By Brendan Cole
Connacht and Ulster face two of the stronger English sides in a pair of matches that will play a key role in determining the pecking order of the final eight in this season’s Heineken Cup.
The Westerners will get the day’s rugby under way (1.35pm).
Their hopes of progressing are, unfortunately, slim but they can take some pride in the fact that they are one of only ten teams with any hope at all of getting to the next stage.
Ulster have already qualified, but will end up with either a home or away quarter-final based on their result against Leicester.
A win will put them through as a top seed and probably set up a quarter-final clash with Saracens.
That will, of course, depend on the outcome of this afternoon’s clash between Saracens and Connacht.
The current Aviva Premiership leaders, poorly supported and usually purveyors of a very functional style of rugby, can expect a stiff examination.
Connacht are relatively unencumbered by injuries and have been able to name a very strong side.
After backing youth in recent weeks, Pat Lam has added a strong strain of experience to the mix by slotting Gavin Duffy and Dan Parks into the backline at full-back and out-half respectively.
There is still plenty of young talent in the starting team with Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion among those who have shown they are more than capable of performing well at the highest level of club rugby.
The return of the highly rated young New Zealander Jake Heenan at openside flanker boosts the pack and should help Connacht pose a problem at the breakdown, while John Muldoon’s selection at number eight in the absence of McKeon means Connacht have a back-row of three wing-forwards.
That may be no bad thing as a victory in this match will require a huge defensive performance – ideally a repeat of the massive tackling effort that did for Toulouse.
If Connacht can manage that, along with a second dose of the superb attacking ambition and execution that was delivered in France, they might just be able to provide a performance, if not quite a result, to set the hearts of rugby romantics fluttering again.
Ulster face Leicester a few hours later (6pm) and, on paper at least, have a good chance of upsetting the odds at Welford Road. Mark Anscombe’s men won at the midlands venue as recently as last season, and there is no doubt that the Tigers are not quite the force of old.
As ever, Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa are the key men and give Ulster a base of accurate game management and scrum solidity that the rest of the team can work off.
Jared Payne has been doing that better than most in recent weeks and is the key to igniting the backline while Chris Henry, Rory Best, Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy have important roles to play up front against a Leicester side that must be faced down in the tight, and disrupted on the deck.
If one or two of the homegrown backline players, the likes of Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall, can hit their best form, Ulster may just manage to finish the Pool stages unbeaten and take that top seeding.
Heineken Cup predictons:
Saracens 31-14 Connacht
Leicester 10-19 Ulster
Saracens v Connacht
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Charlie Hodgson, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick (capt), George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Kelly Brown, Ernst Joubert.
Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, James Johnston, Alistair Hargreaves, Jackson Wray, Neil de Kock, Owen Farrell, Chris Wyles.
Connacht: Gavin Duffy; Fionn Carr, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry, Nathan White, Michael Swift, Craig Clarke (capt), Andrew Browne, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon.
Replacements: Jason Harris Wright, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Mick Kearney, George Naoupu, Paul O'Donohoe, Darragh Leader, Tiernan O'Halloran.
Leicester v Ulster
Leicester: M Tait; N Morris, M Smith, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (capt), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane.
Replacements: R Hawkins, B Stankovich, F Balmain, L Deacon, S Mafi, D Mélé, O Williams, S Hamilton.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (cpt), D Tuohy, R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Herring, T Court, R Lutton, I Henderson, R Diack, P Marshall, D McIlwaine, M Allen.
Live and exclusive radio coverage of Leicester v Ulster on Saturday Sport from 2.45pm on Saturday 18 January on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).