Two days of destiny to decide fate of the Irish
RUGBY:So many matches and permutations distilled into one weekend; indeed seasons distilled into 80 minutes, albeit in many instances depending on results elsewhere. Maddeningly if thrillingly, this is what the final weekend of the pool stages of the Heineken Cup are all about. As ever, you can scarcely script it.
Rarely has there been so much uncertainty surrounding the Irish provinces on this corresponding weekend. While Ulster are already through, but still to secure a lucrative and highly advantageous home quarter-final, a dark cloud, more a soggy wet, snowy cloud, hangs over Munster and in particular Leinster.
Thus far travelling fans have been most discommoded. Leinster fans en route to Exeter yesterday had flights delayed or cancelled, or were rerouted from Bristol airport to Gatwick for a four-hour train ride. Although the ERC have kept a close eye on all their match venues over the weekend, the expectations are that all games will proceed as scheduled.
Leinster arrived locked and fully loaded by private charter in Exeter yesterday to have a light run-out at Sandy Park, with Brian O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan, Richardt Strauss, Kevin McLaughlin and Seán O’Brien all back in the starting line-up. It is arguably the strongest and most attack-minded selection Joe Schmidt has been able to put on the pitch this season.
In a nutshell, Leinster especially and Munster, at home to Racing tomorrow, need bonus point wins to advance, and while there is a chance that would suffice for both, that may only be enough for one of them. The chances of both going through as the two best runners-up would be improved hugely if Toulon could win in Montpellier, thereby limiting the latter to 19 points provided they didn’t accrue two bonus points.
Never before, therefore, will Irish fans, especially those of a Leinster slant, have taken such a keen interest in an all-French affair.
Toulon have already qualified along with Harlequins, Clermont and Ulster, although they need a bonus point to assure themselves of a home quarter-final. A win might also mean a more favourable tie as one of the highest ranked seeds, and encouragingly, most of Toulon’s main men from last week, Frederic Michalak, Jonny Wilkinson, et al, are there.
Fabien Galthie makes only three changes up front. However, Montpellier will be highly charged for this game after the death earlier in the week of their long-time former forwards coach Eric Bechu. Home fans at the Stade Yves du Manoir have been asked to wear white as a mark of respect.
By then, Ulster will have sought their first Cup win in 15 attempts away to Castres (kick-off 1.35 Irish time). With Nick Williams joining a lengthy casualty list, Mark Anscombe has also opted for a Paul Marshall-Ruan Pienaar half-back partnership as well as restoring Neil McComb to the secondrow and Roger Wilson at eight, with Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson moving to the bench. Ulster, fourth in the rankings, probably need a bonus point win given that the fifth-ranked Saracens are a point behind and host Edinburgh tomorrow.
Kicking off simultaneously with that game, Munster host Racing Metro at Thomond Park (12.45), and do so without either the suspended Ronan O’Gara or Paul O’Connell for the first time since the 1999 quarter-finals.
By then Munster will know how the other contenders for those two best runners-up slots will have fared, including Leinster. In the event of sides from different pools finishing level on points, their ranking will be decided by tries scored and then points difference. Munster (nine) have one more try than Leinster (eight) and a superior points difference of +37 to +19.
In effect, Munster need only to match Leinster’s result to finish above them, although they may also need to be mindful of Toulouse finishing on 19 points were they lose with a bonus point at Leicester in tomorrow’s final game at 3pm. That Anglo-French pool shoot-out between two-time and four-time champions could indeed be an epic finale to an epic final weekend of pool games. The draw for the semi-finals will then take place from around 5.05pm on Sky Sports.
It could, ultimately, come down to whether Munster effectively put Leinster out. Allez Toulon.