By Brendan Cole
The Irish provinces go in search of crucial points in the first of the back-to-back fixtures that will play a huge role in deciding the eventual destination of this season’s Heineken Cup.
We are still months from the final but the crux of the Heineken Cup is arguably this weekend and next, with results in the back-to-back games set to play a key role in determining pool success, seedings and the eventual finalists.
Virtually every team that started with a realistic target of making it to the decider is still in with a chance at this stage. That list of true contenders will be drastically shorter in a fortnight’s time.
Leinster dropped out at this stage last season when, after almost securing victory in France, they suffered a home defeat to Clermont in the return fixture.
This time, Leinster’s task is easier with Northampton, instead of Clermont, standing between them and a dominant position in the pool.
Although they famously beat Munster in the 2000 final, Northampton’s meetings with Irish provinces in recent years has not been happy ones and generally, they have tended to come up just short of the very top level in Europe. Even their run to the 2011 final was achieved without a victory over a really big gun.
A summer of good recruitment that saw Alex Corbisiero, Kahn Fotuali’i and George North added to their ranks meant they looked set to be a much tougher proposition this season, but injuries have reduced the impact of those new signings with only North of that trio available.
George Pisi’s suspension for a tip tackle during during Samoa’s defeat in Dublin also reduces their options and means the more staid Stephen Myler is at out-half.
The main focus for Leinster will be on competing with Northampton’s abrasive pack.
Courtney Lawes, Samu Manoa, Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood are confrontational players capable of knocking Leinster out of stride in the collisions.
At half-back, Lee Dickson had been keeping Fotuali’i out of the team even before he was injured and while he lacks the zip of the Samoan, brings size and a solid all round game.
For Leinster’s part, an exciting backline that includes Ian Madigan instead of Jimmy Gopperth and a potential advantage at the scrum looks like forming the basis of their challenge. Keeping the ball out of touch should prove a smart move with the Saints lineout one of the best around.
It will be tight, but if the likes of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip can soak up enough punishment, and dish out some of their own, Leinster look to have the weapons to snatch an away win.
At the draw, Ulster would have looked at their back-to-back meetings with Benetton Treviso as a very inviting pair of fixtures, but they will also be wary of the ever-improving Italians, who have a home RaboDirect Pro12 win over Munster already this season.
Franco Smith has announced that he is to step down as head coach after these two games, bringing an end to what has to be considered a successful seven-season stint, and that should add to Treviso’s motivation.
For their part, Ulster have fielded something close to their strongest XV. Chris Henry’s continued absence sees Irish-qualified Australian Sean Doyle handed an opportunity to start at openside and it will be interesting to see what impact the 22-year-old makes.
With John Afoa named at number three, the Ulster scrum has the ideal cornerstone, and with attacking talents Jared Payne, Ruan Pienaar and Craig Gilroy all in harness, the backline looks to have more than enough pace and quality to get the job done.
Munster will also be looking for victory in their clash with to Perpignan. South African duo CJ Stander and BJ Botha drop to the bench, with James Coughlan and Stephen Archer preferred for starting roles. That quality among the replacements may well come in handy though if the starting XV hit their straps, and Ian Keatley and Conor Murray get everything ticking around them, Perpignan could find themselves struggling to keep pace.
There are plenty of familiar faces in the Perpignan XV with Welsh exile James Hook set to captain the home side from full-back, while Alastair Strokosch and Luke Charteris are included in the pack and Italian star Tomasso Benvenuti starts in the centre.
French opposition is never easy, and there is a sense that with a mid-table Top 14 finish looking likely to be their lot, the closer Perpignan get to possible qualification the tougher they will become to beat.
Munster can expect plenty of pressure at scrum time and if they are sucked into a grappling match it could spell trouble.
Connacht, in abject form in the Rabo Pro12, have the toughest task of all in the shape of a trip into the lion’s den to face Toulouse. The hosts are not exactly taking the task lightly with a sprinkling of star names across the XV.
Given the difficulties they have had, anything but a hammering will constitute a good outing. They have in the past pulled out performances with their backs to the wall and the motivation of playing one of Europe’s top sides as a complete underdog.
Heineken Cup Predictions
Northampton 15-20 Leinster (6pm, Saturday)
Ulster 30-18 Treviso (6pm, Saturday)
Munster 25-15 Perpignan (12.45pm Sunday)
Toulouse 45-10 Connacht (3pm, Sunday)