European Rugby Preview: Leinster and Munster to march on
JOE looks ahead to a repeat of the 2009 Heineken Cup Final, Ulster’s trip into unfamiliar territory and Munster’s quest to exorcise some French demons.
Leinster v Leicester Saturday 6pm (Live on Sky Sports 2)
Ulster v Northampton Sunday 2pm (Live on Sky Sports 2)
Amlin Challenge Cup
Brive v Munster Saturday 1pm (Live on Sky Sports 1)
Leinster v Leicester
Somehow, we have a feeling that Joe Schmidt won’t have been too distraught after Leinster’s single point loss to Munster in the Thomond Park epic on Saturday.
Although it got rid of the Indian sign that Leinster seemed to have over their southern rivals and it makes things that little more difficult with regard to the Magners League, the nature of the contest was just what the doctor ordered ahead of the visit of Leicester to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.
There was no doubting that the physicality and the intensity were up to Heineken Cup levels and it certainly would have erased any hint of rustiness amongst the Irish internationals who were making their first start for the province after the Six Nations.
Facing Leicester is never an easy prospect and even less so at the moment given that the Tigers currently sit on top of the pile in the Premiership and revenge will be on their minds this weekend. It will have only been three weeks since the likes of Louis Deacon, Ben Youngs and Toby Flood endured a humiliating end to their Grand Slam dreams, and less than two years since the Heineken Cup final defeat to the Blues in Murrayfield.
If Leinster do go on to win a second Heineken Cup in three seasons, another back rower, Sean O’Brien will no doubt be feted for his role on the road to glory.
Still, motivation alone is not going to be enough to win this game for the Aviva Premiership side and Leinster look to be holding all the aces going into the game. They have been the form team in Europe all season and their side is full of top class players - such as Healy, Heaslip, Sexton, O’Driscoll and Nacewa, who are right on top of their game at the moment.
In the Heineken Cup Final two years ago, possibly Irish rugby’s greatest import, Rocky Elsom, had a major part to play and if Leinster do go on to win a second Heineken Cup in three seasons, another back rower, Sean O’Brien will no doubt be feted for his role on the road to glory.
Already the recipient of three man of the match awards in the competition so far, O’Brien managed to maintain his outstanding level of performance throughout the Six Nations and the only negative aspect of his amazing season is that he has lost the surprise element and is now very much a marked man.
Still, with so much quality in the Leinster ranks, Leicester can ill-afford to concentrate solely on stopping the rampaging Carlow man. It is the depth of talent in the Leinster team and squad that will probably swing the tie in their favour, but Leicester are no pushovers and an almighty battle should be expected before they can be sure of a place in the last four.
Leinster: Isa Nacewa; Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Leo Cullen, Nathan Hines; Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Heinke van der Merwe, Stan Wright, Devin Toner, Dominic Ryan, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.
Leicester: S Hamilton; H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; B Stankovich, G Chuter, D Cole; L Deacon, S Mafi; T Croft, C Newby (capt), J Crane.
Replacements: R Hawkins, J White, M Castrogiovanni, E Slater, T Waldrom, J Grindal, J Staunton, M Smith.
Leinster 4/9, Leicester 9/5, Draw 22/1
JOE Prediction: Leinster to shade it by less than ten points
Northampton v Ulster
At the start of this season, with a South African contingent led by Ruan Pienaar arriving in Belfast, a feeling persisted up north that Ulster could be in for a special season and it certainly has lived up to expectations so far.
Brian McLaughlin’s side are second in the Magners League table with three games left and have reached the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since winning the competition in 1999, a magnificent achievement in a year that Munster failed to do so for the first time since 1998.
With all due respect to Ulster, however, they haven’t exactly set the world alight with their rugby so far this season. Then again, they will care little as long as they’ve been winning and the manner in which they have been winning speaks volumes for the strength of character in the squad.
Ulster will have to be alive to the threat posed by Chris Ashton and Ben Foden in the Northampton back three
Ulster are going into this game on the back of six wins in all competitions. Of those six wins, four have been by three points or less in games that have been in the melting pot right down to the final whistle, games like the victory over last year’s finalists Biarritz in January in horrible conditions in Ravenhill that showed that Ulster are indeed fit to mix with the big boys on the continent.
This weekend's encounter is another massive step up in Ulster’s development. Their opponents, Northampton, are the only team that progressed from the pool stages with a 100 per cent record and they are backboned by the likes of Ben Foden, the swan diving Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley from the England side that won a Six Nations title three weeks ago.
In what has been a barren few years in the competition for English teams, Northampton were the only team from the Aviva Premiership to reach the quarter-finals last year, and with Leicester facing a mammoth task against Leinster at the Aviva, they look best equipped to fly the English flag again this time around.
It will probably be a battle between the packs in Milton Keynes on Sunday afternoon, but with things likely to be tight, a moment of inspiration from a Humphreys, a Pienaar, an Ashton or a Foden could well be what separates the teams in the end.
Northampton: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke, James Downey, Paul Diggin; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson, Roger Wilson, Tom Wood, Phil Dowson, Christian Day, Courtney Lawes, Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley (captain), Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: Brett Sharman, Alex Waller, Tom Mercey, Mark Sorenson, Calum Clark, Stuart Commins, Shane Geraghty, Bruce Reihana.
Ulster: Adam D'Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar, Tom Court, Rory Best (Captain), BJ Botha, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wannenburg
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, Tim Barker, Willie Faloon, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, Craig Gilroy
Northampton 1/5, Ulster 15/4, Draw 25/1
JOE Prediction: Northampton to prevail, but only just.
Brive v Munster
It hasn’t been a good week for Munster by all accounts. Word that Paul O’Connell is unlikely to feature again this season was quickly followed by news of Ian Dowling’s premature and unfortunate retirement and Sam Tuitupou’s impeding return to the Aviva Premiership.
The good feeling created by the province’s magnificent win over Leinster at the weekend has been dampened somewhat, but Munster fans shouldn’t be too downhearted as they’ve had plenty to cheer about since their exit from the Heineken Cup to Toulon earlier this year.
McGahan’s men will be confident of exorcising the demons that still exist from their last visit to French soil back in January.
Tony McGahan’s side have won six out of a possible seven games, including the last five, since that defeat and are cruising in the Magners League to the extent that they have a home semi-final wrapped up with three games still to go in the competition.
Also, their fringe players performed so well in the absence of the international frontliners during the Six Nations that the likes of Denis Leamy and Peter Stringer were held in reserve for the Leinster clash, with James Coughlan, Donnacha Ryan and young tyro Conor Murray impressing in their stead.
Their opponents at the weekend are, like Munster, former Heineken Cup winners, but it is a long time since they have dined at the top table of European Rugby. Brive defeated Leicester in the final in 1997 and lost by a single point to Bath a year later, and although they eased through the pool stages in this competition with six wins from six, only La Rochelle and Bourgoin lie below them in the Top 14 table.
Brive hammered those two by a combined total of 61 points in their last two games, but Munster will be a completely different proposition altogether and with confidence high and Mick O’Driscoll a more than adequate replacement for O’Connell, McGahan’s men will be confident of exorcising the demons that still exist from their last visit to French soil back in January.
Brive: Scott Spedding; Guillaume Namy, Jamie Noon, Fabrice Estebanez, Alexis Palisson; Mathieu Belie, Augustin Figuerola; Julien Le Devedec, Antoine Claassen, Gerhard Vosloo; Retief Uys, Thibault Dubarry; Pablo Cardinali, Benoit Cabello, Davit Kinchagishvili.
Replacements: Jean-Philippe Bonrepaux, Vasil Kakovin, Pat Barnard, Arnaud Mela, Simon Azoulai, Fabien Domingo, Shaun Perry, Régis Lespinas
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett, L Mafi, S Tuitupou, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; D Leamy, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
Replacements: M Sherry, M Horan, J Hayes, D Ryan, N Ronan, P Stringer, P Warwick, J Murphy
Brive 7/4, Munster 4/9, Draw 20/1
JOE Prediction: Munster to win by more than seven.