By Tadhg Peavoy
Four wins from four last weekend for the Irish provinces represented a tasty bit of business, but that quartet of victories needs to be backed up over the coming weekend with four more should the sides hope to keep their bids for last eight qualification on track.
Last week’s shock victory for Connacht over Toulouse marked the Westerners greatest ever win, but in truth, if they are turned over by the same opposition this weekend at the Sportsground, then last week’s victory in the south of France will seem very hollow.
With two games to go, Pat Lam’s team lie one point behind Europe’s most-winning side on nine points, with the Premiership’s high-fliers Saracens also one point ahead of Connacht.
The Westerners will never get a better chance to get make the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition – with the tournament as it currently stands anyhow, with English clubs involved – and they will know it.
Reports of a flu outbreak lying 12 of Connacht’s team low are worrying. That said, mind games are part-and-parcel of modern day sport, and the fact Connacht’s side only includes three changes indicates that fears over illness may not be as bad as first feared.
With Jason Harris-Wright and Rodney Ah You coming in to the front row in place of Sean Henry and Nathan White, the Westerners front row is in fact stronger than last week, while Galwegian Eoin McKeon’s inclusion looks a tactical decision. As Michael Swift is out with a broken cheek bone, his potential as an impact sub is gone, and one imagines George Naoupu will be used to fill that crucial role.
Man-for-man, the concept of taking on Toulouse for any side is a worrysome prospect.
The French team don't have a €35.4m budget for nothing. Literally across the entire XV they are dangerous. But damn it all to hell, with a weather forecast that reads "Saturday will be wet and very windy with spells of heavy rain. Southwest gales will occur widely with some severe or damaging gusts” and the confidence that Connacht now know they can beat their famous French opponents, then why not another four points?
Lam spoke this week of ‘the process of winning the game’ and that is key here. Connacht must make it physically horrible for Toulouse. The breakdown must be ferociously contested, while the scrum and lineout performances need to be flawless. If the Irish side can get those three key areas right they can win this tie.
Connacht’s defence was peerless last week, and a repeat of that, as well as hitting Toulouse around the fringes of the scrum and breakdown, before moving to the wide channels where the danger men of Fionn Carr and Robbie Henshaw can do damage to the French, will most likely be the process of attack for Connacht.
Every Irish rugby supporter will be quietly optimistic, but one cannot help but think, in the cold light of day, that Toulouse will refuse to be broken twice in-a-row.
Verdict: Toulouse to win by five.
Connacht: 15. Robbie Henshaw; 14. Fionn Carr, 13. Eoin Griffin, 12. Dave McSharry, 11. Matt Healy; 10. Dan Parks, 9. Kieran Marmion; 1. Brett Wilkinson, 2. Jason Harris Wright, 3. Rodney Ah You, 4. Mick Kearney, 5. Craig Clarke (c), 6. John Muldoon, 7. Jake Heenan, 8. Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: 16. Sean Henry, 17. Denis Buckley, 18. Nathan White, 19. Andrew Browne, 20. George Naoupu, 21. Frank Murphy, 22. Craig Ronaldson 23. Gavin Duffy.
Toulouse: 15. Clément Poitrenaud; 14. Yoann Huget, 13. Florian Fritz, 12. Yann David , 11. Maxime Médard; 10. Lionel Beauxis, 9. Jean-Marc Doussain; 1. Schalk Ferreira, 2. Christopher Tolofua, 3. Census Johnston, 4. Romain Millo-Chluski, 5. Yoann Maestri, 6. Yannick Nyanga, 7. Thierry Dusautoir (c), 8. Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: 16. Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17. Gurthro Steenkamp, 18. Yohan Montes, 19. Joe Tekori, 20. Gillian Galan, 21. Gael Fickou, 22. Hosea Gear23. Sébastien Bézy.
As far as masterclasses go, Leinster’s display against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens last week was pretty much the true definition of it.
The English side did not get a sniff against Matt O’Connor’s charges, who gave their clearest indication yet that they will challenge for the European title this season.
The great sides - the current New Zealand group and the England side of 2003 for example – display that bloodthirsty desire to never stop wanting to crush teams, Leinster have had that in the past, and this side will want to display it again this week by dismantling Saints again.
Brian O’Driscoll was the magician for Leinster last week, his kick, and through-the-legs pass for Luke Fitzgerald’s opening brace epitomised what Leinster did: put simply they had far more class across every department of the game.
With O’Driscoll in the side Leinster purred, but the whole team was exquisite in the execution of their skills. When Jamie Heaslip crossed for Leinster’s third it was the culmination of superb rucking, retention and spreading the ball with pace and accuracy across the line for the number eight to cross the whitewash.
It’s hard to imagine Northampton taking another 33-point thumping this week - they surely will improve. But there are so many areas they struggled in last week, it's also hard to see them improving enough to stop the Leinster machine.
Like Connacht against Toulouse, Saints must get the basics very right against Leinster. Scrum, lineout, breakdown, retention and defence: they all must be near perfect. If they do that then they can begin to use their attacking talent, Ken Pisi, George North, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, to do damage to the Irish province.
The question marks remains. Can Dom Waldouck nullify O’Driscoll? Can Lee Dickson mark Eoin Reddan’s snipes out of the game? Can James Elliott choke up the space Luke Fitzgerald needs to thrive?
Can Samu Manoa prevent Heaslip’s efficiency from giving Leinster the upper hand in the Saints’ 22? Can the Northampton pack disrupt Leinster’s breakdown display? And can Saints use the drift defence effectively to stop them shipping early tries and keep the English side in it coming into the last quarter.
Saints may be able to manage some of these feats, but I highly doubt they will manage all of them.
Verdict: Leinster to win by 15.
Leinster: 15. Rob Kearney; 14. Dave Kearney, 13. Brian O'Driscoll, 12. Gordon D'Arcy, 11. Luke Fitzgerald; 10. Ian Madigan, 9. Eoin Reddan; 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Sean Cronin, 3. Mike Ross, 4. Devin Toner, 5. Mike McCarthy, 6. Rhys Ruddock, 7. Sean O'Brien, 8. Jamie Heaslip (c).
Replacements: 16. Aaron Dundon, 17. Michael Bent, 18. Martin Moore, 19. Leo Cullen, 20. Shane Jennings, 21. John Cooney, 22. Jimmy Gopperth 23. Zane Kirchner.
Northampton Saints: 15. Ken Pisi; 14. Jamie Elliott, 13. Dom Waldouck, 12. Luther Burrell, 11. George North; 10. Steve Myler, 9. Lee Dickson; 1. Alex Waller, 2. Dylan Hartley (c), 3. Salesi Ma'afu, 4. Courtney Lawes, 5. Christian Day, 6. Calum Clark, 7. Tom Wood, 8. Samu Manoa.
Replacements: 16. Mikey Haywood, 17. Ethan Waller, 18. Tom Mercey, 19. Sam Dickinson, 20. Phil Dowson, 21. Kahn Fotuali'i, 22. Glenn Dickson23. Tom Collins.
Munster’s hugely impressive 36-8 trouncing of Perpignan last week showed exactly how good Rob Penney’s side can be. The French team were blown away by Munster – pure and simple.
Cynics will point to the fact French sides are poor away from home in this tournament, and maybe there was a touch of that last week in Limerick.
But the style of Munster’s play must take a large slice of the credit. The southerners have always been at their zenith when they are direct and abrasive, which they were both against USAP, but they added to that superb offloading in the tackle and an ability to keep the ball alive with repeated success. Add those elements together and you have a very difficult side to face.
To win the return fixture, the French side will need to quell Munster’s ability to keep that ball alive and break into space in midfield.
The battle from 11 to 15 will come down to whether they can do just that. Casey Laulala, James Downey, Keith Earls, Felix Jones and Johne Murphy excel in this facet, and with the notable exception of former Munster man Lifiemi Mafi – now playing 13 for Perpignan – it is questionable whether the Catalan men have the wherewithal to do this.
Up front, Perpignan face a similarly uphill battle. The Munster pack’s efficiency in the maul, and in winning the breakdown set the platform for their backs to dazzle last week. Sean Dougall in particular was immense for Munster last time out.
They will be in similarly ebullient form this week. If the French give them an inch, they will take several miles. One feels the forward battle will be a tight affair this week, with Sébastien Vahaamahina, Alasdair Strokosch and Luke Narraway sure to raise their games and with it make this a much-closer battle than the first clash.
However, with their tails up, Munster might just be too strong once more.
Verdict: Munster to win by four.
Perpignan: 15. Joffrey Michel; 14. Richard Haughton, 13. Lifeimi Mafi, 12. Watisoni Votu, 11. Sofiane Guitoune; 10. Tommy Allan, 9. Nicolas Durand; 1. Sébastien Taofifenua, 2. Romain Terrain, 3. Paulica Ion, 4. Sébastien Vahaamahina, 5. Guillaume Vilaceca, 6. Dan Leo, 7. Alasdair Strokosch, 8. Luke Narraway (c).
Replacements: 16. Guilhem Guirado, 17. Pascal Cotet, 18. Jean Baptiste Custoja, 19. Justin Purll, 20. Tom Ecochard, 21. David Marty, 22. Tommaso Benvenuti 23. Jean-Pierre.
Munster: 15. Felix Jones; 14. Keith Earls, 13. Casey Laulala, 12. James Downey, 11. Johne Murphy; 10. Ian Keatley, 9. Cathal Sheridan; 1. James Cronin, 2. Damien Varley, 3. BJ Botha, 4. Donnacha Ryan, 5. Paul O'Connell, 6. Peter O'Mahony (c), 7. Sean Dougall, 8. James Coughlan.
Replacements: 16. Duncan Casey, 17. Dave Kilcoyne, 18. Stephen Archer, 19. Donncha O'Callaghan, 20. Tommy O'Donnell, 21. Duncan Williams, 22. JJ Hanrahan23. Denis Hurley.
Nothing short of a victory will be enough for Ulster this weekend against Treviso. They obliterated the Italians at home last week and more of the same is just what the doctor ordered for this week.
Mark Anscombe’s team are one of two sides left in the competition with a 100% record – Leinster being the other - and I fully expect them to come through this playing the same brand of entertaining, confidence-fuelled rugby.
I criticised Luke Marshall a few weeks ago for his tendency to get isolated in attack on occasions, but there was none of that last week, as he combined with, led and finished moves with aplomb. His partnership with Paddy Jackson at outhalf is getting better by the week, and is developing into something that will be a struggle for most of Europe’s defences to get to grips with.
With Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy all named to start, Ulster have all of their fierecest attackers - minus the injured Tommy Bowe - on the field. It will take a superhuman effort for Treviso to stop them, although the Italian side are a tough prospect at home.
First centre Alberto Sgarbi is always a fulcrum for Treviso, and so much of the good they do comes through him. They will use him as a target, while trying to spread wide to Luke McLean, Brendan Williams and Ludovico Nitoglia. How much change they will get from the Ulster defence is debateable.
Like Munster last week, Ulster’s pack was roaring. Their ability to get the basics right, while providing superb link play makes them one of the best eights in Europe. With John Afoa, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack and Roger Wilson all playing, Treviso are going to have a tough day at the office. They won't pull off an upset.
Verdict: Ulster to win by 12.
Treviso: 15. Brendan Williams; 14. Ludovico Nitoglia, 13. Michele Campagnaro, 12. Alberto Sgarbi, 11. Luke McLean; 10. Alberto Di Bernardo, 9. Edoardo Gori; 1. Michele Rizzo, 2. Leonardo Ghiraldini, 3. Lorenzo Cittadini, 4. Antonio Pavanello (c), 5. Cornelius van Zyl, 6. Alessandro Zanni, 7. Manoa Vosawai, 8. Robert Barbieri.
Replacements: 16. Giovanni Maistri, 17. Alberto de Marchi, 18. Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, 19. Valerio Bernabo, 20. Dean Budd, 21. Paul Derbyshire, 22. Tobias Botes 23. James Ambrosini.
Ulster: 15. Jared Payne; 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Darren Cave, 12. Luke Marshall, 11. Craig Gilroy; 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Tom Court, 2. Rob Herring, 3. John Afoa, 4. Johann Muller (c), 5. Dan Tuohy, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Sean Doyle, 8. Roger Wilson.
Replacements: 16. Nial Annett, 17. Callum Black, 18. Declan Fitzpatrick, 19. Neil McComb, 20. Mike McComish, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Michael Allen23. David McIlwaine.
Follow Tadhg Peavoy on Twitter here: @TPeavoy