Well, with the November Internationals over, the focus returns to the Heineken Cup and all 4 Irish provinces have games on this weekend. Leinster and Munster, especially, have matches that they must win if they are to stay in the competition.
LEINSTER face off against Northampton (Sat @ 6) away, in Pool 1. Leinster are currently top of the pool and are the only team in the pool to remain undefeated (2 wins out of 2). Tomorrow is part 1 of a 2 match derby, with the return fixture taking place next week, in Dublin.
Leinster coach, Matt O’Connor, has picked the strongest possible side for tomorrow’s clash. Apart from the injured Fergus McFadden, O’Connor has a full panel to pick from. He had a dilemma picking the team as all the Leinster players have being playing well in recent weeks.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Leo Cullen, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Jimmy Gopperth, 23ane Kirchner.
The Irish players certainly, but Leinster have also managed to win both their Rabo games while the stars were on Irish duty, showing that Leinster ‘B’ are still a formidable side. O’Connor has also favoured home-grown talent, with Dave Kearney getting the nod ahead of (South African) Zane Kirchner and Ian Madigan chosen ahead of Jimmy Gopperth (Australia).
Kearney had a great game against New Zealand 2 weeks ago and will want to build on that performance, while it’s important for Ireland’s future that Madigan get as many games as possible at no.10, especially with concerns about Jonny Sexton’s health due to the protracted French season.
There’s some real talent in the Leinster side, with Heaslip and O’Brien outclassing the All Blacks and Devin Toner coming of age in that New Zealand game. All in all, Leinster have the strongest side available and will want to build on that.
Leinster haven’t played Northampton since the 2011 Heineken Cup final, which turned into 1 of the most amazing finals in recent years. Northampton completely crushed Leinster in the first-half, only for the Irish province to come back with a vengeance in the 2nd 40 and win the Cup, their revival due to a stern talking-to given by Jonny Sexton.
Leinster will be without Sexton for the return game tomorrow, but Northampton are also missing some star players, due to injuries. Northampton have been on a great run recently, having won 7 of their 9 Premiership games (putting them 2nd on the table). They’re actually unbeaten this season in their home ground.
The English club has paid for their good form, though, with a long injury list, including Ben Foden (the English full-back could be out for a long part of the season). Northampton do have a very potent attacking weapon, though, in the shape on new signing, George North.
North was 1 of the real stars of the recent Lions series and has continued his great play for Wales. Both Kearney’s (and Luke Fitzgerald) will have their hands full in marking the giant Welsh wing. Leinster have the advantage but it’s imperative that they win this game if they are to have any chance of qualifying from the pool.
Leinster don’t have a strong enough lead in the pool to rely on a draw. While a win is most important, to help their chances of qualifying, they need to deny Northampton a losing bonus point as well (7 points or less behind victors).
MUNSTER have a very difficult game against Perpignan (also part 1 of a derby between the 2 sides), though, unlike Leinster, they have part 1 taking place at home. Munster are actually trailing Perpignan in Pool 6 and will have to win both games if they want to proceed past the pool stages. Munster have usually always thrived on pressure.
A very strong Munster side will take the field for the Thomond Park clash (Sunday @ 12.45). Munster are doing very well in the Rabo at the moment, being top of the table. Perpignan, on the other hand, are struggling in the Top 14. They’re currently ranked 9th in the table.
Munster are strong favourites for the game but can’t underestimate the French side.
15 Felix Jones, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Sean Dougall, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16 Duncan Casey, 17 James Cronin, 18 BJ Botha, 19 Billy Holland, 20 CJ Stander, 21 Cathal Sheridan, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Denis Hurley
ULSTER remain undefeated in Pool 5, having won their toughest games already in the pool (terrific wins against Leicester and Montpellier). The Irish province go up against Treviso on Saturday (6) and should have a easy enough time in the game (though nothing is certain). Ulster should try their best to get the 4 try bonus point (as Leicester did when they played Treviso) to increase their lead in the pool.
Ulster have been hit with injuries though, with both Rory Best and Tommy Bowe casualties of the November Series. Ulster are currently ranked 4th in the Rabo table, having won 6 of their 9 games. Ulster should win this game comfortably.
CONNACHT have a very tough assignment, going up against Heineken Cup giants, Toulouse (Sunday @ 3). Connacht have actually done very well in the Heineken so far, having come close to beating pool favourites Saracens and crushing Zebre. Toulouse are a different matter altogether, though.
Toulouse are a formidable side, currently ranked 2nd in the Top 14, though they’ve just won over half their games. Toulouse have also won both their opening Heineken Cup games (with a try bonus point against Zebre). Connacht are currently very bottom of the Rabo table, with 1 solitary win.
The best Connacht can hope for is a spirited performance against the 4-time Heineken champions.
Speaking of the Heineken: There’s been further developments relating to the future of the tournament itself. With it looking like there would be no Heineken Cup after 2014, the European rugby unions (France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy) dug in their heals and announced that the Heineken would go ahead and would feature teams from all 5 countries (England were completely left out of the discussion).
The French union pulled rank with their clubs and the French clubs have agreed to return to the Heineken competition, at least for another season (apparently, the French rugby president had to bribe the different clubs to stay in the tournament!).
Where this leaves the English clubs is uncertain. No representative of the RFU was invited to the talks and the English rugby union and the English clubs seem to have been left out of the Heineken Cup entirely. The English have announced that they will boycott the competition.
It would seem that the main (and only remaining) bone of contention between the ERC (governing body of the Heineken Cup) and the English clubs remains the dispute about who will govern any club competition. The English clubs feel that it should be the clubs themselves that have power as it is the clubs that are responsible for the revenue.
The ERC, on the other hand, believe that the power should remain with itself, as it directs the future of rugby in Europe. Whatever the argument, the English clubs look set on going their own way (though their is talk about the Welsh clubs breaking away from the Welsh Rugby Union and joining with the English clubs.
The matter remains unclear, but it looks likely that there will be a Heineken Cup in 2015. Hopefully by then the English clubs will have settled their problems and returned to the fold. The whole thing is similar to the 5 Nations in the later 1990’s.
The RFU decided to break ranks and set up their own television deal with the then fledgling Sky Sports (the countries had always had an agreement with BBC, and RTE, to broadcast the 5 Nations matches). The RFU felt that they should have a better share of any revenue generated by the tournament.
The deal with Sky didn’t last very long and the RFU were welcomed back to the fold. It’s now a similar story with the English clubs (though, ironically Sky Sports are now on the other side of the debate). The English clubs broke away from the ERC and set up their own deal with British Telecom (BT) who have entered the market of Sports television coverage. The ERC already had a deal with Sky Sports.
The English clubs don’t have many options. The Welsh clubs stance is unclear, but to be honest a tournament featuring just Wales and English clubs isn’t going to be that much of a draw. The English clubs are also talking about a cross-hemisphere tournament featuring clubs from South Africa but that seems unrealistic.
Hopefully the English clubs will give up their boycott and return to the Heineken. The ERC agreed to a lot of their original requests/demands and the clubs current stance seems to due to stubbornness (dare I say childishness). It’s getting a bit tiresome to be frank.
I don’t know how the players feel about the whole mess. I know most players in Europe consider the Heineken Cup to be the supreme competition and would like to be able to participate in it. The clubs should listen to the players. I think the clubs stand to lose more if they drop out of the Heineken Cup entirely.