Munster, Ulster and Leinster face crucial matches in the Heineken Cup this weekend, and Connacht look to make progress in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Paddy Power, the official bookmakers of the IRFU, engage in some crystal ball gazing
Harlequins v Connacht
With former Ireland international Conor O’Shea doing the director of rugby duties with Harlequins, he will know exactly what to expect from Connacht. He’ll know that the Magners League table doesn’t fully do justice to the efforts of the province this season.
Although they sit second-from-bottom, they’ve been within a handful of points of claiming a couple of wins that would have shot them up the standings and into contention for a place in the play-offs.
The element of surprise that often stands to Connacht may be gone, so they’ll have to rely on playing the type of rugby they’re capable of. Coming away with something from the Twickenham Stoop is going to be tough, but increasingly the westerners are boxing clever in their European assignments and will be a handful for their hosts.
It doesn’t hurt that familiarity is a double-edged sword and Eric Elwood has enough knowledge of his former club and international team-mate to know how he likes the game to be played.
Clermont Auvergne v Leinster
Leinster have a huge task on their hands when they travel to the home of the reigning French champions, but they have got one crucial advantage they’ve seldom been able to boast in previous visits to France – in-depth inside knowledge of their opponents.
Joe Schmidt spent several seasons as part of the Clermont Auvergne coaching ticket and who is better placed to bring the house down than a man who played a huge part in building it up?
Any knowledge of Achilles heels will be welcome, because although the Top 14 title holders haven’t had an ideal start to the defence of their hard-won domestic crown, they pack a potent threat all over the pitch.
In fact, rather than being a sign of any significant demise it may be an indication of where this season’s priorities lie. Having finally landed the holy grail of the Top 14, the attitude may be now it’s time to land the Heineken Cup title that would truly mark them out as one of Europe’s giants.
There’s no need for fans to be overly pessimistic. They’ve got the players who can defend relentlessly and launch stinging counter-attacks when the opportunities come.
7/2 for a Leinster win is around the price that has you thinking a win is possible. If Leinster implement their game plan, we can expect a controlled game with the scoreboard unlikely to be moving at the same ferocious pace as the match itself.
A look at the shorter options in the Winning Margin market wouldn’t be inappropriate, chief amongst them the Leinster to win +9 points option @ 10/11.
Munster v Ospreys
If the sight of their team sitting pretty on top of the Magners League wasn’t enough to get the generally shy and retiring Munster fans to feel a little more vocal, then the return of the totemic Paul O’Connell to action surely will.
Injuries and suspensions hamper reigning Magners League champions, the Ospreys, as they prepare for their latest trip to Thomond Park.
Munster will expect to win on their own patch and all the evidence would suggest that confidence is not misplaced. The Ospreys would need to put in a colossal performance to cause an upset and although they’re exactly the type of side capable of putting in a colossal performance on the big occasion, Munster will think they can boss affairs.
With every point being hugely important, Munster will be keen to deny the visitors even a losing bonus point and with that in mind, taking them -8 points @ 10/11 on the Alternative Handicap has a lot of appeal.
Ulster v Bath
Even in the darkest moments of a difficult few seasons, Ulster have been a handful for some of Europe’s leading lights at Ravenhill. With the team now packed with talent and in some decent form, confidence should be high ahead of the first part of a double header with Bath.
There’s no hiding behind the fact they haven’t managed the consistency they would like, but it speaks volumes about the talent now within their ranks that they’re still well placed in the race for the Magners League play-offs and not a million miles off the summit.
For all their attacking flair, a miserly defence has been the foundation upon which Ulster’s encouraging start to the season has been built.
They’ve conceded both the least points and the least tries in the Magners League and despite ultimately losing in the Basque country, they did hold the explosive Biarritz back-line to a 3-3 scoreline during the first half of that match. Winning Saturday’s game at 2/5 is a minimum.
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