When word filtered through to Thomond Park on Saturday that Denis Leamy would join Doug Howlett on the sidelines for the rest of the season, you could almost sense the collective groan within the squad.
Injuries have a massive part to play in the fortunes of every professional side, with an average of 25% of your playing personnel on the treatment table at any point in time. Is it any wonder the teams with the greatest resources at their disposal invariably are the one’s challenging for honours at the end of the season?
Connacht are finding out the hard way that it is impossible to challenge on any front without decent back-up in all positions and the festive break was particularly unkind, with injuries to Brian Touhy, Jonny and Niall O’Connor putting further pressure on their small squad. That they are hurting was underlined by that very disappointing defeat away to the Rabo Direct Pro 12’s basement side Aironi in northern Italy last Saturday.
The euphoria that greeted Connacht’s elevation to the Heineken Cup this season has been washed away by a disastrous run of defeats and their trip to Toulouse this weekend could not come at a more challenging time. Eric Elwood is undergoing a baptism of fire in his first season as head coach but he just has to keep positive and hope that all the hard work being put into rugby in the west at present will gain its just rewards. Connacht are doing some remarkable things at underage level at present and will eventually see a return from that investment.
In the short term, though, there could be more pain on the horizon, with Toulouse urgently requiring a five-point return from next weekend’s game after losing at home to Harlequins in the last round of the Heineken Cup. Guy Noves’ side sit atop the French championship and in recognition of that, new French coach Philippe Saint Andre has recalled Clement Poitrenaud, Lionel Beauxis, Yann David and Yannick Nyanga to the national squad, along with uncapped second row Yoann Maestri. In total Toulouse have 12 players in the French squad for the Six Nations which underlines the task facing Connacht on Saturday.
By way of contrast, tight-head prop Luc Ducalcon is the only Castres player to make Saint Andre’s 30-man squad. That offers an insight into the difference in the challenges faced by both Munster and Connacht this weekend. In addition Munster are at home while Connacht’s brittle confidence will be pushed to the limit at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika’s Stade Francais scored six tries in a 38-21 win over Castres last weekend as their defence was exposed once again on the road. Munster will need to be patient in this one. While Castres are out of the tournament, they will not wish to suffer another humiliation, similar to that when they were demolished 45-0 in the last round at Franklins Gardens. Castres put up a serious challenge — it was only 3-0 to Northampton at half-time — until the final quarter when the Saints went for the jugular, scoring five tries in 18 minutes. In contrast, Castres were appalling in the opening quarter last weekend against Stade and found themselves 28-0 down after 18 minutes before mounting a face-saving recovery. Munster have done remarkably well in the Heineken Cup this season but to maximise their chances of making the last four, need to secure one of those vital home quarter-finals.
It would also help enormously from a revenue-generating perspective. In addition to amending the policy in relation to non-Irish qualified players, the IRFU are now also seeking to reduce the number of national contracts from a current level of 30 to about 22. That means that several players will be downgraded to provincial contracts with a sizeable reduction in income. In many of those cases the province will be faced with the challenge of softening that financial hit. For that reason alone, a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup along with a semi-final in the Pro 12 will become even more important in balancing the books and helping to keep even our Irish players on board.
Therefore it would be an enormous boost if Munster could somehow eke out a bonus point win before heading to Milton Keynes to face Northampton on Saturday week. While the Saints will be out of the running at that stage, they will be gunning for Munster after what happened in Thomond Park in the opening round.
Leinster have a few demons to exorcise themselves, given they have lost on their last five visits to Glasgow, where they meet the Warriors in that awful early Heineken Cup slot at 12.45pm on Sunday. Glasgow will also feel that they have something to prove after suffering an embarrassing 38-13 defeat at the RDS in round two. Leinster have the arsenal to do that to teams at the moment and have a strut of confidence in everything they do.
Joe Schmidt, whether by accident or design, even took the timely decision to start an all-Irish qualified side against the Cardiff Blues last Saturday in a timely reminder of the homegrown talent that is coming through the system there at present. A win on Sunday will not only see Leinster qualified for the knockout stage but will tee them up nicely to finish as one of the top two seeds, with a home draw by finishing the job against Montpellier on Saturday week.
The tie of the round could well be in Ravenhill on Friday night when Ulster entertain Leicester Tigers with everything to play for. They have to win this one and even then face a daunting trip to Clermont Auvergne the following week. Ulster produced their best performance of the season in that 20-42 win over Edinburgh in Murrayfield last week when the return of all their Irish internationals made a significant difference. Leicester are also in the middle of a horrific injury run at present with Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood and Louis Deacon, among others, all ruled out at this stage.
New Zealand World Cup winner John Afoa has added steel to the Ulster front five in addition to a very good work ethic around the field, and his presence could well tip the balance in Ulster’s favour as it offers them the chance to at least match the traditional might of the Leicester scrum. Much will depend on how Tom Court manages to deal with Martin Castrogiovanni on the other side of the scrum.