After four wins in the Pro12 at the weekend the provinces return to European action
By Phil Rice
There is no respite from season defining matches for Ireland’s leading players as all four provinces face crucial Champions Cup matches this weekend.
Theoretically all the provinces can qualify for the latter stages but some have a better chance than others. The next two weekends feature back to back matches against the same opposition and traditionally these matches go a long way to determining the teams who will feature in the knock-out stages.
Leinster and Munster face English Premiership opposition, never an easy task.
Munster come up against an old foe in Leicester Tigers. Munster lost out to Leicester in the 2002 final of the Heineken Cup when the infamous ‘hand of Back’ incident took place. Neil Back handling the ball in the scrum in the dying moments with Munster threatening to score.
There have been further memorable matches between these two sides, notably when Ronan O’Gara landed a monstrous penalty in the final minute at Welford Road in 2006 to beat a powerful Leicester team by two points.
Of course Munster memorably went on to win their first Heineken Cup that year.
Since the devastating news of Anthony Foley’s untimely death in Paris, Munster have been in inspired form winning all six matches they have played. They beat Glasgow for a second time during this period last Friday when they recorded a 16-15 away victory.
Leicester will be well aware of the influence of the home crowd at Thomond Park, particularly in the light of Foley’s sad demise. The match is sure to be another very emotional occasion and a victory for Munster would put them in a strong position at the head of Pool 1, with a game in hand.
The game in hand occurred as a result of the announcement of Foley’s death in Paris when Munster were preparing to play Racing 92. Leicester need to win to keep their hopes alive in a very competitive Pool. The match promises to be something special.
Leinster face Northampton in Franklins Gardens on Friday evening. There is considerable history between these sides too. Northampton were cruising 22-6 at half -time of the 2011 Heineken Cup final when Leinster exploded into action and eventually won 33-22, in probably the most famous turn-around in the Cup’s history.
Northampton took some time to recover from that setback and there is no doubt that it still lingers in their memory.
Leinster players were heavily involved in Ireland’s memorable November international series and most of them were rested last weekend when despite relying on a largely second string side they comfortably beat Newport Dragons 28- 15.
Confidence is high for these players and it should be a rousing match in Northampton. England’s captain Dylan Hartley will return to club duty and with Courtney Lawes in outstanding form for his country, the home team will be pumped up for this match.
Leinster top Pool 4 after two matches, having beaten Castres and narrowly losing away to Montpellier. The losing point in France may yet prove to be vital in this very close pool. Despite being last in the pool, Northampton have also won one and lost one, so the importance of Friday’s result cannot be overstated.
Leinster are likely to be without Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien who are both recovering from hamstring strains sustained in the recent Autumn internationals.
Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw are working their way through head injury protocols and decisions on them will be made later in the week.
Ulster face Clermont Auvergne at the Kingspan in the lunchtime match on Saturday. The French side are one of the favourites for this seasons Cup. With a powerful pack and pacey backs they will be a handful for Ulster.
A disappointing away defeat to Bordeaux, followed by a narrow victory over Exeter leaves Ulster precariously hanging on to hopes of qualifying. A home victory in this week’s match is essential if Ulster are to remain in contention for a place in the latter stages.
They will badly miss Jared Payne who will be out of action for at least 3 months with a kidney injury he picked up in the Australian match.
On Sunday Connacht face the unenviable task of playing away to Wasps. They trounced Treviso 47-8 at the weekend and seem to have regained their mojo which carried them to the Pro12 championship last season.
They currently lead Pool 2 with victories over Toulouse and Zebre. Wasps have beaten Zebre and drawn with Toulouse. It is quite possible that two teams will emerge from this pool and Connacht will be hoping for at worst a losing bonus point at the weekend.
The following week all these teams face each other again in the reverse fixture. Winning this week can give a side an important psychological advantage.