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Saturday, 21 January 2012
Heineken Cup
Leinster v Montpellier, Pl3, 13:30 CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTARY
Clermont Auvergne v Ulster, Pl4, 15:40 CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTARY
Northampton v Munster, Pl1, 18:00 CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTARY

It’s that weekend when rugby fans all over Europe come down with an affliction known as “Heineken Cup fever”. It presents as an inability to get off the couch on Friday evening for 48 hours straight, with the added symptom of needing a calculator within reach alongside the remote.

What’s more, the final series of pool matches will come as a welcome distraction for Irish fans still confused over the midweek Six Nations squad announcement.

There’s no doubting that an historic showing by the provinces is on the cards, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it happen.

At lunchtime on Saturday it’s the turn of Leinster, current holders of the number one seed position and need any kind of win against the visiting Montpellier to secure a crucial home quarterfinal.

On the Top14 outfit’s side of things, you’d think they wouldn’t give this match their best shot…they got their first ever Heineken Cup victory last week, they’re away from home and what’s more they are on the fringes of the playoff positions in their domestic league and have two vital home games coming up next.

However they haven’t gone down this road and have named a pretty-near full-strength squad with their marquee names like Trinh-Duc, Ouedraogo and Gorgodze all starting.

Facing them will be a Joe Schmidt selection that’s full of intrigue.  Luke Fitzgerald’s double glute & neck injury was always going to make him doubtful and he misses out, though Jonny Sexton has recovered sufficiently from his turned ankle to start.  Eoin O’Malley comes in at outside centre and Fergus McFadden makes room by switching to the wing.

In the forwards, Jamie Hagan gets his first start in the competition and Damien Browne joins skipper Leo Cullen in the second row as he did in the reverse fixture in Montpellier.

Then comes the big one…Leinster & Munster are at very least assured a spot in the final eight, whereas Ulster, despite their amazing bonus-point victory over the Tigers at Ravenhill last week, must try their best to get something out of their visit to Clermont-Auvergne.

But despite the fact Brian McLaughlin’s men sit in the 3rd position in the seedings going into the weekend, it’s utterly conceivable that all six clubs immediately below them can win and thus overtake them (one of them is Harlequins), so they’re under pressure to get something from their daunting visit to the Marcel Michelin.

Their latest injury was devastating news for Darren Cave who must have felt he was in the mix for national selection.  His ligament damage could have him out for six weeks and his place goes to Ian Whitten against Les Jaunards.  They do have a boost however in that Nevin Spence is over his ankle knock and can take a place on the bench.

Otherwise it’s pretty much the same Ulster lineup and they’ll be relying on the likes of Pienaar, Trimble and Ferris to replicate their amazing displays against the Tigers.  They will surely have their work cut out as the French side showed little mercy at Aironi last week in an 82-0 rout.

Last up for the provinces we have Munster who travels to Milton Keynes to face a Northampton Saints side finally finding the form that took them to the final last season.  Mallinder’s men can’t reach the last eight but are still a good bet to drop into the Amlin quarterfinals…though I doubt this will be their primary motivation to come out on top.

They still feel the need for revenge for that last-gasp O’Gara drop goal at Thomond back in November and in many ways that has shaped their season, so they’d very much like to reverse the scoreline on Saturday evening in what should be a thrilling contest.  The named a strong lineup even without Saracens-bound winger Chris Ashton.

Tony McGahan keeps virtually the same side that got the better of Castres last week – although Niall Ronan’s injury has him out for the season, his choice of replacement was simple as Donnacha Ryan switched to the back row and the grand old pairing of O’Connell & O’Callaghan was re-united at lock.

And although we have no involvement in the Amlin Challenge Cup (for now!), we must not forget the fact that three provinces have A sides taking part in the British & Irish Cup quarterfinals this weekend.  Ulster’s “Ravens” face Munster A at Ravenhill tonight while Welsh Premier outfit Pontypridd RFC take a hop across the Irish channel to face the Leinster hopefuls at Donnybrook – best wishes to them all.

My predictions?  How about a super grand slam of Irish wins this weekend?  No, didn’t think so either.  Besides if I went for that, it wouldn’t happen!  However…although I can’t see Ulster getting a result in Clermont I am going to back Eric Elwood’s men to both front up AND rise up at the Sportsground and see them through that way.  I think the Saints will prove too good for Munster on the day though only narrowly and as for Leinster, I see the score remaining close till the final quarter when the home side should pull away.

That’s it for me this week…enjoy your dose of Heineken Cup fever and I hope it subsides in time for the Six Nations Syndrome (early symptoms include furious head-scratching) that’s around the corner! JLP

You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/


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