Irish provinces still have much to prove in Europe

Munster and Leinster may be in dead rubber territory but they need to cast doubts aside

A curious quirk of the ill-judged fixture planning for the penultimate round of pool games in the two European competitions is that all four Irish sides play on Saturday. That said, the anti-climactic nature of what is normally a highlight of the Irish calendar means it doesn’t matter too much.

Two teams have everything to play for, whereas two others have nothing to play for, but then again they have everything to play for – if that doesn’t sound too Irish.

For the first time, both Munster and Leinster both face dead rubbers at this juncture of a Euro campaign, while Ulster probably need to extract something from their trip to pool leaders Saracens to retain their hopes of qualifying as one of the three best runners-up. Connacht play in Brive tonight as leaders of their Challenge Cup pool.

Munster are first up against French champions Stade Francais at Thomond Park, and the stakes have been raised by their form of late, last week's capitulation against the same opponents, the talk of a response, Anthony Foley leaving his future in the air until after their next three games and the critiques of former players, with Ronan O'Gara demanding an angry backlash from these players: "If enough isn't enough after last Saturday, the thing is doomed."


Major changes

Although Foley hinted at major changes, in the event he has been largely restricted to just three changes, and two of them have been enforced.

Simon Zebo

shifts to fullback in the absence of

Andrew Conway

, with Ronan O’Mahony starting on the wing, while prop

Mario Sagario

replaces BJ Botha, who has assuredly played his last game for the province, while

Billy Holland

has been preferred to

Robin Copeland


Perhaps it's a statement of faith in Ian Keatley and others.

With Leinster now out of contention but seeking to avoid the ignominy of a fifth successive defeat, as expected Leo Cullen has Leinster's espoirs, albeit with a fair sprinkling of experience. Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong and Ross Molony all make their first European starts.

Zane Kirchener returns at fullback and Ian Madigan replaces Johnny Sexton at outhalf, while the backrow is stiffened by the return to the starting line-up of Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in advance of the Irish Six Nations squad being announced next Tuesday or Wednesday.

With that in mind, Les Kiss has given his old boss Joe Schmidt a timely boost with the recall of Jared Payne for his first game since the World Cup. Interestingly though, he starts at fullback, with Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall continuing their potent midfield partnership, while Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are recalled as the starting halfbacks.

Ruled out

Ulster have also been boosted by the return of Wiehan Herbst at tighthead, and Alan O’Connor at lock, while

Sean Reidy

comes in for

Chris Henry

, who has been ruled out with a slight shoulder injury. Their main ball-carrier,

Nick Williams

, has also been sidelined after being concussed last Sunday.

Pat Lam has made 10 changes to the starting team that lost in the last minute away to the Scarlets last Sunday. USA outhalf AJ MacGinty and Ian Porter come in at halfback, while Bundee Aki moves to inside centre to accommodate Rory Parata at outside centre while Danie Poolman returns on the wing.

Up front, Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris-Wright and Rodney Ah You start in a new frontrow while Aly Muldowney returns to partner Ultan Dillane in the secondrow this week. Flankers Sean O'Brien and James Connolly are named in the backrow while John Muldoon shifts to Number eight.

Victory over Brive would give Connacht every chance of securing a home quarter-final in a tournament in which the winners will be rewarded with a place in next season's Champions Cup.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times