5 Dec, 14:49
The Ireland Under-19 squad to face Australia Schools at Ravenhill on Saturday week (December 14) has been announced.
Last week I mentioned how Irish teams have tended not to do so well in the aftermath of World Cups and dared to whisper the dreaded potential whitewash of Irish sides in the opening round of the Heineken Cup. I did recover somewhat to predict that Munster would storm through and that Ulster also had a good chance of a win.
However, all four provinces produced something to be proud of. Starting with Friday night, Connacht almost conjured up one of the greatest wins in the history of the tournament against a hitherto rampant Harlequins.
They faced up to the challenge manfully and outscored their vaunted hosts by two tries to one. With all the momentum behind them, they were one point behind with three minutes to go before conceding two late penalties to the unerring Nick Evans.
In fact, there was a third equally damaging penalty concession in the middle that put them on the back foot and effectively denied them a win, setting up the lineout from which Connacht conceded the penalty that denied them even the most deserved losing bonus point.
Johnny Muldoon captured the mood well when he said 'we're sick of the clap on the back'. However, he was also right in pointing out that Connacht played the better, more entertaining style of rugby. A sloppy patch before half-time allied to those late penalties hurt them.
Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O'Halloran impressed alongside Miah Nikorah and Gavan Duffy in the backline while the entire pack put in a shift, Muldoon in particular. Daunting as it may be taking on the most successful team in the history of the competition, Connacht are clearly relishing the prospect of making it deeply uncomfortable in front of a lusty full-house in the Sportsgrounds.
Toulouse are 6/1 on for the win, which strikes me as pretty poor value in circumstances where the weather is almost certain to be awful and Toulouse were pretty unimpressive in just about seeing off Gloucester in the dying moments at home last weekend. Clement Poitrenaud was the honourable exception, but he can't be fancied to produce those heroics in horizontal rain this weekend!
The battle between Sexton and O'Gara for domestic supremacy shows no sign of abating, with both producing tours de force in the closing stages to rescue their teams. Sexton shaded it for me in knocking over not one, but two, 'top of the bus' kicks from wide angles on his 'wrong' side under the pressure of a supremely hostile crowd.
The reigning champions displayed wonderful resilience in upping their game when it was needed to chase down a pumped-up home team. Whatever about the ongoing battle between Sexton and O'Gara, the battle between Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin will be one to watch this season. Cronin laid down a considerable marker with the manner of his try. Maybe he's the answer to the outside centre berth in O'Driscoll's absence!
Glasgow got the luckiest bounce of the ball imaginable for their winning try in their last minute victory at home to Bath last week. This was a good result for Leinster in the context of the group, as Bath might be expected to sustain a challenge more than Glasgow.
Leinster should have no huge problem in gaining revenge for their RaboDirect Pro 12 defeat away to Glasgow Warriors on Sunday.
Munster and Castres is one of those fixtures that seems like a hardy perennial of the tournament but in fact they haven't played each other since the 2005/06 season, when Munster completed the double over Castres, including a 46-9 away victory.
Castres' gamble of moving the fixture to Toulouse in the hope of benefiting from a bumper payday appears to be rebounding on them and this may make Munster's task that little bit easier. Having got out of jail last week with the most astonishingly sustained and patient masterclass in working a drop goal position anyone is ever likely to see, Munster need to win this one if they are to get the jump on a Northampton side that looks like it may be ready to go a stage further than last year.
Good to see Peter O'Mahony continuing his strong Pro12 form into the higher level. He was actually named on the Planet Rugby Team of the Weekend for last weekend.
The only fly in the ointment is that Castres seem to have recovered their form to become a serious outfit again. They currently lie third in the Top 14 having won seven out of ten matches. This includes a whopping 24-3 win over Toulouse early in the season.
Of course, this needs to be viewed in the context of the Rugby World Cup having decimated the Toulouse squad. That said, this remains one of only two defeats suffered by Toulouse this season. Paddy Power makes Castres one-point favourites for this one.
One of the tries of the weekend was scored at Ravenhill last Saturday when Adam D'Arcy made a brilliant outside break and Ian Humphreys adroitly changed his support line to make it to the line against the formidable Clermont team.
This was a fine win against a top-class side and while Ulster's Pro12 form hasn't exactly been outstanding, they are nourished by their escape from their Heineken pool last year. This weekend they face a team unbeaten in their last 16 European ties at Welford Road.
Against that, Ulster have lost their last 8 Heineken matches on the road. No brainer you would have to think. Except that's not how Ulster are viewing things. It is just possible that last weekend's win can light the blue touch paper for their season.
Certainly Ian Humphreys sounds bullish when he said 'We feel that, even when we go away from home, we've got the quality to beat teams.' Meanwhile Brian McLaughlin is clear in what Ulster need to do to have any chance "The key thing for us this week is the emphasis that we place on our set piece.
They've got a top quality pack, they're still very much set piece dominated and we are under no illusions we will have to have these areas of our game perfect'. Stephen Ferris was in outstanding form last week and there is quality in the backline, but the thing that got Ulster over the line was a collective will and the moment of magic from D'Arcy.
This tournament really is unrelenting as this weekend looks just as tough as last weekend. One thing you can count on though with the Irish sides is that they will bring all they have to the party. So maybe the hangover can be postponed once again.