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
Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll runs in to score a try against Northampton. Photograph: Tony Marshall/PA Wire
Ulster’s Andrew Trimble scores a try against Treviso. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Connacht’s Fionn Carr reaches for the line against Toulouse. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
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.
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.