Ronan Murphy previews the weekend's rugby
My innate conservatism got the better of me last week and I underestimated the Irish provinces. I suspected Ulster could get an away win, but not 4-try blowout. I thought Connacht could put it up to Biarritz, but not deny them even a losing bonus point. I thought Munster might edge it against Saracens, but they never really looked threatened. I hoped Leinster could bring a bonus point home, and that they did, but they were a few wobbly throws away from a huge win.
Starting with the easiest one. Ulster tore Northampton asunder last Friday night. It statement of how great they've been this season that anything less than a bonus point victory should be a disappointment now in Ravenhill. Losing their captain is always going to be a blow but Ulster have managed to cope without Muller already this season and have kept their momentum going even with injuries and internationals (Northampton will be without their captain too). Pride could make Northampton belligerent but Ulster have too much quality and confidence to lose this one.
Connacht have wreaked havoc with Biarritz over the last week making their passage to quarter finals look unlikely and getting their coaching team the sack. In a week in which Connacht have suffered their own tribulations, both teams will want the focus firmly back on matters on the pitch. Expect Biarritz to rally around their leaders Yachvilli, Harinorduquay and Traille in front of a home crowd. It would be their biggest HCup win by a distance but I wouldn't rule out Connacht's ability to cause yet more trouble for the Basques.
Leinster are becoming the Man Utd of European rugby-relatively slow starters who do what they need to in the early part of the season, confident of building into the competition and then exploding when it matters. Last Sunday was Leinster's best performance of the season so far, their intensity was huge and they dominated the second half in a manner that really required more than a 3-0 score. Clermont's desire for the HCup is there for everyone to see but they froze a bit when faced those blue jerseys again. I expect Leinster to bring the same intensity tomorrow at Lansdowne. Clermont won't be pushovers but Leinster will be too good.
After the dogfight in Thomond both teams will want big improvements with ball in hand, with each tryline only seriously threatened once despite the attacking talents on show. For all their ambitious talk, Saracens never really threatened to win the game last weekend and seemed happy with their point. If Munster want to win this group, now is the time to do it. They'll need to front up like last time and to that end the concern surrounding BJ Botha is very worrying- there simple isn't an real alternative at tighthead yet. Without Botha anchoring the scrum Munster's chances of wining will be all but gone.
A more open style of game could suit Munster with strike runners like Zebo, Jones, Earls and Howlett and a mobile backrow. Saracens should be able to overturn the 6 point deficit of last weekend but Munster will be gunning for a bonus point at least.
Gavin Grace on Connacht journey to Basque country:
Seven days after the strains of a Basque brass band's Fields of Athenry reverberated around an electric Sportsground, Connacht are back in action tonight against the team I'd most like us to be able to avoid. Tonight's opponents are scorned, humiliated and hungry. They also have home advantage, but the Westerners travel to Parc des Sports Aguiléra with the biggest potential prize in the club's history on the line, and in the knowledge that victory is not quite a mission impossible.
Tonight's game is a meeting of two teams in flux. Biarritz were so humbled by last Friday's loss that two coaches have been effectively fired, while Connacht have been rocked by the announcement of Mike McCarthy's departure. The truth, though, is that neither is a factor. Biarritz's players will want revenge - that was evident as they walked past the Clan Stand after last Fridays game and is more than enough to make backroom reshuffles irrelevant. McCarthy's departure, meanwhile, is no surprise and he played so magnificently last week already in the knowledge that his days in the West were numbered. He's an honest fella, who all Connacht fans wish well in spite of the furore surrounding his decision. He's never let Connacht rugby down, and he won't start now.
It's fair to say that Connacht don't travel in mere hope, but the team haven't reached a point where they can expect a win either. While optimistic that another upset can be pulled off, us admit it will be tough. The most positive development in recent days is the slight clearing up of a chronic injury list. Willie Faloon is a big loss, but Johnny O'Connor is an experienced stand-in and the returning George Naoupu will bolster the back row from the bench. Nathan White's return, in all respect to JP Cooney, is also vitally important - he and Denis Buckley are a fine pair of props to bring on in what may be a tight second half.
Any hope that Biarritz would write off their Heineken Cup hopes, and field a second XV haven't been realised. Harinordoquy starts - so too Traille, Yachvilli, Brew and August. Their revenge mission also takes place at home where their form has been more solid this year. As I'd expect Leinster to demonstrate at home to Clermont Auvergne, there's a big difference between playing in France and playing in Ireland, but Connacht will not fear their opponents one bit. Last Friday's win came with the aid of home advantage, it didn't have an unduly strong influence on the game.
Prediction time, and I'll say the same now as I did last week. Do I think Connacht will win? No, probably not. But do I think Connacht can win? You betcha. It'll take good fortune and disciplined play from all fifteen men, but the 'been there done that' factor from last week's historic display helps. Any upset will also require total commitment from fifteen men for 80+ minutes, but that's guaranteed to happen. I only pray that it'll be enough.
Andy McGeady looks forward to the titanic Leinster-Clermont match
On Saturday at 3.40pm, Leinster face a make-or-break game against familiar foe Clermont-Auvergne. In the reverse of last Sunday’s fixture, a hard-fought 15-12 loss to the French side, Leinster know they must both win and stop Clermont getting a bonus point to stand any chance of getting through the group stages.
Heineken Cup Group 5 Standings
1. Clermont 14
2. Leinster 9
3. Exeter 5
4. Scarlets 2
With one try scored from Leinster's three games thus far in the competition, talk of a four-try bonus point win against Clermont is probably fanciful and should probably be reserved for the games against Scarlets and the Chiefs, at best. Instead the bottom line should be about getting the win in the first place.
Clermont have made two changes from last Sunday with Raphael Chaume and Julien Bardy, both of whom appeared as substitutes at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, coming in for Vincent Debaty and Alexandre Lapandry who drop to the bench. Brock James is included in the named team at fly half but is listed as uncertain; if he can’t start then David Skrela will be promoted with Australian-born All Black Benson Stanley taking his place among the replacements.
Some of the numbers from last week’s match in Clermont-Ferrand are very interesting. In the fortress that is Stade Marcel-Michelin, Leinster had 58% of the possession and 62% of territory. This is in marked contrast to Leinster’s first two games in the group, where they had less possession than both Exeter and Scarlets.
On Sunday Leinster’s handling was superb on what was a very poor pitch, keeping possession through phase after phase of rucking. They forced Clermont to make 131 tackles to Leinster’s 90, however, Leinster themselves missed over twice as many tackles as Clermont; 15 to 7.
At this level a tackle rate of 86% is poor; it is also almost identical to the rate at which tackles were missed against the somewhat inferior Zebre the week beforehand. That 86% also includes the staggering twelve tackles that Fergus McFadden put in from his position on the right wing, missing none in the process.
One thing in common between the teams picked for the Zebre and Clermont matches is the absence of Shane Jennings. The Mary’s man has at times this season has put in tackling numbers that have bordered on the obscene. While Kevin McLoughlin is no slouch himself in that department, the amount of time Jennings finds himself in the tackle zone, either as tackler or as third man in competing at the breakdown, is consistently enormous.
All of that time that Jennings spends making life a misery for his opponents has two effects: firstly it slows the opposition ball down and secondly it frees up his fellow forwards to concentrate on carrying ball rather than rummaging for it. All that goes to say that the reintroduction of Jennings to the team for tomorrow’s match certainly has potential to have a very positive impact.
Apart from Jennings, Joe Schmidt has made three other changes to the starting lineup. Eoin Reddan, predictably, is named at scrum half on what should be better conditions than the players “enjoyed” last weekend. Richardt Strauss will hope that his Clermont throwing blues will have been an unfortunate off day as he packs down beside Heinke van der Merwe in the front row while Kevin McLoughlin is the man to lose out for Jennings with Sean O’Brien moving across to take the number six jersey.
Boss, McLoughlin, Sean Cronin and Cian Healy are all named among the Leinster replacements, as is David Kearney who has recovered from a muscle strain.
One area of concern for Joe Schmidt must be the lack of raw yardage made with ball in hand and, on the other hand, the ground that Clermont were able to make in the same vein.
Yards carried is a useful stat, the basic principle being that if one advances with a ball far enough then, barring turnovers, one will eventually cross a tryline or two during a game. When they had possession, Clermont’s running on Sunday was extremely effective as, even though they had only 82 runs to Leinster’s 109, the French side turned that into 406 metres run with the ball as opposed to Leinster’s 274 metres.
Clermont beat 14 Leinster defenders last Sunday alone. In contrast, over their last two Heineken Cup matches Leinster players have beaten a total of 13 players with ball in hand. Take out the early break by Ian Madigan and Leinster spent the rest of Sunday’s match rucking, rucking, rucking but without any real penetration. They only managed three offloads in the entire 80 minutes. While that’s the sort of stuff that keeps you in a game against a feared opponent on their home turf; it’s not the sort of stuff that gets four tries a game.
On the positive side, Leinster only committed 9 turnovers to Clermont’s 15 and that sort of disparity must be looked for again if they are to get the result they need to keep their hopes alive of successfully defending the Heineken Cup for a second time.
Leinster: Ian Madigan; Fergus McFadden, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Goodman, Isa Nacewa; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Heinke van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Leo Cullen (c), Damian Browne; Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Michael Bent, Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Isaac Boss, Andrew Conway, David Kearney.
Clermont: Byrne; Sivivatu, Rougerie (c), Fofana, Nalaga; James (or Skrela), Parra; Chaume, Kayser, Zirakashvili; Cudmore, Hines; Bonnaire, Bardy, Chouly.
Replacements: Paulo, Debaty, Kotze, Jacquet, Lapandry, Radosavljevic, Skrela (or Stanley), King.
Ulster vs Northampton preview by Paddy Logan
I can’t imagine Saints are looking forward to their trip to a frosty Ravenhill on Saturday after their dismantling at the hands of the Ulstermen on Friday. That they will be without their phalange gnawing, ocular juggling Kiwi, Dylan Hartley, will make the trip more daunting.
Ulster will be looking to win and win well. A repeat of the Leicester performance would see them virtually home and hosed with a home quarter-final all but guaranteed. But Northampton will be smarting, particularly from the beating they took at scrum-time. We can expect another stern test for Court, Best and Afoa, so let’s hope Nigel Owens has been boning up on the laws and doesn’t let Mujati get away with his nefarious practices. As an aside, is it just me or does every ref fail to set the first scrum of the match? Owens had a disagreement with Cronin over the mark in Clermont, whilst both Garces and Gauzere blew for early engagement.
Anyway, for the Saints, this is the second of a ridiculously tough run of fixtures – after Ulster they have Quins at home, Sarries away (at the Stadium MK!) and then a trip to Sandy Park to play the Chiefs in their first foray of the New Year. So will they have a lash to give themselves an outside chance of qualification, or go through the motions in preparation for the boshership festive run? I suspect the former, so Ulster will have to be on their mettle.
If the Saints are to challenge, they have got to sort their fly-half problems. Lamb is talented, but as I predicted last week, flakey in the extreme. Will they go with Myler – a more reliable but much less dynamic player or stick with Lamb in the hope that he’ll do something spectaculr? Whichever 10 Mallinder plumps for, I suspect they’ll have Dickson inside them to give their backline some spark. The only other change I can foresee is Wood for Clark on the blindside.
Mark Anscombe will have some selection issues of his own. Most importantly, he has to replace Johann Muller. If Ferris were fit, I’m sure that Henderson would slot into the second row, which would be good for Ulster and Ireland as most see that as his best position. During the great Ulster lock crisis in November, Diack was paired with Neil McComb and, restarts aside, they did a good job. McComb has been in the form of his life and deserves the recognition. I think Anscombe will go with the specialist lock for his additional height and bulk.
The other question is whether there will be any changes to a backline, which was as good as I can remember since the heyday of Irwin, Crossen and Ringland. Trimble’s selection for the first leg was inspired (although his performance won’t have been a surprise for any Ulster fan) and it seems highly unlikely that he will make way for Gilroy. I like the idea of springing Gilroy from the bench but would like to see him given a bit longer to have an impact.
The only other possible change would be Marshall for Wallace at inside centre. Marshall looked good when he came on at Franklins Gardens, but Wallace was fantastic and I think Anscombe will go with the experience again.
Whilst Ulster’s performance on Friday was magnificent, there is plenty of room for improvement. Northampton (according to ESPN) had 70% possession and territory, which cannot have been unrelated to Ulster’s mis-firing lineout – 4 from 9 . As a result, Ulster made more than 3 times as many tackles. A herculean effort that highlights the quality of our defence but I’d like to see a little more keep-ball which will require an improved lineout.
It’s going to be a cracking evening at Ravenhill and I am looking forward to it immensely. I expect the Saints to come out fighting but think that they won’t have enough to halt Ulster’s winning run.
Prediction: another 5 pointer for the Ulstermen
Likely Ulster team:
Payne, Bowe, Cave, Wallace, Trimble, Jackson, Pienaar, Court, Best, Afoa, McComb, Tuohy, Henderson, Henry, Wilson
Subs: Herring, Black, Lutton, Diack, Williams, P Marshall, L Marshall, Gilroy
Biarritz v Connacht: If ever there is a time to visit Biarritz, it has to be this Friday. Having beaten the Basque side sufficiently soundly to cost coaches Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas their jobs, Connacht have a real chance of a spectacular coup which has spurred Sky to promote the match from the red button. However, I expect Dusautoir to rally his troops, much as he did during the World Cup, and Biarritz to nick it. I really hope I am proved wrong again.
Leinster v Clermont: The Hors d’Oeuvre for the main course at Ravenhill? Only kidding. For the neutral, this is the match of the weekend and if it’s half as good as Sunday’s match, I’ll be a very happy nerd. Leinster simply must win and they surely will if they match the intensity and pace that they produced in the Auvergne. Leinster by a score.
Saracens v Munster: Saracens were poor at Thomond and will surely play better when hosting Munster at Vicarage Road. However, I sense Munster may be getting their mojo back, and with Ronan and Dougall available for selection they will fancy their chances. Munster by a score.