The Six Nations may be over, but there’s still some major silverware to be handed out this season, and to varying degrees, all four Irish provinces will have an interest in the weekend’s European action.
Naturally, my main interest is going to be at the Aviva Stadium where my beloved Leinster will face current Premiership champions and leaders, the Leicester Tigers on Saturday evening.
Leinster were so convincing in their so-called “pool of death” that you have to fancy them to make their hard-earned home advantage count but the Tigers certainly didn’t win two Heineken Cups and nine domestic titles by being pushovers!
One of the key battles on the day will be at the setting of the scrum. Though Leicester will be without their suspended prop Ayerza, coach Dan Cockerill, a former hooker himself, has always built his team around a tight
front 8 and will be looking for a solid base every time.
On the other side, however, forwards coach Greg Feek has done amazing work with Leinster’s regular starting front row of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross, and provided referee Nigel Owens can keep on top of things, the first few scrums could speak volumes for how the match will progress overall.
In the backs, no doubt Ben Youngs and Toby Flood will be keen to erase the memories of what happened in England’s ill-fated Grand Slam decider, but their opposite numbers Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton have looked right at home in the Aviva Stadium to date and will be hard to shift.
I do have one concern, and it’s about how the Leinster backs approach the game. We may have dazzled this great tournament so far, but there are no bonus points on offer at this stage so a bucketload of tries won’t be required. Cup rugby isn’t the place for no-look passes and overly-elaborate wraparound moves – we need only remember the 6-5 quarterfinal win at the Stoop in 2009 for proof of that.
With such talent and experience behind him, the Leinster faithful will be looking to “Jonny10” for a measured display to bring home the bacon and reward us with a home semifinal against either Biarritz or Toulouse. I’m
predicting he’ll do just that, producing a win by 5-7 pts with the help of our trademark defence.
Meanwhile the Ulstermen fought a brave pool campaign themselves to qualify as second-best runners-up, and must travel to Milton Keynes to meet the high-flying Northampton Saints. The English outfit had some bad form after Christmas, but you could say two recent home wins in which they racked up 11 tries got it out of their system!
Although the Northerners have had some narrow victories of their own to celebrate lately, I fear the absence of Stephen Ferris may be too much for them to stay ahead of a formidable home side which includes such Six Nations heroes as Hartley, Foden and of course Chris Ashton. Apologies to my friends up there, but I’m going for a Saints win by 14-16 pts.
Then there’s Munster, who must travel to Brive. As happy as they’ll be with victory over the Old Enemy, it can’t be easy for a province with their great tradition to get motivated for the Amlin Challenge Cup. With the season winding down and a World Cup on the horizon, I wonder if they’d be best suited concentrating on the Magners League for success this season.
Their French opponents, on the other hand, are relatively safe from relegation in the Top14, and unlike Munster they need this competition to get into next year’s Heineken Cup. Call it sour grapes from last Saturday if you want, but I fancy the home side to nick this one by a point or two.
Of course Connacht never made it out of their Amlin Cup pool, but they still have a stake in the weekend’s matches. Should any of the 3 competing Irish provinces win a European trophy, Eric Elwood’s men will qualify for the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history, which of course would be a massive boost for the sport in the region.
So for that to happen, if my predictions for the weekend pan out, only Leinster lifting the famous trophy in Cardiff will do! I guess I could live with that!
Here’s hoping for a better European weekend for the Irish provinces than I suggest. There should be some cracking rugby to watch whatever happens.
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