Ulster look most assured of provinces in Heineken Cup
By Ian Cusack
Round five, crunch time in the Heineken Cup, and as we approach the second last game of the pool stages things look decidedly bleak for the two Irish provinces which have enjoyed heavyweight status in European rugby for over a decade.
This time last season Munster, despite apparently being in transition, were five wins from five games and about to complete a clean sweep in their pool while Leinster’s only slip up was a draw away to Montpellier in Round 1.
Twelve months later Munster find themselves third in Pool 1, albeit just three points adrift of leaders Saracens. Meanwhile two-time defending champions Leinster sit second in Pool 5, but with only ten points to their name they are staring down the barrel of a shock pre-knockout exit which would be their first since the 20007/08 season.
The progress made by Ulster and Connacht provides the silver lining for Irish rugby. Having profited from Leinster’s success to earn a second consecutive season of Heineken Cup action it was vital that Connacht show a progression from their maiden voyage. And progress they have.
Landing in a pool featuring Italian newcomers Zebre placed a burden of expectation on Elwood’s men to at least finish third behind seasoned campaigners Harlequins and Biarritz. The first part of the job was done when they won at the Stadio XXV Aprile in Round 1.
Of more significance is the way Connacht followed up last season’s historic win over Harlequins with an even more impressive triumph over Biarritz at the Sportsground. Just one point behind the French outfit, Connacht can set a realistic goal of a second-place finish.
Dan Parks has unquestionably been a big part of Connacht’s development this season but with the former Scotland flyahlf on the injured list - along with the likes of John Muldoon, George Naoupu and captain Gavin Duffy - Connacht could be in for a difficult evening against a red hot Harlequins side in the Stoop tomorrow.
It’s Ulster who have been the story of the season as far as the provinces are concerned. As Munster and Leinster struggle with a changing of the guard the northern province look a side entering the peak of their powers.
Brian McLaughlin put the raw materials in place and things have really clicked under Mark Anscombe. The Southern Hemisphere contingent – Pienaar, Afoa, Muller, Payne, Diack, Williams – and the youngsters – Jackson, Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Henderson – have gelled perfectly to produce a team balancing experience with youthful fearlessness and one which believes its ability.
Even the best teams have off days as Ulster did in Round 4, losing at home to Northampton. That result shed the added pressure of maintaining a 13-game winning run but the big issue was how they responded to that first defeat of the season.
They responded with impressive PRO12 wins over Leinster and Scarlets – either side of a narrow defeat by an inexperienced side to Munster - restoring momentum ahead of tonight’s meeting with Glasgow.
Clermont, Harlequins and Toulon are the only sides boasting a 100% record heading into this weekend’s fixtures. The Ulstermen know they should be on that list and they will be out to make a statement against a Warriors side that has lost all four games to date, and having climbed to second in the PRO12, may be more focused on league rugby.
Anscombe’s fellow Kiwi Rob Penney hasn’t quite enjoyed the same honeymoon period at his new club. The former Canterbury coach admitted he struggled to sleep after Munster’s abysmal display against Cardiff in Musgrave Park last weekend, a performance so bad James Downey took to Twitter promising to right wrongs while Donnacha Ryan vowed to bounce back.
Anyone who was in attendance last Saturday would be forgiven for lacking in confidence ahead of Sunday’s clash with Edinburgh.
The problem for Penney is that when you take over a team that is used to success, expectations remain high, regardless of transition, and his settling-in period has all but expired.
Eyebrows were raised when this relatively unknown New Zealander took the reins, promising a new expansive game. Last Saturday, almost six months after Penney took charge, Munster continued to look ponderous out wide. Lateral running and a lack of creative backline moves allowed the Cardiff defenders to enjoy a comfortable evening in Musgrave Park.
On his record-breaking appearance for the province O’Gara seemed determined to rescue the game the only way he knows how, sitting deep and kicking for field position, a tactic which flies in the face of the type of rugby Penney has been championing. Meanwhile, in midfield, a settled centre partnership still looks some way off.
On Sunday they travel to an Edinburgh team that has yet to register a single point in this season’s Heineken Cup, has conceded eleven tries without scoring a single one and boasts a points differential of -100.
But with the likes of Tim Visser, Ben Cairns, Greig Laidlaw, Richie Rees and David Denton in their line-up Edinburgh have ample quality to overturn Munster if the reds are anywhere near as lacklustre as they were against Cardiff.
Leinster fans may point to the horrendous luck they have endured on the injury front this season as an excuse for their dip in form.
Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Seán O’Brien, Quinn Roux, Richardt Strauss and Isa Nacewa are some of the big names who have missed important games through injury.
But there is no hiding from the fact that with just three tries to their name, only Edinburgh have crossed the whitewash fewer times than the defending champions at this stage of the competition.
Needing two bonus-point wins from their remaining two pool games, it is backs against the wall time for Joe Schmidt’s charges. Can they produce a champion’s response?
With the exception of Brian O’Driscoll, who must be content with a place on the bench as he eases his way back into first team rugby, Leinster have their big guns restored to the back line while Scarlets travel without their most potent weapon George North who was stretchered off against Ulster last weekend.
Momentum has swung Leinster’s way just in time, having returned to bonus-point, winning ways against Edinburgh last weekend. By way of contrast the Scarlets have shipped 79 points in their last two games, conceding eight tries.
Ulster will do the needful with a bonus-point win over Glasgow.
The return of big names in a must-win game will see Leinster get a bonus-point victory over Scarlets.
Harlequins to claim a convincing, if hard fought, win over Connacht before Elwood’s men turn their attention to their cup final against Zebre in Round 6.
Uncharacteristically poor seasons from both makes the Murrayfield showdown the toughest to call but I’m going with a narrow win for Munster.