CHANGED times. Yet again two Irish teams contest the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup but for the first time in 13 years, Munster are not one of them. Instead the twice champions enjoy a support role this weekend, contesting a game in the Amlin Challenge Cup for the first time in their European history.
Leinster, with a home draw at the quarter and semi-final stages, have been elevated to tournament favourites, such was the positive manner in which they negotiated their way through a very difficult pool. Emerging from a group containing the reigning French champions, Clermont Auvergne, their high-flying French rivals Racing Metro and formidable Premiership contenders Saracens, more than justifies the high expectations placed on the shoulders of Leo Cullen’s men.
He, more than anyone, given the education he received over a few exciting seasons at Welford Road, will appreciate the task his charges face at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. The Tigers will suffer no inhibitions travelling to Dublin and will make life much harder for Leinster than Clermont Auvergne did when they pitched up on Lansdowne Road last December.
Ulster must quickly deal with the excitement of making it this far for the first time since the turn of the century if they are to meet the challenge of No 1 seed from the pool stage, Northampton. They were the only side to emerge unbeaten from the opening six games of this season’s Heineken Cup. Ulster now need to stop patting themselves on the back after their long-awaited qualification and set about the task of asking serious questions of Northampton.
The Saints have had a torrid time of late, even if the return of their international contingent has inspired a revival over the past fortnight. Certainly their impressive wins over Wasps and Sale Sharks signalled a return to the blistering form that impressed so many shrewd observers before Christmas and if they continue in that vein, they’ll make life very difficult for Ulster.
The one thing in Ulster’s favour is that Northampton were forced to move the game from the comforts of their intimate home at Franklin’s Gardens to Milton Keynes. Ulster’s support will travel in great numbers and, all of a sudden, the home draw they deserved as top seed has been diluted to a degree. Ulster must take advantage of that.
For once, Munster are off Broadway on a European weekend with their 1pm kick off in central France having the feel of a warm-up act before the big boys come out to play. Now that they have dealt with the disappointment of where they are — last Saturday’s excellent win over Leinster will help in that respect — Munster must go for broke and bring European rugby back to Thomond Park once more this season, where an attractive semi-final clash against either Wasps or Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins offers a tangible reward for a win in Brive tomorrow.
After a dreadful season that has seen them produce only seven league wins, last weekend’s 26-9 victory over fellow strugglers La Rochelle has eased the threat of relegation that has been hanging over them all season. It should also allow them to relax and enjoy the visit of Munster. How that (win against La Rochelle) will impact on their performance remains to be seen but the loss of Paul O’Connell to yet another serious injury will dampen the spirits within the Munster camp. However, they (Munster) should pack too much power and experience to falter here.
Leinster’s clash with the Tigers is undoubtedly the tie of the round, even if last season’s finalists Biarritz and Toulouse would beg to differ. In truth, their contest this time around in the beautiful surroundings of San Sebastian should be a far better affair than the dull final showing of last May. There are those who suggest that Toulouse are on the slide, with an ageing squad, especially behind the scrum, where veterans with serious pedigree like Byron Kelleher, David Skrela, Yannick Jauzion, Florien Fritz, Carl Hayman and Clement Poitrenaud continue to strut their stuff. At their height, they were poetry in motion but the question persists, do they still have the hunger for battle? Either way, that contest will be decided up front, where Toulouse still retain a formidable starting pack with an even greater menace off the bench.
The remaining quarter-final contest between Munster’s conquerors, Toulon, and Perpignan appears a more open affair. It would be some achievement for Toulon to make the last four on their debut season in the Heineken Cup but then again when you can field a back row of the quality of George Smith, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Joe Van Niekerk, along with a half-back pairing of Pierre Mignoni and Jonny Wilkinson, anything is possible.
But for David Lemi’s spectacular try deep into injury-time for Wasps against Toulouse in the very last contest of the pool stage, Toulon would be heading to Dublin. That would have suited Leinster far better in my opinion. Leicester have a very balanced team with a formidable front five, quality half-backs and good finishers.
Having exposed the limitations of the English midfield in the final round of the Six Nations, I am looking forward to seeing how England World Cup hopeful Manu Tuilagi fares against the collective genius of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. A good showing by him and he could be back with England when Martin Johnson winds up their RWC preparations in the Aviva Stadium on August 27. This is a huge game for Leinster as I firmly believe that if they win this one, they will go on to win the Heineken Cup for the second time. The game is that big.
Ulster’s task is even more formidable than Leinster’s. Northampton gave Munster a good run for their money last season and are an even better team this time around. I believe that they have gained appreciably from their quarter-final experience 12 months ago and if they put that experience to good effect then they should account for Brian McLaughlin’s squad. Ulster were very disappointing in their biggest away test of the pool stage when they completely capitulated in the second half against Biarritz in the Parc des Sports Aguilera.
The key for Ulster is belief. They must travel to Milton Keynes with a genuine belief that they can win this game and throw everything at Northampton for 80 minutes. It will no longer be good enough for their indigenous players to sit back and let the South African contingent lead the way. To win this one, and they are capable of doing it if they go about it in the right way, then they require all hands on deck from the off.
For Munster, the rebuilding process has already started but a successful conclusion to their season in Europe, albeit in tier two of the competition, will go a long way to preparing some of the younger brigade for a renewed assault on the Heineken Cup next year. All great campaigns start somewhere. From Munster’s perspective, why not Brive 13 months out from next season’s final?