Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
I wonder how Craig Doyle feels about the whole HCup thing.
No doubt he would have gotten a decent grounding in the Irish perspective of egg-chasing at Blackrock College - now he must inhabit the other side of the fence as he is the rugby frontman for his overlords at BT Sport.
Well he certainly did a decent job of avoiding the continent’s greatest club rugby competition on their flagship show “Rugby Tonight” on Wednesday. Conveniently (not to mention ironically) the Premiership club who acted as guests on the show this week were London Irish, who must suffer the frozen wastelands of the Amlin pool stages and thus wouldn’t have minded leaving out topics that involved pan-European competitions.
It’s all a bit silly isn’t it? Not that BT are alone in this…Sky have been ignoring competitions they don’t own the rights to for years. Why else would you never hear Stu Barnes giving a detailed analysis on the Ulster Bank League?
So with multi-million euro media networks engaging in pettiness left right and centre, it is left to us humble bloggers to actually focus on the entire programme of top flight European competition this week, just as nature intended. Let’s get on with it shall we.
Friday, October 11
Toulouse v Zebre, 8pm
The ERC couldn’t have picked a better matchup to start the tournament…provided their goal was to prove the English & French clubs right. Four-time HCup winners playing at home to the one-time any-rugby-game winners. Chilliboy Ralepelle, Census Johnston, Louis Picamoles, Hosea Gear & Thierry Dusautoir all on the Toulouse BENCH. If you’re looking for a side bet this weekend however, 11/4 against the Italians scoring first doesn’t look too bad. But you won’t get much for who’s going to score most. Toulouse by “un score de cricket”
Ulster v Leicester Tigers, 8pm
So…the English clubs don’t care about this tournament anymore, which of course means this should be a walk in the park for the Ulstermen, right? Hmm….
Leicester have usually been the exception to the rule of English ineptitude in Europe and they have a decent amount of Lions on show in Ravenhill (as well as Toby Flood back from what seemed would be a longer layoff) to give Mark Anscombe’s men a decent challenge.
Having said that, not only do Ulster have an excellent record against the two-time tournament winners, they also are welcoming back a hero or three themselves to top action tonight, with Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and newly-re-signed-even-though-the-rules-weren’t-supposed-to-allow-it Ruan Pienaar.
Many eyes will be on Paddy Jackson. Throughout all his poor form we heard stories from his team-mates about how unfazed he is by any kind of pressure, and he certainly proved that last week as he calmly slotted his second-half goals to shock the Ospreys on their own turf.
Still though…that was a Pro12 contest. This one is being beamed to millions of households. Let’s face it, that’s a stage where he has found it hard to deliver and this is another chance for him to exorcize that demon.
I’m not sure they’ll need him to prove anything tonight when it comes to winning the match, but his performance may be key when it comes to denying the visitors a losing bonus, something that always holds extra importance in these four-team Heineken pools. I hope I’m not jinxing him by saying he’ll get it done. Ulster by 8
Connacht v Saracens, 8pm
It has been something of a baptism of fire for Pat Lam, and it doesn’t promise to get any better for him here.
As always they have plenty of scrappers out there on the park like captain Swift, Muldoon and Naoupu, plus their impressive halfback duo of Marmion and Parks, but there is just too much class throughout the Sarries lineup to make you think Connacht have any hope of reversing the 14 point spread.
The biggest challenge for the home side will be producing an 80-minute display. Tackles in the final quarter have to be every bit as ferocious as the ones in the first…this is something they were able to manage under Elwood and Lam has to find a way of replicating that level of inspiration before they take the field tonight.
Not that he’s without a crisis or two on the injury front, particularly at 12…without Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin he was forced to add James So’oialo to his lineup at inside centre when the Samoan is better known as a full-back.
I always make my prediction go against Connacht in the hope that it will jinx them to victory but I fear even that hocus-pocus will be useless this evening. Saracens by 15
Amlin Challenge Cup
NG Dragons v Mogliano, 7:15pm
London Irish v Cavalieri Prato, 8pm
British & Irish Cup
Cornish Pirates v Ulster Ravens, 7:45pm
Saturday, October 12
More fixtures will be covered Saturday morning.
Edinburgh v Munster, 1:35pm
Benetton Treviso v Montpellier, 1:35pm
Castres Olympique v Northampton Saints, 3:40pm
Harlequins v Scarlets, 3:40pm
Gloucester v Perpignan, 6pm
Ospreys v Leinster, 6pm
These two have built such a great rivalry over the years; finally they get to play on a perfectly level playing field.
When teams meet in the Pro12 regular season you can always point to other more important matches either before or after when it comes to their interest in the fixture…and even in 2012 when they crossed paths in the Pro12 final there was case to be made for the Ospreys having better legs with an extra week’s rest.
Now, there is nowhere to hide for either coach, and this applies most of all to Matt O’Connor.
Not that he is the type who would attempt to hide, mind you. But his charges put in such a lacklustre display down in Thomond Park that a similar outing on Saturday evening will point directly to his ability to motivate.
First, there must be a game plan. For me, we should go over there and forget the three stars over our crest and play like the underdog visitors that we are. This could be a reason why O’Connor has plumped for Jimmy Gopperth ahead of Ian Madigan.
All told, our defence was pretty solid in Limerick. If we can maintain those standards, then we need to play the game as deep in Osprey territory as possible. This means there is no need for risky 10-metre restarts, they should all go long.
Not that Madigan hasn’t a part to play; hopefully his versatility won’t be required due to an early injury but he can do a job at several different positions. Ideally, though, he can come on in the final quarter because we’re matching them pound for pound and we need just a little spark to break through their defences.
It seems this match has come a “week too soon” for Mr “one more year” so with the Tuqiri Experiment forced on hold, trust has been put in young Brendan Macken to assume the 13 jumper. I’d seriously consider a punt on him to score a try at some stage, but where I would have concerns is in his tackling, in a position where we have come to expect the highest standards. No doubt the Ospreys will try to exploit this weakness too, so expect many a decoy running play.
But it’s not as though that’s the only string to their bow, and the real battle will be up front. They have a world-beater of a back row in Ryan Jones, Justin Tipuric and Joe Bearman and if allowed they will dominate the breakdown much as Munster did last Saturday.
I may be pinning a lot on O’Connor for this fixture, but he will most certainly require his senior players to step up to the plate in Swansea, particularly Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. We have been criminally slow the contact area so far this season and cannot afford this to continue.
Both these sides performed poorly last weekend, but we all know how Leinster are like kryptonite in reverse to those pesky Ospreys. If we are to prevail, we have to rise to meet that challenge, not with anything too fancy, but with simple smart rugby executed in the proper areas.
If I were Matt, I’d lay down the gauntlet. As things stand right now, I expect them to lose without so much as a bonus. It’s up to them (and not just our back rowers - Rob Kearney, Darcy, Healy & co as well) to prove me wrong.
Whatever happens, this is no doubt the tie of the round. Ospreys by 9
Amlin Challenge Cup
Bucharest Wolves v Newcastle Falcons, 1pm
Viadana v London Wasps, 2pm
Oyonnax v Worcester Warriors, 5:30pm
Calvisano v Brive, 6:30pm
Bordeaux v Bath, 8pm
British & Irish Cup
Leinster A v Ealing Trailfinders, 2:30pm
What would you rather do of a Saturday afternoon as a Leinster season-ticket holder…sit in a pub or at home watching Heineken Cup or getting out there and watching the stars of the future for free? I know my answer…
This clash at Donnybrook serves as a perfect warmup to the Ospreys v Leinster match and seeing how the visitors are rock bottom of the Championship with four defeats from four, there’s every chance for some points to be put on the board.
I’ll be hoping for a good outing from Darren Hudson at full-back, he was awesome in this comp at the same stage 12 months ago only to succumb to injury. Also there will be much interest in James Tracy at hooker after the unfortunate news regarding Richardt Strauss.
But what pops out at me on the teamsheet is Luke McGrath at sub hooker - it shows the depth in talent we have at that position as he could well be knocking on the door for a Heineken Cup starting place at other clubs. I won’t predict a score but by rights it should be a comfortable home win.
Llanelli v Connacht Eagles, 2pm
Munster v Stirling County, 5pm
North Harbour v Canterbury, 2:35am
Northland v Bay of Plenty, 5:35am
Waikato v Taranaki, 7:35am
Golden Lions v Griquas, 2pm
Free State Cheetahs v Blue Bulls, 4:05pm
Natal Sharks v Western Province, 6:10pm
Sunday, October 13
Exeter Chiefs v Cardiff Blues, 12:45pm
Toulon v Glasgow Warriors, 3pm
Racing Métro v Clérmont, 8pm
Otago v Auckland, 2:35am
Tasman Makos v Manawatu, 4:35am
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. Even if the Premiership chairmen don’t. JLP