D-Day arrives for talisman O’Connell

MUNSTER will be hoping an early Christmas present arrives when Paul O’Connell’s appeal against a four-week ban is heard today.

European Cup Rugby (ERC) last night confirmed O’Connell’s appeal will be heard today by conference call. The independent appeal committee will be chaired by Professor Lorne Crerar (Scotland) and will also comprise Rod McKenzie (Scotland) and Simon Thomas (Wales).

O’Connell was handed a four-week ban following a red card for foul play against the Ospreys’ Jonathan Thomas in Munster’s Heineken Cup clash with the Welsh outfit on December 16.

However, O’Connell yesterday lodged an appeal against that sanction, in the hope he will be freed to play in Munster’s next Heineken Cup assignment, a must-win clash away to Toulon.

The ERC yesterday announced that game will take place on Sunday, January 16, as they confirmed the dates for rounds five and six.

Northampton could become the first team through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup after round five. The Pool 1 table toppers take on Edinburgh at Franklins Gardens on Friday January 14, one of three games to be played that night, including the clash between French aces Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro, which will be of huge interest to Pool 2 leaders Leinster.

Leinster will be in action against Saracens at the RDS the following day and look certain to be in an even better position at the end of that early afternoon kick-off.

It’s a key fixture too for Ulster in Pool 4 when they take on leaders Biarritz at Ravenhill on the Saturday, knowing that a win would put them in control before their journey to take on Aironi in the last match.

There is no doubt about what Munster have to achieve in rounds five and six — victories away to Toulon and home to London Irish are absolutely essential, and they especially have to win in France on Sunday, January 16.

Should they lose there, it’s all over for a team that made reaching the knockout stages of the tournament a matter of right.

They face a difficult week in that they must travel back from France and take on the Exiles just six days later at Thomond Park in round six, although the result might not mean anything at that stage.

Defending Heineken Cup champions Toulouse and former double winners London Wasps will bring the curtain down on the pool stages when they clash in a key Pool 6 contest at Adams Park on Sunday, January 23.

The two matches in each pool will kick-off simultaneously in round six with Dragons and Glasgow Warriors joining Toulouse and Wasps on the final day of Pool action.

Cardiff Blues and Castres Olympique will get Round 5 underway at Cardiff City Stadium on Friday, January 14, with Northampton Saints playing Edinburgh and Clermont Auvergne meeting Metro Racing 92 later that night.

The Ospreys take on Toulon at the same time as Munster meet London Irish on Saturday, January 22.

Meanwhile, Cardiff number eight Xavier Rush has been handed a one-week ban for the red card he received during his side’s Heineken Cup clash with Northampton on Sunday.

Rush was sent off by referee Jerome Garces for a dangerous tackle on Courtney Lawes, in contravention of Law 10.4 (e). He will now miss the Blues’ Magners League trip to the Dragons on Monday, December 27.

Heineken Cup, round five

Friday, January 14

Pool 1: Cardiff Blues v Castres Olympique, 7.30pm; Northampton Saints v Edinburgh, 8pm

Pool 2: Clermont Auvergne v Racing Metro 92, 8pm.

Saturday, January 15

Pool 2: Leinster v Saracens, 1.30pm

Pool 4: Bath v Aironi, 2.30pm; Ulster v Biarritz Olympique, 3.30pm.

Pool 5: Benetton Treviso v Perpignan, 1.30pm.; Scarlets v Leicester, 5.45pm.

Pool 6: Toulouse v Dragons, 1.30pm.

Sunday, January 16

Pool 3: Toulon v Munster, 3pm.; London Irish v Ospreys, 3pm.

Pool 6: Glasgow Warriors v London Wasps, 1pm.

Round Six

Friday, January 21

Pool 2: Saracens v Clermont Auvergne, 8pm.; Racing Metro 92 v Leinster, 8pm.

Saturday, January 22

Pool 1: Castres Olympique v Northampton Saints, 5.45pm.; Edinburgh v Cardiff, 5.45pm.

Pool 3: Munster v London Irish, 3.30pm.; Ospreys v Toulon, 3.30pm.

Pool 4: Aironi v Ulster, 1.30pm.; Biarritz Olympique v Bath, 1.30pm.

Sunday, January 23

Pool 5: Perpignan v Scarlets, 1pm.; Leicester Tigers v Benetton Treviso, 1pm

Pool 6: Newport Gwent Dragons v Glasgow Warriors, 3pm.; London Wasps v Toulouse, 3pm.

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