Provinces gearing up for Anglo-Irish battle royale with European survival at stake

Munster, Leinster and Connacht face do-or-die clashes against English opposition

Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea agrees that English club rugby is on the up but is not convinced the overall quality has greatly improved. Photograph: Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea agrees that English club rugby is on the up but is not convinced the overall quality has greatly improved. Photograph: Tom Shaw/Getty Images

 

In the week that JJ Hanrahan’s regrettable departure to Northampton was confirmed, the threat looming over the provinces from the English Premiership hasn’t seemed so acute since the onset of professionalism.

Next up come two weekends dominated by Anglo-Irish clashes that could be season-defining.

On Saturday next Munster come to a point of no return with their trip to the all-weather Allianz Park to face Saracens in Pool 1. Lose and they’re out. Win and they stay alive.

Leinster host Castres on the same day, while Pool 2 rivals Harlequins host Wasps in what looks like an eliminator before Leinster visit Wasps the week after. It’s likely Matt O’Connor’s team will also have to win both matches.

Ulster, who are out of contention, host Leicester on Saturday week in their final pool match for what will be a slightly hollow finale at the Kingspan Stadium, while the following day Munster host Sale in their final pool game hoping to be still fighting for their lives.

In their penultimate pool match in the European Challenge Cup, Connacht host the Exeter Chiefs at the Sportsground in what is probably a winner-takes-all clash. That amounts to five potentially high-stakes Anglo-Irish affairs over two weekends. By the end of the pool stages, the four provinces will have met Premiership teams for an unprecedented 12 times in European combat.

Good attendances

“It is certainly as competitive as it ever was. There is a level of competitiveness right down through the division and that is why the salary cap has to stay. It ensures that that competitiveness stays through the league because it means you can hold on to your squads.

“I watch a lot of the Top 14 and I think it is a very over-hyped league. Yes, a lot of clubs can buy in internationals from around the world and it is a bit like Fantasy Rugby. But the Irish provinces still have a lot of things going for them. I know the strength of the schools game and the club game in Ireland, and how effective their provincial academies are.

“So when a frontline player gets injured, very often they can replace him with, and I know this sounds like a terrible word, a ‘cheap’ replacement, relatively speaking. Young players in Ireland aspire to play for their provinces. It is a little more difficult for many clubs in England and France to ask a young player to remain as patient if they’re behind, say, a Chris Robshaw or a Mike Brown.

“So the Irish provinces are retaining a strong conveyor belt of talent and are also managing to keep their best players. If they can continue to do that then they can remain competitive at the top of the European game.

“I watch a lot of the Pro12 as well and it will always be competitive between Pro12 and Premiership sides. I also think you will see the benefits of the new qualification system in the Pro12, with more and more games assuming added significance. That will put additional strain on the strength of squads.”

And therein lies the reason Toulon and Clermont remain Europe’s powerbrokers, simply by dint of the size of their squads.

“As the season becomes more and more attritional, the quality of international players with which they replace one with another begins to tell,” says O’Shea. “But anyone on a given day can beat anybody. I think the only thing that will limit people’s ambitions is their own minds.”

Pool Two

Round 5: Saturday 17th the Twickenham Stoop (7.40)Round 6: Saturday 24th Ricoh Arena (1.0)Stade Pierre Antoine (2.00 local time/1.0 Irish) Andy Goode

Their first away win of the season followed in Gloucester, before a place in the top four was earned when Sale were dispatched 41-16 in front of 15,343 fans at the Ricoh.

“The thing about Wasps is that they can score from everywhere, and they have a scrumhalf in Joe Simpson who can make something happen out of nothing. Andy Goode is probably in the best form he’s been in for five or six years,” says O’Shea.

“He’ll probably want to prove a point with Jimmy Gopperth moving to Wasps and potentially Goodey moving on. So that will motivate him.

“We know we’re going to have a tough match, but it will also be very, very tough for Leinster in the last game, so it won’t be decided by what happens next weekend.”

After winning two of their last three, O’Shea says: “When people see the team that we’ve managed to turn up with this week, and the way we’re trying to play now – we’re carrying and offloading again – I think we’re beginning to turn a corner.”

Harlequins and Leinster each shared home wins in their back-to-back December clashes. However, Quins emerged with the better head-to-head record by dint of the aggregate score (37-32) over the two matches and so will be ranked above Leinster if they finish level.

“We’re in the box seat because we know that if we match whatever Leinster do over the final two weekends, then we will top the group and go through to the quarter-finals.”

Pool One

Round 5: Saturday 17th Allianz Park (1.0)AJ Bell Stadium (5.30)Round 6: Sunday 25thThomond Park (3.15) Stade Marcel Michelin (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish).

“It’s already sold out, and you can be sure that’s nearly half Munster people, so there’ll be a sea of red,” chuckles O’Shea. “How do you adjust to the pitch? It is difficult, so you’re at a competitive disadvantage when you don’t play on it as much, whether that be the bounce of the ball or just the environment itself.

“Saracens, a bit like ourselves, a bit like Leicester, haven’t been at their best. They’re getting wins and they’re third in the table, but at home they’re tough; very controlling with [Richard] Wigglesworth’s kicking game and pressure game that Saracens put on people. And they have a huge competitive advantage on that pitch if you haven’t played on it before.”

Munster are in their trickiest position since their penultimate game in Toulon four seasons ago, when a 32-16 defeat (their third of the group) condemned them to their only pool exit of the last 16 seasons.

“I think it’s probably worse than normal for them, but I’d never write them off. Just never. Because they can also come up with a performance and when they run out at that stadium, there’ll be one thing that’s never been heard before. I think the size of the Munster crowd will take people by surprise.”

Either way, Clermont remain strong favourites to win the pool.

Pool Three

Round 5: Friday, January 16thWelford Road (7.45)Saturday, January 17th(4.15 local time/3.15 Irish). Round 6: Saturday, January 24thParc Y Scarlets (5.30); Kingspan Stadium (5.30)

Ulster are bottom of the group, which given Saturday’s daunting trek to champions Toulon is not liable to change come the final match when they host Leicester – in stark contrast to last season when Ulster won the group finale in Welford Road to qualify unbeaten. By contrast, Leicester remain in contention and have shown signs in recent weeks of a typical mid-season recovery.

“They are showing signs of a recovery because they’re getting their players back. But Ravenhill is a different kettle of fish. A bit like what I said about English teams not rolling over, like when Leinster travel to Wasps even if we have managed to beat Wasps. There’s no way Ulster will go into that game with any other mentality than ‘we’re going to win this match and prove a point’.

“Toulon did a job there this season because they just beat them up. I’m sure that Ulster will want to prove a point and set out their stall for next season, but Leicester are beginning to find form.”

Challenge Cup

Pool Two

Round 5: Sunday, September 18th the Sportsground (3.15). Round 6: Sandy Park (5.30);Stade Marcel Deflandre (6.30 local time, 5.30 Irish).

The winner in Galway will have one foot in the quarter-finals and thus be playing for a home tie the following weekend.

For clubs such as Connacht, who have never won a trophy, or Exeter, who have risen remarkably from Division Four in the mid-90s to win their first top-flight silverware, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, last season, that would be quite a carrot.

“I think it’s a really big opportunity for Connacht,” said O’Shea. “Their form has been going really well. Exeter have lost their last three games having started the season brilliantly, but they play a really good brand of rugby. I fancy Connacht though.

“In fact, when I chatted with Humphs [David Humphreys, whose Gloucester side are best placed for a home quarter-final] the other day, I said to him a lot of people will start taking it seriously because it is silverware and it will be tough come the knockouts, and Connacht are a side I quite fancy this year.

“I like what Pat Lam is doing there and I think if they get a home draw in the quarters, and you never know, a semi-final, they’re a good side. They’ve proven they’re a good side. I think it’s a realistic opportunity for them this year.”

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