Every Friday I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.
I usually do a piece in this section which I call my “editorial pre-amble” before getting into the nitty-gritty of the weekend previews, but this week I will instead like to a post I wrote yesterday about the ongoing Heineken Cup saga.
You’ll find it here > “HCup-gate : Driven To Distraction”, please check it out if you haven’t done so already.
On to the actual Heineken Cup action…
Friday, January 10
Racing Métro v Scarlets, 8pm
In terms of the Heineken Cup pool this fixture means absolutely nothing but with both teams underachieving this season a result would be timely, plus as well as Jonny Sexton there are a number of Welshmen involved with Six Nations ambitions, even a couple on the Scarlets side! I’m thinking a low-scoring home win. Racing by 6
Ulster v Montpellier, 8pm
Iain Henderson would have reason to feel aggrieved being left on the bench - I personally would have him pushing for an Ireland start let alone an Ulster one, but Mark Anscombe favours Robbie Diack in his back row alongside Chris Henry and Nick Williams, a pretty aggressive trio, to be fair.
But as always is the case with home matches against French opposition, you must take into account whether or not the visitors will give a damn. Montpellier currently lie one place outside the Top 14 playoff zone and have a big home match on Jan 24 against fellow hopefuls Bordeaux - with their quarter-final chances gone in Europe I can’t see them offering much resistance.
All of this means that with Leicester Tigers likely to pick up maximum points in Treviso tomorrow lunchtime, Ulster will need to do likewise here to give themselves a cushion going to Welford Road next week. If their lead over the Tigers is just two then a losing bonus will do them no good out there for a home quarterfinal.
Anyway…they can only focus on tonight for now, and with a virtually full-strength side out tonight including the miraculous (not to mention timely Six Nations-wise) return from injury of Rory Best, they should be able to comfortably get the job done. Ulster by 20
British & Irish Cup
Leinster A v Moseley, 6pm
I always recommend attending these matches and with the senior side playing on Sunday there should be a decent turnout tonight at Donnybrook despite the 6pm kickoff.
The B&I Cup holders should safely book their passage into the last 8 but coach Girvan Dempsey will be keen for another maximum-point haul from this outing to help secure a home quarterfinal.
Luke McGrath leads out the side, a selection which makes a strong statement for his value to the province despite the abundance of number 9s.
Watch out for our back-three of Coghlan-Murray, Fanning and Hudson, each will be keen to continue the fine form they have already shown in this competition.
As for the visitors, Kevin Maggs’ Moseley are currently at the wrong end of the Championship table so with big match against bottom-of-the-table (and ironically also in this B&I pool) Ealing next up for them in the league, I can’t see them taking this trip to Dublin too seriously. I won’t make a margin prediction but it should be big.
Munster A v Nottingham, 7:30pm
Bordeaux v Mogliano, 6:30pm
Sale Sharks v Worcester Warriors, 8pm
Saturday, January 11
Harlequins v Clérmont, 1:35pm
Fascinating lunchtime battle at the Stoop - Clérmont have proven the exception to the rule of Top 14 sides taking it easy away from home but Conor O’Shea’s side certainly haven’t approached this year’s HCup like a team that wants out of it. Bookies shade it to the visitors but I’m not so sure. Quins by 3.
Benetton Treviso v Leicester Tigers, 1:35pm
Promises to be a high-scoring affair as Leicester have to go for the try bonus as Ulster failed to get one on Friday. Doesn’t mean all the scoring will go to the Premiership side, however. With the right conditions it could be the sort of match where the losing side gets two bonus points. Still think the Tigers will be happy with the result, though. Leicester by 10
Exeter Chiefs v Glasgow Warriors, 3pm
Cup final time at Sandy Park, though I wonder if these two need to be more focused on the league. Glasgow will certainly be well rested having not played since Boxing Day but the Chiefs need a pick-me up after a couple of league defeats and I reckon they’ll make the home advantage come good. Exeter by 7
Connacht v Zebre, 3:40pm
There definitely is a path for Connacht out of this pool, at least into the Amlin. Of course they’ll have to win at Sarries and have other results go their way, but the path is definitely there and they have shown they can win tough away assignments.
But on the other hand, if they put all their eggs into that particular basket and fail, they could lose some key players as they attempt to get themselves off the bottom of the Pro12, which for me should be their number one aim. And Ironically today they face the very team they are chasing.
Of course I’m not saying they should take their foot off the pedal, I’m just being realistic about what their priorities should be. I’m also setting myself for my prediction, which should anger Connacht fans but they must appreciate that it is a tradition on this blog to bet against them, Worked in Toulouse, right? ;-) Zebre by 1
Toulon v Cardiff Blues, 3:40pm
Can’t see anything but revenge on the minds of the HCup holders…and what’s more, they will still be stinging after Grenoble did them over last week so their fans will reckon they’re owed a good display. Cardiff beware. Toulon by 12
Edinburgh v Perpignan, 6pm
Both these teams by rights should go after this one, because if Munster slip at Kingsholm, the winners here will find themselves well in the mix. Hard to tell what motivational state Perpignan will arrive in but hopefully they’ll be up for making it a contest and if so, should prevail. USAP by 4
Gloucester v Munster, 6pm
Rob Penney must wonder what you gotta do to get credit in Irish rugby. His team are top of the Pro12, top of their HCup pool by 5 points, yet still the question marks remain and defeat here will drag his detractors, some from his own fans I might add, into the open.
For this crucial encounter he starts Ian Keatley despite having a mare from the tee last weekend, though he will be buoyed by the return to the matchday 23 of both Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.
In the pack, I reckon the match will be won or lost by the performance of the Munster back-row, and if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Coughlan play true to form they should prevail.
On the Glaws side of things, they are having a stinker of a season domestically, and badly need a result in front of their home fans and this could well be the time to do it.
Ironically they turn to Leicester-bound fly half Freddie Burns today; I wonder how the Shed will treat him.
But it’s in the pack where they must up their game and they have made several changes, particularly to the front row. I have a sneaky suspicion they will find a way to get under Munster’s skin today so I am picking this match as my Upset Of The Week (we don’t count the Connacht match) Gloucester by 2
British & Irish Cup
Rotherham Titans v Connacht, 2pm
Jersey v Ulster Ravens, 3pm
Viadana v Grenoble, 1pm
Calvisano v Bucharest Wolves, 1:30pm
NG Dragons v Bath, 2:30pm
Oyonnax v Biarritz, 2:30pm
London Irish v Lusitanos XV, 3pm
Bayonne v London Wasps, 8pm
Sunday, January 12
Castres v Leinster, 12:45pm
The pattern for Matt O’Connor’s Leinster so far in this competition has been superb away performance followed by a below-par home one.
Thing is, the two away wins were of completely differing types, and the selection of Reddan at 9 and Gopperth at 10 leaves us none the wiser as to how they will play.
I’d be inclined to think we’ll opt for an 80 minute defensive slog fest to grind out a result, always a risky strategy even if Castres are without their top South African-born talents of Kockott and Claasens, but if there’s any team who can pull it off, it’s Leinster.
Rhys Ruddock failed to make it back from a knock but Kevin McLaughlin is a more than worthy replacement. The most interesting names on the Leinster side for me are those of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings on the bench. Clearly a strategic move to sit back and watch what unfolds in the first 50 so they can come on and wreak havoc in all the right places towards the end.
But also look out for Jordi Murphy…tragic though the SOB injury may be it also opens the door for the former Rock SCT cup-winning captain to show the wider stage what he can do.
All told Leinster need to put everything into this match..forget the five-day turnaround, forget being happy with a losing bonus. Stay focused and go for the win is the only way to approach what promises to be a classic encounter, though you wouldn’t know that by Sky’s decision to make it red button! Which part of Top 14 champs v Pro 12 champs do they not get?
Despite their injury count Castres are tough to break down at home and led by Remi Tales who is the current favourite at test level any points we put on the scoreboard will be hard earned. But I reckon we can shade it. Leinster by 3
Ospreys v Northampton Saints, 12:45pm
The Saints have no choice but to go after this match with Leinster playing at the same time. But they will also be well aware that the home side won’t be there to make up the numbers. This one could go right down to the wire or at least hinge on a referee’s call. I’m inclined to lean towards the Saints. Northampton by 3
Toulouse v Saracens, 3pm
Arguably the tie of the round but Sarries have been known to fall flat on occasions like this, and their back row in particular will be well-tested by Messrs Nyanga, Dusautoir and Picamoles. I actually think this could be a bit more one-sided than Sky would like it to be, but perhaps I’m just bitter about the red button thing. Toulouse by 9
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP