They don't hand out winners medals in January but there will be a few losers medals this weekend. The stark reality for the Irish provinces on the penultimate pool weekend is that while Ulster were already out before today's daunting trek to Toulon, for Munster and Leinster today, and indeed Connacht tomorrow at home to Exeter in the Challenge Cup, all have reached a point of no return.
Of the three, Munster face the toughest task. Strictly speaking, the European Champions Cup is still in the pool stages yet at 1pm the tournament has, as the Saracens' coach Mark McCall identified it, the first knock-out match of the tournament. And, in almost time-honoured fashion, Munster have their backs pressed up against the wall.
Adding to the odds stacked against them on the Allianz Park all-weather pitch – where the home side have won 23 of 26 matches – Munster have confirmed that Conor Murray, outstanding in their 14-3 win over Saracens in October, has been ruled out of this make-or-break rematch.
A Munster statement said Murray had been sidelined for this game due to a neck injury he picked up against Zebre last week, and would be re-assessed before a decision is made regarding his fitness for the final pool match tomorrow week at home to Sale. That will either be a hollow anti-climax with nothing tangible to play for, or a traditional last-day opportunity for Munster to reach the knock-out stages for the 15th time in 16 seasons.
Their chances of beating Saracens, who welcome back big-hitters such as Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, have been damaged although at least they welcome back James Cronin, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Paul O'Connell and Tommy O'Donnell to the pack.
Murray had been afforded greater influence as a team leader this season, with Anthony Foley utilising his strong running and kicking games even more than had been the case in previous seasons.
takes Murray’s place and probably looks readier for this, both in terms of his confidence and form, than has ever been the case before, while Foley and co have restored Denis Hurley to midfield, with JJ Hanrahan reverting to the bench, where Keith Earls has been selected with Andrew Conway starting.
It could be that Hanrahan is also being kept in reserve as cover for scrumhalf as well as outhalf and centre, but more likely Ronan O’Mahony, although a winger, is covering scrumhalf given he apparently played there once before with the Munster As.
Interestingly, Williams will be making his first Heineken Cup start while O'Mahony, if he comes on either at scrumhalf or on the wing, will be making his debut.
As was also expected, Matt O'Connor has omitted Mike Ross from his 23 for the visit of Castres to the RDS this evening, while preferring Jimmy Gopperth at outhalf and reverting Ian Madigan to inside centre.
Ross has paid for Leinster's poor scrum this season, notably in the games with Harlequins, as well as some missed tackles as not only do Leinster recall Marty Moore after his strong 50-minute cameo last week in Cardiff, but also understandably prefer Tadgh Furlong's greater impact off the bench.
The one thing Castres will bring is a good scrum and, were it to gain an early ascendancy, like any French side, it would give them every encouragement. French champions two seasons ago and finalists last season but marooned at the foot of the Top 14 this season, not surprisingly Castres appeared none too interested in coughing up bonus points to Wasps in December. Their coaches make 10 changes from the team routed 49-13 last weekend, with only Richie Gray retained up front.
Perhaps just as tellingly, only three of the side which beat La Rochelle 30-15 the week before line up for the kick-off, centre Thomas Combezou, lock Christophe Samson and number eight Johnnie Beattie. Their French loosehead prop Yannick Forestier was expected to make his seasonal re-appearance after undergoing a neck operation in pre-season, only to discover he hadn’t been registered. He tweeted yesterday: “It is with disgust and regret that I write this tweet because I can not play this weekend I’m not on the list EPCR for this game. “
Nevertheless, Castres have travelled over with some big guns, including influential if departing scrumhalf Rory Kockott returns, flanker Ibrahim Diarra and captain Romain Cabannes, who has been a thorn in Leinster’s side before.
The French outfit could be dangerous and need to be disabused of any idea of winning the game as soon as possible. If Leinster start well, it could see their upward curve continue, and although it’s fanciful and distracting to go into a game intent on an attacking bonus point, were one to be obtained it could prove very important bearing in mind Harlequins host Wasps in what is effectively another win-or-bust shoot out. It should be an interesting weekend.