Dual blogged on Irish News Review
New competition, new beginnings and a chance for Munster to reclaim some of their former glory. That is what awaits Anthony Foley’s men on Saturday when they travel to meet Saracens. It is getting tired and it is beyond cliche to say it, but Munster are a backs to the wall team at their finest moments. When all is required and all can be lost, that is when Munster sincerely find their place in European Rugby. There is no better recent example than that exemplary performance against Harlequins in 2013 when Munster were all but written off and came out blazing to send ‘Quins home licking their wounds. Of course, these scenarios don’t always go their way but there seems to just be a little in the air to suggest that won’t be the case this weekend.
Paul O’Connell has been talking a lot about retirement, or at least he hasn’t been entirely dodging the questions about it. Is there any scarier notion in the world than Paul O’Connell potentially playing out the last 18 months or so of his professional career and going more hell for leather than ever before? He smells blood and wants silver, opponents beware. Saracens have been a little less than perfect this season, in particular when compared to last year. They nearly seem as though they didn’t recover from that Heineken Cup final thumping to Toulon. Add that to the loss of George Kruis due to suspension and the question mark that still hangs over Owen Farrell regarding form and fitness and Munster could be on to a winner here. Artificial pitch? Pfft. All the right buzz is being made about all the wrong things ahead of this game.
Munster don’t have much in the way of injury concerns ahead of Saturday, with the obvious exception of Conor Murray. Such is the man’s talents and with the retirement of a certain out half in 2013 he has become play maker number one for Munster, more so than even Ian Keatley or J.J Hanrahan and Murray’s absence will be felt greatly this weekend. Not that it will be the undoing if the team, but you would certainly give then a better shot with him involved. Still, with the rest fighting fit this is there’s for the taking. With a little doubt in Sarries they couldn’t ask for more and we could be facing down a significant turning point for Munster.
Leinster arguably face a much easier challenge against Castres in the RDS tomorrow. The French side are down and out and are bringing a “B” side to Dublin. But of course with the French this is not always a given that they are in for a thumping; in fact it rarely is. Leinster too are still a bit far from vintage and the loss this week of Zane Kirchner won’t help them too much either. Once again too Matt O’Connor has inexplicably gone for Ian Madigan at 12 and Jimmy Gopperth at 10, though the sight of Gordon D’Arcy warming the bench is a likely indicator that his hand was forced.
A bonus point is there for the taking for the Blue Army however and thanks to their hit and miss December double it is crucial for this and next week’s game. ‘Quins are likely to beat Wasps this weekend though the bonus may elude them. Leinster will be aware that their only safe passage to the knock outs is via two bonus points week on week, given that Harlequins will likely thump and downtrodden Castres next weekend. Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald will need to follow through on speculation and promise in the centre and Gopperth will need to be in that higher register he has hit at times over the season. The pack is there up front to do the business, the backs are the ones that need to come through.
Ulster, well there’s not a whole lot can be said. Just under a year ago as they faced into a quarter final against Saracens it was clear that too many of the players were making reference to this being their last chance. With a large part of the South African contingent moving on, most saw last season as the one in which Ulster would come good on all their form had promised. Alas, Jerome Garces had other plans and they fell agonisingly short.
What is crucial however is that Ulster never seemed to pick themselves up again. A season that had started brilliantly has now fallen away around them. There have been backroom shake ups as well as players leaving of course and this is never a positive influence on a team, but Ulster have taken it all a little too much to heart it would seem. Many look at their collapse against Toulon as the tipping point but I would personally argue they were I’m bugger trouble when they just couldn’t find their way against Scarlets in the return fixture of their double. Never have they looked more lost at sea. It would be great if we could have faith that they will at least save face and front up for these last two Champion’s Cup games but realistically, flu virus or not, Toulon will surely just have too much for them. This isn’t the end of any road for them as a squad, and there are big things to come next season as well as the perpetual carrot of a Pro 12 title to play for, but Ulster’s European dream looks to be surely done and dusted already and it is now about damage control.
Connacht will be televised! Sky Sports 2 will be showing Connacht’s crunch game against Exeter Chiefs this Sunday and there is simply no excuse not to tune in. Connacht have far and away been the most exciting of the Irish teams to watch this season and their previous Challenge Cup encounters have, tragically, been untelevised. Thank the powers that be that finally all the rest can see what they have been missing. Some are arguing that Pat Lam would nearly be happy for Connacht’s interest in the Challenge Cup to end before the knock outs, such is the importance of the Pro 12 now that it is their sole means of Champion’s Cup qualification. Whilst I understand where this hypothesis is coming from, I can’t agree with it. Connacht do not have any silverware to their name, hell they haven’t even made it to a Challenge Cup final before. Of course qualification into the top tier is number one on their priority list for the season, but if winning the Challenge Cup were to even come as mere consolation it would still be a good return. All of this season will feed into yet another step up from them next year, regardless of outcome.
Craig Ronaldson at 10. Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry in the centre (the latter filling in for the regrettably injured Bundee Aki). Pat Lam isn’t taking this anything but seriously. Sure, Connacht aren’t exactly spoiled for squad depth but with Danie Poolman, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You and Willie Faloon all lining up in the starting XV he is showing his intent – trophies are where Connacht’s heads are at right now. Given that both will face deflated French opposition next week, this head to head at the top of the table will decide qualifiers for sure. Exeter lead Connacht thanks to two bonus points more than the Westerners but should Connacht overturn them this weekend, with both sides likely to bonus point their opponents next weekend, the pool will then be Connacht’s and a quarter final awaits. Not a bad return from a team who seemed to be predestined to forever knock and never enter.
Image courtesy of zimbio.com