Irish provinces target European seeding

Irish provinces target European seeding
Scrum half John Cooney has been in outstanding form for Ulster. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

European Champions Cup action returns to the forefront this weekend and all four Irish provinces could theoretically qualify for the knock-out stages, although Connacht’s hopes are all but gone.

Leinster have already qualified for the quarter-finals but will be striving for a high seeding in order to guarantee a home draw.

Ulster are strongly positioned for qualification having won all their matches thus far. Victory on Saturday away to Clermont would see them qualify with the opportunity then to gain a home seeding in their final game next week at home to Bath.

Munster have more to do in their effort to qualify for the latter stages. They face a tricky away tie to Racing on Sunday where defeat would probably end their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals.

With Saracens likely to overtake them by beating Ospreys, defeat for Munster would probably leave them on 16 points at the end of the pool stage, assuming they beat Ospreys next week, and that is unlikely to be enough to take them through.

Connacht face Toulouse on Saturday in Galway and then Montpellier away next week. It is a very tall order for them to qualify, especially with the injury list they currently have.

Andy Friend’s team took on Leinster at the RDS last Saturday and were trounced by the runaway leaders of Conference B.

Leinster remain unbeaten in all competitions – an exceptional achievement given the World Cup demands on their first-choice players earlier in the season.

Irish provinces target European seeding
4 January 2020; James Ryan of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 10 match between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

James Ryan has been outstanding during the past year for Leo Cullen’s team. He picked up a calf strain last weekend and Cullen will be hoping he passes his fitness test prior to this Sunday’s game at home to Lyon.

Leinster won a hard-fought match in Lyon in October and with the French team unlikely to qualify, even if they beat Leinster this week, they may be tempted to field a weakened team and concentrate on the Top 14.

They currently lie second in the French league and are likely to place greater emphasis on sustaining that position rather than making a futile attempt to qualify in the Heineken Cup.

There are so many of the younger Leinster players that have excelled recently that Cullen will have a real headache trying to determine what his strongest XV currently is.

Johnny Sexton is making good progress in his rehabilitation from a knee ligament strain but is unlikely to play this week, particularly with the Six Nations nearly upon us.

The backrow has been an area of exceptional strength for Cullen’s team. Caelan Doris and Max Deegan have been competing for the number 8 shirt in Jack Conan’s absence, and both have been outstanding.

 

Many scribes are predicting that Doris, in particular, might push CJ Stander for the green jersey in the Six Nations.

Josh van der Flier is still recovering from a nasty head injury sustained in the recent match with Ulster and may not take part this weekend.

Will Conners has been in eye-catching form during the past few weeks, and Cullen will have no fears fielding a backrow of Rhys Ruddock, Conners and Doris.

With Harlequins and Bath now out of the running in Ulster’s group, it has become a straight fight between Dan McFarland’s team and Clermont Auvergne for top spot.

There is every likelihood that both will qualify for the latter stages, but the winner of the group will be hoping to get a home quarter-final.

Ulster are currently one-point ahead but will probably need to win this weekend in order to top the group.

Racing are playing some sparkling rugby at present and Munster’s defeat at the hands of Ulster last weekend will have done nothing for their confidence leading up to this decisive game.

 

Johann van Grann’s team have a way of lifting themselves for the Heineken Cup and despite Racing’s recent form they will be wary of the threat posed by Munster.

After the penultimate group matches this weekend, the picture will become much clearer with regard to the line-up for the knock-out stages.

Leinster are still favourites for the trophy but Saracens are likely to take a keener interest in the competition if they qualify for the quarter-finals.

Ulster are in great form at present and their game with Clermont is one of this weekend’s most eagerly anticipated matches.

Munster will be hoping that they can pluck another rabbit out of the hat, otherwise their chances will probably have gone.


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