To say that Connacht and Zebre are familiar foes is somewhat of an understatement. With this being the second successive year that the sides have been drawn against each other in the Heineken Cup, as well as the typical Rabo meetings, tomorrow will actually be the sixth time that they've met in just thirteen months. The good news is that Connacht have won the previous five - the bad is that few have been as comfortable as this dominance suggests.
Even the most ardent pessimist would admit this is a great opportunity for Connacht to get back to winning ways. Our last victory in any competition came against Zebre in Round 1 of the league, and while it wasn't the best performance it was a game which saw one fairly limited-looking side overcome another. Since then, going on the evidence of last week, it's Connacht who have pressed on and improved more than Zebre, though to focus only on the Saracens game and not the disappointing run in the weeks before that may not be the most thorough research.
It's not just the Sarries game that makes me confident heading into this weekend though. One of the main problems this year has been in defence, when the opposition are putting ball through hand. Zebre aren't bad at this - they've scored four points more per game than we have - but they've scored just 12 points in their last two games. And now that James So'oialo is bypassing his permit problems, and Dave McSharry is returning from injury, Zebre's hopes of turning that around will hopefully be even more difficult. Ronan Loughney and Matt Healy return this week, and Brett Wilkinson's injury isn't as bad as it looked on Friday night, though John Muldoon's loss is a blow against an ever-improving Italian pack.
This is Zebre's Heineken Cup, in a nutshell, as it's the game they're always most likely to win. And while Connacht put heart, soul and the kitchen sink into their loss on Friday, Zebre offered little resistance to Toulouse. If this means a fresher Zebre side are able to hold off their visitors, then I wouldn't be surprised. However, the Connacht of old which targeted games and blew hot and cold from one week to the next is no more, and the collective sense that last Friday's performance needs to be built on should be enough to see us bring home the bacon from Parma.
Getting through the Heineken Cup is all about maintaining steady momentum and winning your home games. The tired old cliché of not being able to win the Heineken Cup in rounds one and two, but certainly being able to lose it, has been thrown around with gusto in the past week, and Matt O’Connor has enough competition expertise to realise how important it is to dispose of Castres.
The fixtures have been relatively kind to Leinster. French teams, other than the superpowers like Toulon and Clermont, generally wilt as the competition goes on, so getting a trip to France first up isn’t kind, as Northampton will testify. The Top 14 champions will make the visit to the RDS for the first time since suffering a 33-3 paddling in 2008, but on the other hand, assuming that they’ll roll over again would be foolish.
Like any good Top 14 team, this is a pack bolstered by serious beef. Richie Gray has made a strong start to life in the South of France, and is surrounded by quality forwards like beastly Uruguayan second row Capo-Ortega, Saffer turned France number 8 Antoine Claassen and the obligatory monstrous propping unit.
It’s number 9 Rory Kockott that makes this team tick though, again in traditional French style. The former Natal man is widely regarded as one of the best in the Top 14 business, and will kick penalties for fun if allowed. If Leinster are to win, they need to get to him. Scott Max Evans provides the backline bludgeon, while full back Brice Dulin is one to look out for too. Castres have sent a strong squad, and won’t come over ready to retreat as soon as the whistle blows, unlike some French teams who have darkened these shores in recent times.
For Leinster’s part, there are certainly areas to attack however. Castres’ lineout is a weaklink. Even with Gray, they lost 50% on their own throw against Lawes et al last Saturday, and Devin Toner, who has gone toe to toe with Gray in the RDS before and come out on top, will be licking his lips. There are also question marks over the depth of the Castres squad, and some key openside injuries in the back row mean Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip could again be key.
With injury to propping God Mike Ross likely to limit his gametime at best, Marty Moore will be tasked with taking the 3 jersey, and it’s another step up for the youngster. Moore has shown that he’s capable of holding a scrum steady, and the new rules should suit his squat frame. However, facing a scrummaging French side on your first Heineken start is bound to be nerve wracking. Brendan Macken, the quietest of the Leinster backs last week, will likely keep the coveted 13 jersey as O’Driscoll is again ruled out, while Luke Fitzgerald could come onto the wing.
Again though, the halfbacks provide the biggest conundrum for O’Connor. Personally, I’d take Boss (to marshal his opposite number) and Madigan for this one, despite Gopperth’s immense showing last weekend. Madigan has the ability to light up the RDS at times, and with a big, slightly immobile Castres side in front of him, could make hay. There is, of course, a case to be made for releasing Reddan and Madigan from the bench at 60 too.
A win here for Leinster, and a potential sneaky win for Ospreys in Northampton, would set up the pool nicely for the lads in blue. While I expect it to be a tough, arduous slog for a while, and certainly closer than many seem to think, I’d take Leinster to record the win at home.
Elsewhere, Munster surely look set to put another mediocre English side to the sword in Thomond, while Connacht will beat Zebre away. Ulster v. Montpellier has the potential to be the game of the weekend too, so get your red button working and flick over during the Leinster match. I’d take Montpellier here, as I believe they’re dark horses for the whole thing.
Ding ding, seconds out, Round 2.
Fingers have been poised over the panic button in Munster for nearly a week now. The loss to Edinburgh came as a shock to most. Munster looked flat for much of the game and Rob Penny admitted as much. The most galling thing about Murrayfield was that playing at 70%, they still worked themselves into a winning position. Only to throw (or kick) it away again.
And so we approach a 'must-win' game. But is that really news to anybody? Winning home games is a prerequisite for Heineken Cup success. The pressure on Munster is not to win (that has always been the demand in Thomond) but to perform. To right the wrongs of Murrayfield. 'Intensity' will be the watchword but also accuracy, especially from the lineout where Munster were uncharacteristically flaky last Saturday.
The Munster team named is their 'heft' selection; three locks, Botha and Varley into the front row. Gloucester's struggles up front this season will be the focus of Munster attention it seems. Strangely Gloucester have made 12 changes from their home win over Perpignan, including most of their biggest stars (Twelvetrees, Burns, Cowan, Kvesic). Either Nigel Davies has a genius strategy up his sleeve or they've written this one off already with an eye on their Premiership struggles.
The only change to the Munster backline is Johne Murphy replacing the injured Simon Zebo. It's the form selection where Murphy has had a brilliant start to the season. Murphy was somewhat of a forgotten man last season after missing much of it with injury. He may not have the acceleration of Zebo or Earls but the former Leicester Tiger has an impressive ability to beat tackles and cross the gainline.
This week should have been a classic case of Munster soul-searching. And things couldn't set up any better; an evening kick off in Thomond, against English opposition, stung by defeat, facing up to doubters once again. It's time to exercise that infamous chip-on-the-shoulder. If Munster can't put this Gloucester team away, it'll be a grim night in Limerick. Bring on the frenzy.
After a fabulous opening week of rugby the media and blogosphere are buzzing with questions such as Ulster – good or bad result? How good is SOB? And what the fruit happened to Munster?
Round 2 brings another collection of mouth-watering match-ups, with Munster, Leinster and Ulster all facing tough assignments and Connacht travelling to Parma for a game which Zebre will have been targeting as there best hope of a win.
Ulster take on Montpellier in Stade Yves-du-Manoir to take on Top 14 high-flyers, Montpellier. I would suggest that only a visit to Clermont is tougher and Ulster will need to be at their very best to secure a win. Having failed to deny Leicester a bonus point at Ravenhill, a win, whilst not essential, would make the final weekend trip to Welford less daunting.
Mark Anscombe is sweating on the fitness of Nick Williams, who picked up a calf niggle last Friday. Back to his head-banging best against the Tigers, the Kiwi’s ability to generate go-forward would be missed in such a physical encounter. Robbie Diack, Ian Henderson and especially Roger Wilson have been in great form so far this season, so if Big Nuck doesn’t make it, Ulster will still be able to field a strong back row.
The Nordies will also hope to welcome back John Afoa after an enforced lay-off following an operation to repair a torn bicep and a tweak to his calf. Well though Deccie Fitz has played, there is no substitute for the class that the world-cup winner brings.
I fully expect Pienaar to make his first start of the season and he will be focussing on shackling Pélissié, arguably France’s best 9, who will be partnered by Francois Trinh Duc who is no mug either. It will be good to see how Paddy Jackson fares in the face of such top class opposition.
Up front, Montpellier will field a monstrous pack containing Big Jim Hamilton, who has messed with Rory’s lineout throwing in the recent past, Gorgodzilla, Nicola Mas, Ouedraogo and the 20 stone Robins Tchale Watchou. It will be a ridiculously tough evening for Ulster, but these are the games that they need to win if they want to be a contender. In reality a losing bonus point would be an excellent result and I would be pleasantly surprised if we manage more.
Connacht will go to Italy buoyed by a fine performance against Globo Gym (© Whiff of Cordite) but sickened by yet another heroic defeat. They will be without the magnificent John Muldoon, which is a huge loss, but they should have enough to win. It won’t be pretty - Connacht by a score.
After a return to top form against the Ospreys, Leinster welcome Castres to the RDS. The Bouclier de Brennus holders haven’t had the best start this season after their coaches moved to Racing, but having beaten the Saints to secure a first round win for the first time in many years, they may just be in the mood to buck their dismal European away record. With a magnificent set piece and one of the best scrum-halves in Europe in Rory Kockott, they should test Leinster, but if O’Connor’s men can get their noses in front early on, I expect the French to fade. Leinster by 10.
The last Irish province to take the field on Saturday is Munster who host Gloucester in a must win game following their inexplicable loss to Edinburgh. Cue endless re-runs of the miracle match, misty-eyed Munstermen and John Kelly scoring in the corner to seal the deal. Regrettably, this Munster side just isn’t as good as the 2003 vintage but then it shouldn’t take a miracle to get what they need against Gloucester. I would be hugely surprised if Munster don’t put in a huge performance, driven on by the embarrassment of last weekend’s showing. If they don’t, being in transition will be the least of their worries and Rob Penny will be lucky to get to the end of the season. Unlike Stuart Barnes, I’m not going to write off Munster, who I expect to win by a margin.
Elsewhere, Scarlets v Racing looks like it could be a try-fest whilst Toulon’s visit to the Arms Park should be unmissable for those who like to gawp at car crashes. I hope that they have borrowed the scoreboard from Sofia Gardens!