A weekend dripping with Irish significance

A stranger perusing the team sheets in advance of this afternoon’s opening Champions Cup quarter-final might be forgiven for thinking that a Currie Cup fixture has been transported from Cape Town to Edinburgh.

A weekend dripping with Irish significance

ON EDINBURGH VERSUS MUNSTER...

A stranger perusing the team sheets in advance of this afternoon’s opening Champions Cup quarter-final might be forgiven for thinking that a Currie Cup fixture has been transported from Cape Town to Edinburgh. Botha, Klyen, Stander, Schoeman, Nel, Van Der Merwe, Van Der Walt. Common South African surnames, yet not a franchise in sight from Bok country. Welcome to professional rugby.

If Munster were playing Glasgow Warriors in Scotland today, many would fancy the chances of the home side to make the semi-final. The fact that Glasgow beat Munster 31-13 in a Pro 12 final in Belfast as recently as 2015, and have always made life difficult for Munster, would make for a very tight encounter.

Every season the two Scottish sides contest for the 1872 Cup over a series of three local derbies. The fact that Edinburgh beat the Warriors twice over the Christmas period means that bragging rights in relation to the leading Scottish region this season have already been decided. Edinburgh have arrived.

Richard Cockerill has presided over a massive transformation in their fortunes. Their Champions Cup pool results demand respect, given that few saw them advance from a quartet containing recent European kingpins Toulon, last season’s French Top 14 runners-up Montpellier and Premiership side Newcastle under the direction of Cockerill’s former Leicester teammate Dean Richards.

The fact that Edinburgh advanced, winning five of their six games, including home and away victories over Toulon, highlights the magnitude of the task facing Munster today. It doesn’t help either that Munster often struggle against sides who adopt the same playing style as them when it comes to winning games of this nature. Exeter Chiefs proved one such opponent. Two points separated the aggregate score between sides at the conclusion of the pool stage, with Billy Holland’s crucial line-out steal, five metres from his own line on an Exeter throw, proving pivotal.

Today’s encounter could prove every bit as tight. Edinburgh’s game plan could have been copied and pasted from Johann van Graan’s laptop. Cockerill has worked wonders with Edinburgh’s set piece, directing every nugget gleaned from his glory days with a Leicester Tigers pack that dominated the domestic and European stage in the early noughties.

With that platform, they retain possession well and bring a very effective kicking game that enables them to play in the opposition half of the field for long periods. Once they gain a foothold in opposition 22, they are very effective in grinding out points on the board. Their forward unit today is superior in many aspects to the pack Scotland had in the Six Nations. They boast an extremely well- balanced back row in Hamish Watson at open side, mercurial Fijian No 8 Bill Mata and Scottish captain and former Scarlet, John Barclay, who has just returned from injury. Cockerill’s charges narrowly lost out, 20-16, in the Guinness PRO14 quarter-final at

Thomond Park last May. With home advantage, they will fancy their chances this time out. Munster have been warned.

ON LEINSTER VERSUS ULSTER...

A famous photograph adorns the entrance hall to the Brumbies training base in Canberra. Grown men, dancing around the dressing room, swinging Brumbies jersies above their heads like kids in a playground. Among them is former Munster second row John Langford.

At the outset of the professional game, the ARU recognised the need to strengthen a potential sleeping giant in the Australian Capital Territory in their desire to increase the depth available to the national squad.

As a result, a number of players who failed to make the cut with the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Warratahs were shipped off to Canberra and the Brumbies were born. When the new franchise beat the Warratahs for the first time in 1997, with a team containing a number of players, including Langford, who were deemed surplus to requirements in Sydney, they went ballistic. Their motivation to prove a point that day drove them above and beyond the call of duty to a record 56-7 victory.

Half the Ulster pack facing Leinster today are products of the Leinster system. Eric O’Sullivan, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney will leave nothing behind in their quest to down their home province and will be aided in that quest by two more Leinster graduates in scrum-half John Cooney and second-row replacement Alan O Connor.

The biggest challenge facing the hosts today is hitting the ground running with a combination that hasn’t played together since their 19-37 defeat of Wasps in January. With so many away on Six Nations duty since then, adjusting to the Leinster way of playing might take a while.

Ulster have a chance of creating a big upset and, with a sizeable following at the Aviva Stadium — close to 15,000 Ulster supporters are expected to make the journey south — this won’t feel like an away decider.

To have any chance, however, their front five need to deliver a season’s-best performance. Their chances have received a massive boost with Lions second row Iain Henderson cleared to play after his recent knee injury.

It doesn’t help the cause that Ulster’s most consistent performer behind the scrum this season, Will Addison, is an injury-enforced absentee. On the flip side, a Leinster side shorn of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe and Devin Toner is vulnerable. To win today, Ulster require a performance of monumental proportions and perhaps an inner desire driven by a cohort of former Blues with something personal to prove. Unlikely, but not impossible. Just ask the Brumbies.

ON RACING 92 VERSUS TOULOUSE...

For some, Irish interest in the quarter-final clashes over the weekend will end with the final whistle at the Aviva Stadium. By then Munster, Leinster and Ulster will know their fate and whether their participation in Europe extends to a Champions Cup semi-final.

Irish involvement doesn’t end there, however, and the outcome of Sunday’s clash between French Top 14 giants Racing 92 and Toulouse should attract more than a passing interest. At the very least, the presence of Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan in Racing colours demands the attention of the Munster contingent, with both players still highly regarded by the SUAF faithful.

If Leinster have booked their passage to the semi by that stage, their following will have even more interest in the outcome of proceedings in Paris, given that a victory for Racing would result in a rematch with last season’s beaten finalists in their theatrical new surroundings at the Paris la Defence Arena. What a game that would be. If Ulster win, they too are headed in the same direction.

Should Toulouse do a number on their Top 14 compatriots, then the winner of the all-Irish quarter-final can sit back and contemplate the short journey back to Irish rugby headquarters at Lansdowne Road. How ironic then that two former Munster stalwarts are set to play a pivotal role in deciding Irish fortunes.

Ryan had already won the hearts of the Racing fans on the back of a superb debut season, despite missing the opening months of their campaign due to injury. His exploits played a big part in them making the final last season, as did his line out presence against Munster in the semi-final in Bordeaux.

If Ryan’s integration was delayed somewhat by that back injury, Zebo wasted no time in winning favour in his new surroundings. His temperament and flamboyant nature is tailor-made for a club that plays in an arena more befitting a rock concert than a field sport.

It helped that in flying French winger Teddy Thomas and Scotland’s ever-improving No 10 Finn Russell, the Cork man found a pair of kindred spirits. That trio are made for each other and have become the darlings of the Racing crowd.

If Racing progress, home advantage and a greater familiarity in performing on a stage about as far removed from a traditional rugby pitch as you’re ever likely to encounter, will prove significant. In addition, the two Irish internationals in exile will be energised even further, in a humdinger against Irish opposition, to remind Joe Schmidt just why he should revisit the merits of including them in his World Cup squad for Japan.

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