Heineken bonus would suffice for understrength Leinster
Leinster should be happy with a losing bonus point when they visit the bear-pit of Clermont-Auvergne on Sunday but it's must-win time for Munster and Ulster, writes JOE's rugby analyst Malcolm O'Kelly.
Leinsterâ€™s preparations for this weekend's trip to France have been hampered by a few things, none more so than the injuries picked up by Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian Oâ€™Driscoll on Ireland duty, and theyâ€™ll all be a massive loss. The weather wonâ€™t have helped Joe Schmidt and his players either â€“ theyâ€™ll have found it very difficult to get a whole lot of meaningful work in over the last few days with the Arctic conditions at home. I would think itâ€™ll be a bit nicer in the south of France at the weekend, so hopefully we can see plenty of good, running rugby from the guys.
Realistically, with their position on top of the table, they can afford to lose this one as long as they win the next game against Clermont-Auvergne. Leinster wonâ€™t be looking at it that way, of course, but I think with a losing bonus point this weekend and a win at the RDS in January, things will be looking rosy for Leinster.
Iâ€™ve never played in Clermont-Auvergne, but by all accounts itâ€™s a very tough place to go and I donâ€™t think itâ€™ll be any different this weekend. Probably one of the most stereotypically French grounds. Cages around the supporters and such like.
Winning the game would be a tall order. Clermont are one of the strongest teams in the French league and of all the sides in the competition, they have one of the strongest home records, but without being defeatist, a Leinster win is probably unlikely.
The lads Leinster are missing in the backs are sure to be sorely felt. People like BOD, Luke and Rob are match-winners, and any team in world rugby would miss those three. But I do think Leinster have good strength in depth, and this weekend there will be an opportunity for a few of the younger lads. Isa Nacewa (pictured top against Clermont-Auvergne in April), Shane Horgan and Gordon Dâ€™Arcy are all great players, and I think Fergus McFadden and Eoin Oâ€™Malley (below), while theyâ€™re untested, are ready for the Heineken Cup now.
Eoin O'Malley ... untested but ready to grasp his opportunity
Itâ€™s another step-up for them, but no matter when the chance came it was always going to be a step-up. But this is the way of rugby, the way itâ€™s always been â€“ you get opportunities through someone elseâ€™s misfortune, and itâ€™s just whether you can grasp that opportunity. I donâ€™t have any doubts about Eoin or Fergus at all. Theyâ€™ve performed well in the Magners League and have incredible potential. They certainly wonâ€™t let themselves or the team down.
Munster play Ospreys earlier on Sunday afternoon and the difference between them and Leinster this weekend is that they have to win. Thereâ€™s no other way of putting it. Theyâ€™ve already lost once, to London Irish, and this competition is so unforgiving that another one just isnâ€™t an option, especially at home.
But I think theyâ€™ll get the win. Ospreys are a good, in-form team, coming into this game on the back of four victories despite having weakened sides, but this is a big test for them and Iâ€™m not sure theyâ€™ll be able to live with the intensity that Munster bring to the Heineken Cup. The way Munster play in the Heineken Cup, I doubt if Ospreys will be able to match that in the physical stakes.
Iâ€™ve been alongside Paul Oâ€™Connell for Ireland over the years, and Iâ€™m delighted to see him back in action. Iâ€™ve personal experience of some of the frustrations heâ€™d have endured with his groins. Groins are a difficult one to diagnose properly â€“ it took five or six operations with me before they finally got to the bottom of it â€“ and Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s been torturous for him being out so long.
Paul O'Connell ... "the complete second row"
Whether he starts or is on the bench against Ospreys, whatever time he gets his impact will be massive. The energy and the hunger he brings will carry him through any lack of sharpness. If he can only go for 40 minutes, heâ€™ll give it everything for those 40 minutes.
He's a natural leader. He has the confidence in his beliefs and would have the coachâ€™s ear in terms of prep, heâ€™ll have the trust of all the forwards, and heâ€™s able to communicate effectively with everyone concerned. On the pitch he can bring physicality and will dominate at set piece. His work rate is high and he will carry and make some hard yards in the tight. Heâ€™s an incredibly gifted line-out operator, not only in making the calls but also an explosive jumper. I think as a pairing Donnacha O'Callaghan and Pauly compliment each other well, with Pauly's ability to dominate a game in the loose and Donnacha's skills in the dark arts of the tight game. Paul will be a massive boost for Munster, and with him back in action I think Munster will pull through victorious.
Like Munster, Ulster have to win this weekend and I think they will. Ulster are a good solid side and Rory Best apart I donâ€™t think have too many injury worries. The fact that last weekendâ€™s game was postponed wonâ€™t have helped their preparations but Ravenhill is always a tough place to go and I donâ€™t think Bath will be strong enough on their travels. Iâ€™d expect Ulster to win that one.