By Brendan Cole
Are Munster or Leinster competing for one place or two?
The key is Montpellier’s clash with Toulon and while many have presumed a Montpellier win at home, Toulon’s desire to secure a high seeding should not be underestimated.
Owner Mourad Boudjella has invested so much over the past few seasons that his club cannot help putting out a strong side and the desire to play the quarter-final at home will be strong. Toulon have lost just three of 20 fixtures so far this year.
Two bonus points – one for four tries and one for finishing within seven – would virtually guarantee progression and even one bonus point could well be enough for Montpellier due to their sizeable try-count to date.
If Montpellier were to lose and Toulouse either win or fail to collect two bonus points in Leicester, Munster and Leinster could still go through together. In some scenarios, the Irish provinces may not even need bonus points.
Munster could yet regret last week’s failure to score four tries against Edinburgh. On that occasion, just as the rewards for a confrontational hour of rugby looked to be starting to come, Munster made a raft of changes and reverted to a looser style that saw them concede two tries in the final quarter.
This week’s team selection suggests that physicality will be at the core of the effort again, with James Downey starting at inside centre and a powerful back-row, though fit-again South African import CJ Stander is unavailable due to registration decisions taken earlier in the competition.
Ronan O’Gara’s absence due to suspension also presents a challenge, though the backline has not been thriving of late. Munster need accuracy and fluidity from the selected pair of Conor Murray and Ian Keatley.
Aside from anything Munster do, the key to this fixture is that Racing Metro have sent a weak side with big names like Juan Martin Hernandez, Fabrice Estabanez, Dmitri Szarzewski and the high-class tighthead Luc Ducalcon given the week off. Former England international Olly Barkley will lead the team from out-half and there are some decent operators like Sereli Bobo, Jacques Cronje and Julien Brugnaut in the mix. But Munster are at home and have the greater motivation. If they commit to carrying hard and making it a painful afternoon for Racing, the rewards should flow on the scoreboard.
Leinster’s predicament is more difficult. They barely beat Exeter at the RDS in Round One and the quality of the Devon-based team has been franked this season by home wins over Harlequins, Wasps and Saracens. It is worth noting that only two teams have left Sandy Park with bonus points (Bath and Clermont) since Exeter reached the Premiership in 2010.
Exeter will field a similar side to the one they sent to Dublin in Round One. The majority of the backline remains in place, including Ulster native Gareth Steenson, along with the back row trio that caused so many problems in the previous meeting. Former Australia international Dean Mumm comes in alongside captain Tom Hayes in the second row. Exeter are without frontline scrum-half Haydn Thomas and Gonzalo Camacho also misses out due to injury but overall, they have a strong squad out.
They give all the appearances of being up for this match and are a tough nut to crack for all but the very best. They also boast a well-honed scoring threat of their own.
But Leinster’s team selection is cause for hope, with all the best attacking players available to Joe Schmidt picked. The backline looked dangerous from all sorts of situations last week and with Eoin Reddan and Kevin McLaughlin drafted in, the scene is set for a higher tempo and more width. The return of Brian O’Driscoll should make for an even greater threat.
Results elsewhere could yet conspire to make even a four-try win insufficient, but Leinster look equipped to have a decent tilt at setting a target for Munster, if it comes down to that.
Ulster are through to the quarters but would dearly love to have their knockout match at Ravenhill.
Meeting the right opponent at the right time is crucial in this competition and a positive result in an under-the-radar clash like this meeting with Castres could set up the remainder of the tournament perfectly.
Castres lack the squad depth and big names of some of the other Top 14 outfits, but they have come out on the right side of a fair few narrow results to secure their current fourth-place in that league.
Mark Anscombe’s selection is bold with Ruan Pienaar at out-half and Paul Marshall at nine, with Paddy Jackson missing out. Marshall is adept at getting a high tempo out of his pack, a must for any team hoping to win on French soil, while Pienaar’s skills and decision making are as good as any half-back in Europe and gives Ulster a sniff of engineering a win.
Connacht’s European campaign will come to a close with what should be a third win from six with Italian side Zebre set to visit the Sportsground. Dan Parks is back in harness at out-half while Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry, recently elevated to the Ireland training squad, will play at full-back and inside-centre. Kieran Marmion will also be looking to impress after getting name-checked by Declan Kidney at the squad announcement.
For Zebre, loosehead Salvatore Perugini has a track-record of making things difficult at scrum time while captain Mauro Bergamasco can be a nuisance in open play. Former Italy blindside Josh Sole starts in the second row. Connacht derailed Biarritz’s bid for Heineken Cup glory back in December and should prove too strong for Zebre this time as well.
Ideally, three Irish provinces will progress and it may well be that Ulster will continue to forge ahead with Munster well placed to put one over Leinster in the event only one place is available.
Connacht 32-6 Zebre
Castres 19-21 Ulster
Exeter 13-25 Leinster
Munster 35-10 Racing Metro