One round left and relatively little change from Matt O’Connor. When your team has demolished Castres a week previous, why tinker with the formula I suppose. The other provinces aren’t quite as lucky, all three listing worrying injuries, but unfortunately only one of the three from south, north and west have any role potentially beyond this weekend in Europe.
Ironically, of the four provinces, you would have given Leinster the least likely chance of progression once the European Rugby Champion’s Cup kicked off. Yes Ulster and Munster had infinitely tougher pools but the eastern province was by far the team most in disarray. Post-Joe Schmidt the tries have very much dried up for Leinster. That is until last week when a hammering dished out to Castres saw them run in scores straight out of the 2010 – 2013 playbook. Down and out opposition who had nothing left in them be damned, Leinster still needed to put the moves together. Add to that the ever shortening injury list and the electric form of Luke Fitzgerald, Ian Madigan and Jamie Heaslip (not to mention Jack Conan, who could well be a deciding factor if he explodes from the bench).
Wasps however are running into a fine thread of form that Leinster will be less than happy about. Not to mention the fact that they were more than competitive in Round 1 at the RDS. A win of any nature here, in fact even a loss, will see Leinster through which, believe it or not, is one of the best positions they have found themselves in since 2012. Yes it is true that last year they simply needed the win to progress, but aside from that away performance against Northampton they didn’t look anyway near as threatening as they could have and never ran a risk of a home quarter final. The previous year non-qualification saw them slip into the Amlin Challenge Cup. For the first time since 2012 they are complete masters of their own destiny and stand to put themselves within the top four. Wasps will pose a threat for sure, any team with Christian Wade in the starting XV usually will, but if Leinster can ensure that last week was not a once off frustration inspired performance they will be untouchable.
Connacht could well have been qualified at this stage already were it not for a very uncharacteristic dip in the third quarter against Exter last week. They still stand a likely chance of progressing through as one of the best runners up however but Pat Lam has a season worst injury list to contend with.
Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry are both injured from last week which has left him no choice but to slot 23 year old Conor Finn into the centre, alongside Dannie Poolman who moves in from the wing. Mils Muliaina – proving himself rather talismanic in no time – serves as captain with John Muldoon, much like Conan for Leinster, sitting it out on the bench with eyes to make a second half impact. Connacht should not fear French opposition the way teams used to and they particularly shouldn’t fear French teams away from home. Their toppling of Toulouse in 2013 continued on with a comeback win against Bayonne in France last year and they of course hammered La Rochelle in Galway in the first round. If the French throw in the towel at the latter rounds of the top tier that goes doubly so for the Challenge Cup. Not that Connacht should take it lightly however and they will be playing with a slightly taped together squad, but there can’t be any other likely outcome.
Munster. There has been a lot of talk this week about trying to keep negativity down with regard to Munster’s form and the current state of red affairs. There’s talk of player recruitment needing a revamp, there’s talk of failing coaches and that bloody word is raising its head again, transition. Look, Munster are and always will be an absolute force of nature on reputation if nothing else. From a talent perspective however, as with all teams, it fluctuates. Not only were Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery ét al all incredible talents; they were incredible talents within the game as it was back then.
If Munster have one genuine problem it is that they still haven’t fully brought themselves forward into the modern game. Last week, two players lined up in red that played in Munster’s last European Final appearance; Denis Hurley and Paul O’Connell. Up until this season however, there were faces present for Munster that arguably shouldn’t have been, given the sun had likely set on their career. Like Leinster and their gargantuan talents in the backline, Munster have had that curious issue that they are far too spoiled for choice in the pack. How could you usurp O’Connell or Hayes or Flannery without injury doing the job for you? This season, though results would suggest otherwise, Munster have finally broken this mould somewhat with new talent occupying more and more slots across the pitch. Of course massive indigenous talent like J.J Hanrahan finds its way overseas instead of remaining with the province but there is only so much money in the pot at the end of the day and Munster’s investment is in Ian Keatley. Against Sale tomorrow they play for nothing but pride, but it is crucial that this fixture takes place at home. Munster do not just have pride in themselves to salvage, they need to salvage the pride that they and their support used to once hold in Thomond Park, that will be the true road to redemption for the southerners.
Finally we have Ulster this weekend, and it is hard to not just be downright pessimistic. Ulster have been on a downward spiral all season, starting out with the loss of Dan Tuohy and Ruan Pienaar and rolling from there. The Ulstermen cannot seem to recover from player loss at crucial times and it is absolutely killing them and their season. When we all worry about Connacht’s lack of depth within the squad it seems as though Ulster are the ones working on scraps when you see how shaken they get over a few players absences.
Quite simply, it has to stop. Sure, some players have left, others have retired. The injuries have been less than ideal. But Ulster just look hollow. Last week won’t be forgotten easily, with Ulster realistically being beaten 60 nil. Against Leicester they have the chance to kick start the latter half of their season and aim for the Pro 12 that still eludes them. They deserve more.
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