Stage is set for major encores as four Irish provinces go into a big day of Heineken Cup action

Leinster and Connacht hope for home comforts while Munster and Ulster travel in hope and expectation


How to follow that? The flip side of last week’s Irish quartet of wins in these uniquely flavoured back-to-back Heineken Cup weekends is that the wounds are still raw for the four vanquished teams. There’ll be a whiff of cordite in the air alright across European club rugby this weekend, and not least in the Sportsground and the Aviva today.

The significance of these pivotal back-to-back rounds cannot be overstated, for since the 2009/10 season, every club – bar Leicester Tigers – which has reached the Heineken Cup quarter-finals has come out of these two December rounds with five points or more.

Another pity though, from an Irish viewpoint, is that ERC and Sky have pitched all four Irish sides into action on the same day, with the two games on Irish soil in round four, Connacht-Toulouse and Leinster-Northampton, clashing at 6pm. Frankly, that’s crass scheduling.

The Connacht-Toulouse game has, of course, assumed an additional lustre after Connacht’s stunning win in the Stade Ernest Wallon last Sunday.

Aristocratic opponents
Accordingly, the last 300 tickets have been snapped early on Thursday morning, akin to Connacht’s home debut in this competition two seasons ago against the same aristocratic opponents, the game is a 9,000 sell-out and the Sportsground will be bursting at the seams.

Alas, the forecast across the country today is something of a dampener, as is the news that around a dozen of the Connacht squad have been seriously laid low by a virus which has swept through their squad. Pat Lam had planned a light week anyway with the six-day turnaround, aside from the possibility of reduced energy levels, some of his starting XV were genuine concerns overnight.

Such was the positive impact off the bench last week that not surprisingly Lam has decided to freshen up his pack with promotions for Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You and Eoin McKeon. More revealingly, perhaps, and somewhat contrary to the notion that Toulouse were not taking the Cup especially seriously despite having beaten Saracens at Wembley, Guy Noves has recalled Maxime Médard, Lionel Beauxis, Jean-Marc Doussain, Schalk Ferreira, Christopher Tolofua, Romain Millo-Chluski and Yannick Nyanga.

Akin to their trek west two seasons ago, therefore, Noves has packed his team with seasoned French players who know the Heineken Cup. Of the 13 French men in their starting line-up, all but their 19-year-old France under-20 hooker Christopher Tolofua have played Test rugby for Les Bleus, while they have another five internationals on the bench to go with their 13 in the starting line-up.

Maintaining the theme, Matt O’Connor has selected an unchanged Leinster line-up comprised entirely of Ireland internationals. Even though O’Connor has rightly maintained there are areas that they could actually improve upon (they left 20 points behind) it would surely be impossible for Leinster to repeat the tempo, accuracy and finishing of a week ago, not least given the forecast.

It’s also unlikely that Leinster will be able to stun Northampton with an early double whammy of tries as was the case last week, after which the sometimes over confident Saints never recovered. A la Toulouse, born out of last week’s embarrassment and wounded pride on their own patch, Northampton will also have plenty of motivation.

Jim Mallinder has made three changes, with Salesi Ma’afu, Christian Day and Calum Clark all returning to the starting XV, with brilliant Samoan scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i returning to the bench. On their first visit to the Aviva, in front of a crowd of up to 45,000, Dylan Hartley and co will be out for blood in what is liable to be a niggly match. But Leinster have won 15 of their last 16 home matches in Europe, with only an inspired Clermont ever emerging from the Aviva with a win.

Catalan cauldron
Beforehand, Munster step into the Catalan cauldron that is the Stade Aime Giral, where Perpignan have won 22 of their last 23 games in the Heineken Cup – Munster providing the exception to the rule with a 37-14 win there four years ago. The abiding memory was of Ronan O’Gara reprising his grubber routine with Doug Howlett for the bonus try with the last play, but this more callow backline lacks such experienced achievers, all the more so as Rob Penney has to replace the injured Conor Murray with Cathal Sheridan, who will make his full Heineken Cup debut.

The Lord also giveth though, and Penney has recalled Donnacha Ryan for his first game since injuring knee ligaments in October. He also rotates in the frontrow, with James Cronin and BJ Botha starting. Tommy O’Donnell, having been added to their squad this week, is on the bench.

For the first time in his year and a half as Ulster coach, Mark Anscombe has named an unchanged match-day 23 as Ulster seek to back up last week’s 48-0 win over Treviso in Italy at lunchtime, in what will also be Franco Smith’s last game coaching Treviso.

Conceivably, Ulster could take a stranglehold on Pool 5 with a win and were Leicester to slip up in Montpellier tomorrow, but such thoughts have been discouraged by Fabien Galthie making 13 changes to the home side’s line-up after last week’s 41-32 defeat in Welford Road. Some teams, it would appear, are more of a mind for revenge than others.