sean Cronin is preferred to start at hooker ahead of new Ireland cap Richardt Strauss.
In the backline the centre combination of Goodman at 12 and Darcy at 13 is retained to face Fofana & Rougerie while Isaac Boss gets the nod at scrum half and Ian Madigan handed the 15 jumper.
Shane Jennings will consider himself unlucky to be left on the bench but I feel Schmidt has gone for Kevin McLaughlin for his lineout abilities which is an area Leinster will badly need to compete against the likes of Nathan Hines and Julian Bonnaire. You can be pretty certain the majority of the bench will be used in what should be a tight 80 minute encounter.
The key to Leinster getting anything from this match will be in their decision-making when they have the ball. They have achieved their success by playing with a certain style and allowing Jonathan Sexton to dictate matters but in a hostile arena I feel they need to know when to keep things simple and when to go for the intricate backline moves.
On the prediction front I believe both sides will be anxious throughout and we'll fall just short. Clermont by 3
Leicester v Treviso, Pl2, 15:00
Always a home win. Leicester by 13
Let's not forget the four province's “A” sides who are all still involved in the British & Irish Cup. They all play on Saturday afternoon, with Munster hoping to preserve their 100% start with a tricky trip to Rotherham, Connacht Eagles visiting former finalists in this competition Cross Keys, Ulster Ravens hosting Cardiff and Leinster travelling to the Channel Islands to face Jersey.
That's all from me this week! Be sure and enjoy your rugby wherever you are. JLP