Champions Cup: After festive famine, January feast begins this weekend

Connacht hope to make history, Leinster seek vengeance, Ulster hit hard by injuries

After the festive famine, the January feast. The Omicron variant ensured slim pickings over Christmas and the New Year but, touch wood, this weekend’s third round of the Champions Cup might even be played out in full.

Halfway through the pool stages, the route to the knock-out stages over the next two weeks has at least been clarified. Albeit there's been grumblings abound about the way the first two rounds were 'completed', with an unusually irate Leo Cullen again expressing Leinster's discontent at some length over Montpellier being awarded that 28-0 bonus-point win in round two.

Barring further postponements or cancellations, the Irish quartet at least still have their qualification destinies in their own hands if not, in Leinster’s case, the coveted and lucrative home route to the semi-final or even final.

Munster were first in action on Friday night when they played familiar foes Castres in the Stade Pierre Fabre. Next up are Connacht, who on Saturday afternoon seek to boldly go where no Connacht side has gone before by taking a giant leap toward a first appearance in the knock-out stages when hosting Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers at the Sportsground, which will definitely be half-full, rather than half-empty.

Connacht have been overpowered, if less so a month ago, in their last two treks to Welford Road and helpfully for them in this repeat clash of styles the forecast looks good.

Andy Friend has made three changes from the side which beat Munster. Hooker Shane Delahunt and lock Niall Murray are restored while Connacht's all-time record try scorer Matt Healy makes his first appearance of the season. Paul Boyle is also in line for his first appearance off the bench since November.

“This is a huge game and a huge opportunity for the club, but we’ve been treating this like any other game that we want to win,” said Friend. “We’ve grown as a group even in the last month since we visited Leicester, so now it’s all about executing and playing as well as I know we’re capable of.

“We’ll no doubt miss the few extra thousand supporters who would’ve been at the Sportsground without the current restrictions, but I’m sure those lucky enough to have a ticket will make their voices heard.”

Leinster bench

Leinster and Ireland captain Johnny Sexton will start on the bench when they host Montpellier at the RDS tomorrow (kick-off 1pm) in his first outing since suffering a leg injury in November's win over the All Blacks, perhaps partly due to the six-day turnaround before next Saturday's pool finale in Bath.

After suffering concussion a week later when leading Ireland against Argentina, likewise James Ryan will make his first Leinster appearance since October when captaining a side showing two other changes from the win over Bath. Jimmy O'Brien replaces James Lowe, as "a knock" in training sees him on the bench, while Jack Conan returns.

A Montpellier side minus all their big hitters features six espoirs players in their 23, four of whom are in the starting XV. These include the Drogheda born Karl Martin, a 19-year-old former Irish underage international product of Boyne RFC.

Opportunity knocks for Leinster but somewhat out of character Cullen was still bemoaning at length their perceived sense of injustice over that walkover, which he described as illogical, “particularly when we had a team that was ready to go.

“We would have PCR-ed on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of that week, antigen tested on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, changed our travel arrangements to fly the day of the game and had everyone ready to go,” said Cullen, noting how Covid cases didn’t prevent Wasps from playing Munster or Castres from playing them last night.

Cullen cited the impact on Leinster’s potential ranking and the ensuing “commercial consequences”.

Costly

“So it could be potentially a very costly 28-0 loss for us as opposed to a 0-0 draw. Yes, it’s imperfect but I am just looking for consistency and logic. That’s all I’m asking for because I haven’t necessarily seen that in terms of some of the decisions around the Wasps game and, today, the Castres game,” said Cullen, while acknowledging the need to “move on”.

Indeed, this all seems like wasted energy, for that ship has clearly sailed, but maybe it can be channeled into a mission of vengeance.

Last up of the provinces are Ulster, who went into the weekend second in Pool A and will seek an 11th win in 13 games against Premiership opposition when facing Northampton at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday (kick-off 3.15pm).

They've been hit hard by injuries, albeit Robert Baloucoune returns from injury and the in-form James Hume has recovered from the slight hamstring strain in last weekend's defeat by Munster.

Scrumhalf Nathan Doak will make his first European start in place of the injured John Cooney, with the 20-year-old one of seven changes to the team that started at Thomond Park a week ago as Dan McFarland selects his strongest available side.

However, so too have Northampton, who face the point of no return after losing their opening two games.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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