The preliminaries are over and the real business begins this Friday with Round 5 of the Heineken Cup, followed almost immediately by the 6 Nations. From a sporting perspective, this is my favourite time of year and I am looking forward immensely to the next two months of rugby.
Mathematically, all 4 provinces can still qualify, although Connacht will need a BP win against Zebre, then beat Saracens and hope that Zebre can beat Toulouse which seems about as likely as the Westerners winning in Stade Ernest Wallon! Lightning might strike twice but 4 times seems unlikely. In reality what they need is to beat the Italians at the Sportsground on Saturday afternoon to consolidate on their fine, if ultimately fruitless, performances against Munster and Leinster over the festive period. Saracens are on fire at the moment, so avoiding a hockeying on the plastic at Barnet Copthill a week later would be a good result. I would be disappointed and a little surprised if Connacht don’t beat Zebre but, despite only having 2 wins this season, the Parma-based side are getting more difficult to beat so I suspect Connacht won’t manage the bonus point.
Ulster had a very mixed Christmas. Poor, bordering on abject, against Leinster, they were much better against Munster last Friday night. Their pack upped their physicality massively and were much better at the breakdown, despite struggling to stay on the right side of Monsieur Rolland. The welcome returns of Iain Henderson and Chris Henry as well as Nuck the Bruck off the bench helped a lot as did Ruan Pienaar who directed affairs with his usual aplomb. Ulster, aided by some ropey place-kicking by Keatley, should have been out of sight by half-time, but contrived to almost lose it due to some expert mauling by the Munster pack. There has been some concern at Ulster’s inability to stop the rolling maul, but any Munster pack drilled by Axel in the ignoble arts of putting 7 fatties between the ball carrier and the defenders (I know - I would be lauding the Ulster pack if the ball had been up the other jumper) is going to be tough to stop. Ulster, surely, will have learned from this, and with the return of Rory and, maybe, Johann Muller, they should be close to their best against Montpellier.
Montpellier, who cannot qualify after losing to Leicester at the death, have not fulfilled their potential this season and sit a disappointing 7th in the Top 14. Precedent suggests that they will struggle to get up for the game on Friday night and Ulster must take full advantage. A bonus point win would take Ulster to 23 points and almost certain qualification. However, given that Leicester are unlikely not to get the BP at Treviso, Ulster will probably still need to win at Welford Road to secure the much sought after home quarter-final.
With a close to full strength side, Jared Payne on top form and Montpellier with little to motivate them Ulster should win and I reckon they’ll secure the BP in the last quarter.
Leinster have by far the toughest assignment of the weekend. Castres are still in it and are unbeaten in the Stade Pierre Antoine for over a year and sit third in the Top 14. They have a massive pack and the excellent and much sought after Rory Kockott directing affairs from scrum-half. To win, Leinster will need to be at their very best, and certainly much better than they were at the Sportsground. Without SOB I think they’ll struggle, but a losing BP will keep them in it and with their superior head-head record against the Saints, they would still hold their destiny in their own hands.
Amazingly, Munster are in control of their group despite their shocking loss at Murrayfield in Round 1. Indeed they could, and probably should, secure qualification at Kingsholm on Saturday evening. This season Munster have, mostly, regained the winning habit even if they are yet to master the style of rugby to which Rob Penney aspires. Gloucester, on the other hand, are enduring a wretched season having lost 8 out of their 12 premiership games. Their home record (W3, L6) inspired this highly amusing tweet:
Credit where credit's due, Kingsholm is a pretty tough place to win. Just ask Nigel Davies.
— Welford the Tiger (@WelfordTheTiger) January 6, 2014
Munster, though, are not without their own problems. Shorn of Damien Varley and Mike Sherry due to injury, the promising but very inexperienced Duncan Casey will make his Heineken Cup debut. They also look a bit thin at scrum-half, with Cathal Sheridan struggling to make the game. Even so, I fancy Munster will be too strong, particularly up front against a scrum that was mangled by a 7-man Sarries scrum last weekend - and one of those 7 was Brad Barritt! Munster by 10.