Intense nature of back-to-back Heineken Cup ties will prove pivotal
Northampton host Leinster on Saturday for a reprisal of their memorable 2011 final
Leinster’s Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy hold up Roger Wilson’s (Northampton) progress in the memorable 2011 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The side’s will face off again when the in-form English side play host on Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It’s back, and we may as well cherish it while we still have it given the determination of leading figures in the English club especially to take a wrecking ball to the best club tournament in the world.
Not the least compelling aspect to the Heineken Cup is its format, which this week returns with the key back-to-back fixtures at the pivotal mid-way point of the pool stages. Only three sides still possess 100 per cent records, and two of them are Irish, namely Ulster and Leinster, along with four-time winners Toulouse.
As can be seen from back-to-back Ashes series, the importance and intense nature of these encounters is bound to ensure some carry-over from this weekend. Not that there isn’t plenty of history from meetings past. Much of the action is focused around Saturday’s half dozen games, with Northampton hosting Leinster in a reprise of the sides’ memorable 2011 final.
Northampton are flying high domestically, with just two defeats on both fronts this season, but as one of those was away to Castres, they are also virtually drinking at the last chance saloon on Saturday. To emerge with credit from this and Saturday week’s return clash in the Aviva would leave Leinster well placed, although Castres are in fine form and for once are on the record as saying they are targeting an overdue quarter-final, which would be their first since their solitary appearance in the last eight back in 2002.
Ulster should maintain their place atop Pool 5 with back-to-back clashes against Treviso, after their fantastic win in Montpellier, although they have to be acutely aware that the Italians have been tricky opposition for them.
For Munster, as usual, there is less room for manoeuvre as they renew rivalry with Perpignan, whom they have beaten four times at Thomond Park before and won on their trek to the Stade Aime Giral four seasons ago.
As for Connacht, they face a daunting assignment away to Toulouse on Sunday. The Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir has underlined the French club’s strong desire to back up their win over Saracens at Wembley in round two when hosting an injury ravaged Connacht on Sunday.
“We need to win,” said Dusautoir this week. “While we have won in England against Saracens, that club is still in contention. Connacht is a team that we succeeded against two years ago, but we had difficulty beating them. We are therefore wary of this Irish club. As for the matter of a bonus, let’s be realistic.
“Let’s firstly look for the win. After, if there is the possibility of doing more and looking for the bonus, we will seize it. But one must always proceed in that order.”
Going into the back-to-back games, no doubt much to the chagrin of the English club owners and the PRL, the Irish clubs lead the way with a win ratio of 75 per cent from eight games to date, while France are next on 58 per cent from 12 matches (not including the Racing Metro 92 v ASM Clermont Auvergne fixture). Scotland are on 50 per cent from four games with English clubs on 41 per cent – five wins from 12 games.
There is comparatively little interest in the Amlin Challenge Cup, which appears to be having its last hurrah this season, but the weekend could be notable for Peter Stringer becoming only the third player to make 100 appearances in European competition were he to feature for Bath in Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup round three game at Rugby Mogliano. He would emulate his retired former Munster team-mates, Ronan O’Gara (112) and John Hayes (103).