Round 2 of the European Rugby Champion’s Cup and already we’re looking at a whole new playing field. Ulster VS Toulon, Munster VS Saracens, Leinster VS Castres and Connacht VS Exeter. Certainly far more fitting and mouth watering challenges for the provinces, and though it may be true that you don’t lose any competition in the first round, the second is where those short fallings and mistakes can be made that haunt you for the rest of the season.
Munster VS Saracens this evening is a fixture that has never failed to thrill. Through the year these sides have fought some of the closest matches in rugby history and one could argue that Saracens have the closest thing to a Munster-esque legacy in England, their embrace of brand establishment and of course they have thrown up some results to justify all of it. Kelly Brown, Billy Vunipola, David Strettle, Owen Farrell, Brad Barrit. It doesn’t need to be emphasised what pedigree Munster find themselves up against this evening.
But of course the Southerners have pedigree of their own. Ian Keatley will still be riding high on a confidence wave after that stunner of a drop goal finish last week, and that will hopefully be stemming through the team. That they are playing their first game in Thomond Park of this new competition may well be onus enough too, a recent track record in The Holy Ground working very much against them which should spur on a massive performance.
If last week was the beginning of a Munster 2.0 materialisation then tonight should be the litmus test of whether or not said event is a blip or a beginning. Munster have a chance to get a hand far closer to the European Cup than they have had any time in the last six years and, should they seize it, this could be the start of a massive upswing for the side.
Connacht taking on Exeter Chiefs with the Westerner’s current run of form, above all else, really should be televised. Once again however, even with two official broadcasting partners, the Challenge Cup falls into even more irrelevance. But those with any Irish interest in rugby should certainly pay attention here. With the news earlier in the week that Joe Schmidt has included five Connacht players in his squad, we should see even more of an elevation of play from any of those call ups who play tomorrow.
Exeter have nothing if not gusto. Two years ago they ran Leinster ragged enough in the opening round to provide half of the reason for them to not qualify into the knock outs. Whether they win fixtures in the bigger games or not, they certainly never make it any way easy on their opposition.
The cards are stacked against Connacht tomorrow, playing away from home, only two wins on English soil to date and an Exeter side needing a win after losing to Bayonne in the opening round. But this is the same Connacht (and mostly the same players) that have been unrecognisable thus far and who thwarted Toulouse away from home last season, knocked Harlequins out of the competition two years before that and so if we’re boiling it down to a battle of mental strength above all else, you’d have to give them the edge.
Ulster have the clash of the weekend but you’d have to think they ‘d secretly rather anyone else. When you’re missing Ruan Pienaar, Andrew Trimble, Dan Tuohy, Luke Marshall and more, the arrival of Toulon to town sounds somewhat like a death knell. Not that they don’t have immensely talented replacements for the injured, but they have lost a lot of the cooler heads they tend to need to overcome this level of opposition. Last week against Leicester, they came within inches of finishing two points behind the Tigers only for some slight barmy army behaviour in attack letting them down.
Toulon may not have been electric against Scarlets last week, and to be honest only had the game won in the final fifteen, but unlike most French sides, travelling away from home has never had much effect on them (arguably due to how few of them are French). They will come into town off the back of a win, regardless of the style in which they obtained it.
As with all crunch games if Ulster were to win this, it could be season defining. Yes of course they’ll have to travel to Toulon in the New YEar, but sure that’s ages away. If Neil Doak and his motley crew can produce a miracle match tomorrow then Ulster’s season would be right back on track and no sooner than required to be honest, the opposite outcome tomorrow could have a detrimental effect on Ulster’s season
Finally, the “underperformers”. Leinster really shot themselves in the foot between 2010 and 2012. Winning back to back Heineken Cups and an Amlin. Winning 2 Celtic titles in a row then too. Come downs are never easy, and hell whenever they trail by any score all the masses can think of is Northampton in the 2011 final. Then we remember they haven’t got Johnny anymore. Ah it’s all gone to pot.
Well, no. I’ll admit myself to having been somewhat pessimistic about Leinster’s form so far this season, but even I can admit when I’ve had the blinkers on a little too much. Things aren’t entirely awful for Leinster, injury list considered, and this wouldn’t be the first season to see them peak well late into the game. There is one consistent problem however, and that is the out half situation.
I don’t necessarily mean that in the simplistic “Gopperth out” sense, rather in the sense that Jimmy Gopperth playing out half is fine, once Ian Madigan is on his shoulder against Castres this weekend. Failing that, Madigan at 10. Rob Kearney’s injury concerns may be dictating Madigan’s spell at full back, but he isn’t the only option and he is such a wasted talent in said position. It’s simple – how can the one player who is so consistently the spark for the team be relegated so often to “whatever position is in trouble”? Rotate Luke Fitzgerald into the team at fullback, a position he has openly professed a love for. Yes, he is lacking fitness and game time, but the way Leinster’s injury profile is at the minute and could become Matt O’Connor will have to take a risk somewhere. Fitzgerald is an experienced player, not far off the phenomenon of players like Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll sitting straight back into the first XV. Get Madigan to 10, or at worst 12. There are too many leaders missing from this team, players like Madigan need to be in central positions. Do that, and they stand a chance.
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