Every Friday I give my thoughts on the upcoming weekend’s matches for the Irish provinces and beyond
According to the English clubs and Welsh regions, the ERC were a shambles who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery even though their main competition was sponsored by one.
Maybe that was true, but I can’t help but see the irony in that it is taking so long for this supposed “new improved” tournament to finally reveal itself to the world. For those not keeping score, last week there was a rake of articles saying the competition was “about to be” formally announced but that status remains the same.
But that’s not the only competition currently in flux that we’re waiting on. Still no word on a new sponsor for the Pro12 and seemingly there is none in sight unless the Celtic League have a tighter reign on their PR department.
As much as I hate to find myself agreeing with Rob Penney given his recent behaviour, he does have a point about the lack of accountability for Pro12 referees and I’d be hoping that if the league does have a new look next season, it will address that issue as well as that of marketing because although all is rosy in Ireland, there are a heck of a lot of hearts & minds to be won in the other participating nations.
Sadly the best way to do this would be to establish a proper governing entity for the league that is distinct from the unions and this will probably never happen.
OK that’s enough for my weekly rant/preamble…big weekend ahead for the provinces, let’s look ahead shall we.
Friday, April 4
B & I Cup Quarterfinals
Leinster A v Munster A, 7pm
Sunday Heineken Cup kickoffs can be a pain in the you-know-where especially where there’s travel involved, but this weekend there’s a silver lining to the Toulon timing in that fans can make this big clash in Donnybrook tonight and I am expecting a bumper crowd.
[That being said there are still tickets available you can get them at the gate]
These interpro A matches are always entertaining as there is so much talent chomping at the bit to break into the senior set-up and many have shone in this competition in the past like Jordi murphy and Rhys Ruddock who are reaping the rewards now.
One who hasn’t been quite so lucky due to injury is Dominic Ryan and he leads out the Leinster side tonight and will be hoping for a stand-out performance in front of his home crowd.
Other names who will look to impress tonight are the half-back pairing of Luke McGrath & Cathal Marsh, as well as Noel Reid who has had some good outings at Pro12 level as inside centre after having a stinker in this same fixture a few years back.
I can’t say I know too many names on the Munster side although one does definitely stand out - Andrew Conway, who never made it above this level at Leinster before his move down south and doesn’t appear to have fared any better, which probably means he’ll get a hat-trick tonight!
All in all I’m expecting another tense derby clash which could go right to the wire but hopefully home advantage will nick it. Sidenote - tonight’s winners will play either Cornish Pirates or Pontypridd (who play Sunday) in the semifinals. Leinster A by 2
Bristol v Rotherham Titans, 7:45pm
Leeds Carnegie v Plymouth Albion, 8pm
Glasgow Warriors v Benetton Treviso, 7:35pm
Glasgow are just one point behind 4th-placed Ospreys and they have two games in hand, both at home, and this is one of them. If they can pick up try-bonus points in both of those games they will haul themselves into contention for a home semifinal, but although they have won an impressive 12 of their 16 matches this season, not one of them has come with four tries. And since Treviso still have Zebre breathing down their neck for a Euro spot, you’d like to think they’ll give a damn for this match so it may just be the four points for the home side. Glasgow by 10
Amlin Cup Quarterfinals
Stade Francais v Harlequins, 8pm
Saturday, April 5
Heineken Cup Quarterfinals
Munster v Toulouse, 1:30pm
Neither team is the European force they once were, but still you couldn’t rule out either one from lifting the trophy this season.
The key for Munster, I feel, is to harness every decibel their famous Thomond Park 16th man will provide them and hit the four-times-champions with everything they have for the first 20-30 minutes.
Take quick-tap penalties and run at them when the chance arises. Be patient without the ball and attack the breakdown when Peter O’Mahony is in a position to steal. But most of all, come away from every trip into their 22 with points.
Because although we all know about French teams in general and this Toulouse team in particular when they travel, if they have a sniff of winning around the halftime mark they definitely have the players, particularly the backline, to do some serious damage. They also appear to have an edge on the bench.
But I reckon this match will mean too much to Munster to allow that to happen. I haven’t exactly been a fan of the style of play that Rob Penney has brought to the province but those bets tend to be off on occasions like this and I’m expecting a display closer to that which prevailed at the Stoop last season. Munster by 6
Clérmont v Leicester Tigers, 4pm
Les Jaunards have gone off the boil somewhat and ironically the longer their unbeaten home run goes on, the less impressive it seems given there has been just the one piece of silverware for their loyal following to enjoy in that time.
But do I really think the record is going to fall against an English club? Hell, no. If there was one club who could do that in Europe I’d say it was Leicester, but still I don’t think they have it in them, even with Manu back at 13.
I have a feeling the Tigers are going to give the Sky commentators something to get excited about right until the end but I still can’t see past a home win. Clérmont by 7
Ulster v Saracens, 6:30pm
Just in case you’re in any doubt, yes, I’m going for three Irish wins this weekend. Hey, Ireland are Six nations champions, and whatever about what Rob Penney says I reckon I’m entitled to feel good about the chances of all our provinces.
However it’s not so much the presence of an Irishman that has me confident about Ulster for this one. True, they have home talent to burn in the likes of Best, Henry, Jackson, Bowe & Trimble.
But not surprisingly it’s the name Ruan Pienaar on the teamsheet that has me stoked. He has already seen off the challenge of Leicester almost single-handed, and his being available for this match changes its status from “too close to call” to “home team as favourites”.
It’s far from a home banker, however, and Saracens have become England’s answer to Clérmont and are probably the Premiership’s best chance at breaking their long drought in this or any future European competition.
I still think the Ulster forwards have more than enough to stand up to the Bosh, however, and I reckon the 3 point spread is way too generous to the visitors. Ulster by 6.
Ulster Bank League Division 1A
Lansdowne v St Mary’s, 2:30pm
UCD v Clontarf, 2:30pm
This represents Tarf’s game in hand over their rivals for the title Belvo, and although you’d normally say a visit to UCD was a tough ask, if ever there was a good time to go there it would be on a weekend where both Leinster AND Leinster A have big fixtures. That fact will drain both clubs but the students more. Tarf by 7
Oyonnax v Bordeaux, 7:35pm
Hurricanes v Bulls, 7:35am
Reds v Force, 9:40am
Cheetahs v Chiefs, 2pm
Lions v Crusaders, 4:05pm
Stormers v Waratahs, 6:10pm
Sunday, April 6
Heineken Cup Quarterfinal
Toulon v Leinster, 4:30pm
Matt O’Connor hasn’t really gotten a fair crack of the whip from the Leinster faithful. Top of both the Pro12 AND the toughest Heineken Cup pool aren’t enough for us I reckon, and the general rule seems to be that if we lose it’s his fault and when we win it’s because it’s The Team That Joe Built.
Maybe, just maybe, that tendency will come to an end this weekend, for if Leinster can produce the kind of display away from home they showed in all three of their pool matches, the kudos can surely only go to the man currently in charge.
Normally when they talk about “matchups” going into a big match they are talking about two players in the same position for opposite sides. For this match, however, I believe the key matchup is Jamie Heaslip v Wayne Barnes.
Toulon like to intimidate even before a ball is kicked by getting a fan to shout “Parce-que Toulon!” into a microphone a gagillion times before kickoff to motivate the crowd. Then their forwards take on the challenge of making their statement.
Heaslip doesn’t have the best track record with Barnes, and if he & his team-mates employ a strategy of whining and complaining about everything they see the likes of Carl Hayman and Danie Roussow getting up to, they could turn a ref like Barnes against them very quickly.
But of course Leinster have a player or two of their own to mix it up in scrappy breakdowns…Healy, Strauss, McCarthy and Jennings are all fine proponents of the dark arts. So long as the ref is fair and nobody strays too far over the line to see red, I’d be confident that we can turn the forward battle into at least a stalemate.
Then we have what seems to be a curious decision to choose Jimmy Gopperth to start ahead of Ian Madigan. I have a feeling that although O’Connor would have known full well the responsibilities of coaching an IRFU-controlled province, but still if we are to tempt these coaches into such positions they have to know there are matches when they are allowed to make decisions based on their own wishes, and this surely must be one of them.
As we all know Matt cut his European teeth in the Premiership and there’s no doubting that Gopps represents a 10 who is a lot closer to that style than Madigan. Leinster rugby have definitely established themselves as a world force at this level of the game, but whatever our dominance we can’t win every game with the exact same style so adaptability is vital.
This is definitely a contest which can go either way, but I’m retaining confidence that it will go Matt’s way. Leinster by 4
Amlin Challenge Cup Quarterfinals
Bath v Brive, 2pm
London Wasps v Gloucester, 7pm
B & I Cup Quarterfinal
Cornish Pirates v Pontypridd, 2pm
Be sure and enjoy your Heineken Cup weekend wherever you are. JLP