Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
Yet more meetings and statements and conjecture this week over the future of European rugby, this time with the Welsh in the spotlight.
To be honest I have to laugh at some of the rants I read from (some) Welsh fans which suggest the problems in the game there are somehow to do with the ERC, the Rabo, the Irish, Alain Rolland, or anything else that doesn’t have them turning the magnifying glass on themselves.
Is it Ireland’s fault we managed to raise the standards of the provincial game on these shores to the level that we did when the other Celtic countries failed?
Is it our fault that we managed it even though we were up against not just soccer but two GAA sports as well?
Is it our fault the supposedly fourth-best Welsh region won’t be winning at the Stade Ernest-Wallon anytime soon?
When the game went pro, the individual unions agreed on one thing above all else…each wanted as much control over their own game as they could possibly muster, so any body created to run cross-border tournaments, be it ERC, Six Nations Ltd or even Pro12, was going to exist purely for logistical purposes.
It is definitely not Ireland’s fault that Wales and Scotland have struggled to stimulate interest in the game locally. If anything we have done it too well here in that it created such a passion for playing in provincial jerseys that uniting for the test team became more difficult.
While I can see the thinking behind the Welsh fans’ preference to join an Anglo-Welsh competition (if you’re not going to have any success in a league, it might as well be in one where your fans are interested in the opposition so there will be more bums on seats), the fact that the Celtic League has existed for so long now has created a dependence that hopefully enough of our Welsh cousins realise cannot be broken.
They need to do what they can to close the gap between the union, regions and fans while still acknowledging their responsibilities to the game on the continent as a whole. If they approach the talks with that mindset, things won’t turn out so bad.
On with my previews…I have included the fixtures for Japan’s Top League because the club names are so goddam cool. JLP
Friday, December 13
Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues, 8pm
To coin a (rather crude I know) phrase, this pool is tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm. Glasgow lie in last place yet only 5 points off Toulon at the top, so a win will put them right back up there in contention. They have Treviso coming up in the Rabo next week so it’s not as though they can ill afford to throw caution to the wind in front of their home crowd. The Warriors’ bench should prove too strong on the night though I wonder if it will be as much as the 12-point bookies margin suggests. Glasgow by 7
Ospreys v Castres Olympique, 8pm
Once again a European campaign goes down the toilet for a Welsh region after just three rounds, see my preamble above. Things are so bad that the bookies are actually favouring a French victory away from home tonight. I’m not so sure…a part of me says this one is going to be a home win. Even though it’s probably the part of me that knows a Welsh win will greatly help Leinster, I’m going to go with it and this will be my Upset Of The Week. Ospreys by 8
Sale Sharks v Oyonnax, 8pm
British & Irish Cup
All four provinces are still mathematically in quarterfinal contention after three rounds, but if any of them badly need a win this weekend it’s the Ulster Ravens who have just one win out of three and have the Cornish Pirates in their pool who are no strangers to success in this tournament. Munster need to beat Plymouth tonight and stop them getting a bonus to make things easier for the final two rounds, while even a point for Connacht on their tricky trip to Bedford will keep them in contention. Holders Leinster A win three wins out of three seem to be best poised but they may find a hostile reception awaited their youngsters at Cross Keys RFC.
Munster A v Plymouth Albion, 7:30pm
Ulster Ravens v Ayr, 7:30pm
Saturday, December 14
Toulon v Exeter Chiefs, 1:35pm
The Chiefs are proving to be masters at keeping within touching distance of reigning Euro champs at the first attempt, staying within 7 of Toulon last week as they did against Leinster last season. Still, with a bench including Castrogiovanni, Wilko & Michalak, I don’t see a Connacht-style away upset happening here. Toulon by 14
Benetton Treviso v Ulster, 1:35pm
Ulster must surely be seeing both this match and next week’s visit of Zebre as mere warmups for the trip to the RDS on the 28th when revenge for last May’s Pro12 final would be oh so sweet.
For this reason they will be keen to wrap up the try bonus early in Treviso before Mark Anscombe whips out the cotton wool.
With an all-star backline of Pienaar, Jackson, Gilroy, Marshall, Cave, Trimble & Payne they should really make light work of it, plus there’s one or two in the forwards keen to catch Joe Schmidt’s eye like Dan Tuohy.
No offence meant to the Italians but the gulf in class is too wide to even offer comparative analysis here. Ulster by 20
Saracens v Zebre, 3pm
Zebras? Lambs more like. As in “to the slaughter”. Sarries by 25
Perpignan v Munster, 3:40pm
Catalan pride is pretty much all USAP have to play for here, and if ever there was a time an Irish province could go to France expecting a try bonus it’s here.
Which is why Rob Penney’s men will be tested to the fullest in this encounter. They most certainly have the players to go at their opposition from the kickoff, particularly with Donnacha Ryan back in the starting XV, but whether they manage it or not remains to be seen.
A bit like Northampton, Perpignan’s best bet is to get under the skin of their Irish opposition and there are certainly some characters on the Munster side who could respond to such a challenge.
I still think it will be a positive response however, though they may fall short of the bonus point. Munster by 7.
Scarlets v Clérmont, 3:40pm
This is most certainly a match the Welsh region can win. What’s more the fact that it will make it a hat-trick of victories for the regions in this competition will provide even more motivation for Simon Easterby’s men. But they’ll need to get at them early on because with the likes of Nathan Hines and Brock James in reserve Les Jaunards should prvail in an 80-minute slog and I reckon that’s what they’ll do. Clérmont by 5
Leinster v Northampton Saints, 6pm
Not only do the dogs in the street know Northampton are going to go for it this weekend, so do the fleas on the dogs in the street. The only question is how.
Which leaves Matt O’Connor something of a dilemma…does he trust his defence and allow the Saints come at Leinster for the first quarter to see what they have planned, or do they try a similar blitzkreig to wrap it up by halftime again?
One thing is for sure…naming an identical matchday 23 is a powerful statement for O’Connor to make in these unique back-to-back series, and no doubt the 40k+ crowd will be keen to see what path they choose on the day.
According to the weather forecast, one thing will be different from last week. Rain throughout the afternoon will make the “Leinstertainment” factor more difficult to get going and this could well suit the changes made by Neil Mallinder.
Definitely in wet conditions it will be a stern test for Ian Madigan’s game management.
Samu Manoa reverts to number 8 to make full use of his physicality and I expect things to get heated early. Much the way Leinster targeted Ken Pisi (who interestingly retains his spot at full-back) the Saints may well poke around the Leinster pack looking for a tender spot.
For me we should know how this one will go by the 20-minute mark…if the scores are still close it could well go down to the wire, while if Leinster manage to cross the line early, there could well be a repeat of last week.
With the weather and the Saints’ pride I have a feeling it’s going to be the former, but the home side should still prevail. With a try bonus to put us on the brink of the last eight after just four rounds? Do-able but not likely. Leinster by 8
Connacht v Toulouse, 6pm
I always have to point out to new readers of my previews that I NEVER back Connacht to win, out of superstition more than pessimism.
Nobody east of the Shannon was more happy than I was to see them triumph last weekend, though a dose of man-flu seems to be hampering their chances of completing an unbelievable double.
Of course Guy Noves, who some might say is the “Sir Alex” of European rugby, has had his hairdryer in overdrive with his players over the plast couple of weeks, so Pat Lam’s men will have to be primed for some sort of back-lash.
There is plenty of talent in the Connacht squad, not to mention gust in the Galway gales, to make a repeat victory possible. But as I said, I must bow to tradition with my forecast. Toulouse by 7
Munster v Leinster, 1pm
Thomond Park is the venue for this winner-take-all encounter. Online streaming on the IRFU site wouldn’t have gone amiss as the women’s game gets more and more deserving of further coverage. Best of luck to head coach Rob Forbes, Leinster captain Mary-Louise Reilly and all the girls heading down to Limerick.
Calvisano v Newcastle Falcons, 1:30pm
Viadana v Bayonne, 2pm
Bath v Mogliano, 3pm
Stade Francais v London Irish, 8pm
British & Irish Cup
Bedford Blues v Connacht Eagles, 3pm
Cross Keys v Leinster A, 3pm
Toshiba Brave Lupus v NEC Green Rockets, 3am
Yamaha Jubilo v Canon Eagles, 4am
Suntory Sungoliath, Panasonic Wild Knights, 5:15am
Sunday, December 15
Harlequins v Racing Métro, 12:45pm
Quins really put the cat among the pigeons in this pool with their win in Paris, and although RM92 have named a strong squad for The Stoop, I can’t see them reversing the result this time around, though it should at least be closer. Quins by 10
Montpellier v Leicester Tigers, 3pm
Ulster will be hoping, nay praying that the Montpellier do them a favour here much as the Ospreys did for Leinster. They can probably afford to have a go today as they won’t expect much from their Top14 trip to Toulon next weekend anyway, but I still think the Tigers will nick this one. Leicester by 3
Gloucester v Edinburgh, 3pm
Sincere apologies to fans of both teams, but I’m falling asleep even thinking about this fixture. One thing I do find interesting however…with the Worcester Warriors struggling at the foot of the Premiership, Glaws can almost (I stress the word almost) put all their resources into challenging Munster for top spot in this pool and should really go after the try bonus here to make it all to play for at Kingsholm in January. I reckon they’ll at least get that much done. Gloucester by 12
Ulster v Connacht, 1pm
London Wasps v Grenoble, 3pm
Kobelco Steelers v Toyota Verblitz, 4am
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP