Heineken Cup preview
Ireland’s biggest-ever winning margin over the Pumas was followed by PRO12 victories for Ulster, Munster and Leinster, ensuring three-quarters of Ireland’s Heineken Cup contingent carry momentum into the weekend’s crucial back-to-back fixtures but only Ulster can be considered nailed-on favourites to top their pool.
Mark Anscombe’s outfit are the only province currently sitting at the summit of their pool thanks to Northampton’s defeat to Castres in Round 2.
Leinster are also two wins from two, but their old foes Clermont have gone a step further, picking up bonus points in both their victories and, given their record at the Stade Marcel Michelin, Vern Cotter’s side will take some shifting from the top spot.
Ulster’s 100% winning record in all competitions faces its biggest threat when they visit Franklin’s Gardens tonight. Only Saracens have managed to overturn the Saints in their own backyard this season.
Anscombe proved his team selection won’t be swayed by media hype by opting for Andrew Trimble over man-of-the-moment Craig Gilroy.
The New Zealander has shown a preference towards a back three that marries pace with physicality in the form of Trimble, Bowe and Jared Payne.
With the exception of Stephen Ferris, who underwent surgery to correct an ankle injury on Wednesday, Ulster enter tonight’s game with a full strength XV and some serious firepower on their bench.
Nick Williams has been at his rampaging best for Ulster this season but even without Ferris he can’t break into the starting team which boasts an exciting back row selection of Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and former Saints man Roger Wilson.
Gilroy is joined on the bench by fellow game changers Paul Marshall and Luke Marshall offering Anscombe and abundance of pace to bring on if he needs to go in search of scores.
Fronting up to the Saint’s imposing pack is central to Ulster’s prospects tonight, if they can match Jim Mallinder’s men at the set piece they have the greater threat out wide to put tries on the board.
A Pool-of-death draw for back-to-back champions Leinster has made the prospect of pre-knockout elimination all too realistic.
Despite boasting eight points from two games, the province’s failure to secure bonus points puts Clermont in the driving seat to top the pool with a best runner-up unlikely to emerge from such a competitive group.
Joe Schmidt’s men pulled off one of their greatest European triumphs in last season’s Heineken semi-final when they beat Clermont in France.
They go in search of a repeat performance on Sunday but they must cope without injury victims Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald as well as the departed Brad Thorn who all featured in that semi-final victory.
More importantly, that narrow win was achieved at the Stade Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux, Sunday’s challenge will unfold in the Stade Marcel Michilin, where Clermont are defending a 50-game unbeaten run.
Leinster have only managed a single try thus far in their European campaign while Clermont have touched down on twelve occasions.
Joe Schmidt’s backline selection suggests a team more equipped to defend than open their opponents up with Andrew Goodman making his Heineken debut at first centre pushing Gordon D’Arcy into the outside centre role. That unfamiliar pairing will be tasked with managing the first choice French midfield of Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie.
Munster’s knockout stage prospects would look much healthier had they not surrendered a winning position in the last ten minutes against Racing Metro in Round 1.
The French will fancy their chances of a bonus-point win at home to an Edinburgh side that has leaked 78 points in two games, putting pressure on Munster to get a result against pool toppers Saracens.
The English side enjoy a three point lead over Munster heading into the back-to-back fixtures while Racing are just two points adrift of Penney’s charges in third place.
The importance of winning home games in the Heineken Cup renders tomorrow’s match a must-win for Munster which will be no easy task considering Saracens have lost fewer games than any other Premiership outfit this season.
Andy Goode, Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt all return to the Saracens team on a high after featuring in England’s memorable win over the All Blacks while the reaming wide back Dave Strettle is a proven finisher.
O’Callaghan and Ryan will have their work cut out against the experienced head of Steve Borthwick and England international Mouritz Botha who form part of a colossal front five.
A raft of back-row injuries sees 22-year-old Dave O’Callaghan line out at blindside flanker for his first Heineken Cup start.
Tomorrow’s is a classic backs-against-the-wall Thomond Park encounter, the kind Munster teams of old lived for.
How Penney’s ‘transitional’ team perform will go some way to telling us not only where Munster currently are in terms of quality but also whether they possess that mental toughness which has been the cornerstone to so much of the province’s success.
Mathematically Connacht’s race is not yet run but Harlequins are in pole position to seal top spot in Pool 3 and a glance at the final pool standings in the previous two seasons suggests a minimum of 16 points is needed from their remaining four games to have a chance at qualifying as one of the best runners-up.
Brave but ultimately fruitless performances formed the theme of Connacht’s maiden voyage in the Heineken Cup last season with the exception of that historic victory over Harlequins.
Having already beaten Zebre, the western province will target a double over the Italian side but it is their double-header against Biarritz that will shape their European season and determine their chances of joining the latter stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The French side are hovering mid-table in the Top 14 having lost their last four games away from home. They failed to pick up a victory on the road in last season’s Pool stages and Eric Elwood’s charges will fancy their chances of overcoming the seasoned European campaigners at a cold and noisy Sportsground.
Their cause hasn’t been helped by a host of injuries however. Not only is skipper Gavin Duffy unavailable but pack leaders Michael Swift and John Muldoon, who lead by example on big games such as tonight’s encounter, are also sidelined along with 10 other squad members.
Ulster to come away from Franklin’s Gardens with a losing bonus point. Connacht to fall short in a low scoring tussle with Biarritz. Clermont to lay down a marker with a winning margin of over 10 points against Leinster. Munster to salvage a narrow victory.