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Moving Day In The Heineken Cup

Moving Day In The Heineken Cup

The back-to-back fixtures over the next two weeks are akin to ‘moving Saturday’ in golfing parlance. It is over these two weekends that teams will either move forward to a position where they can close out the deal or find themselves out of contention.

For some of the bigger institutions in a European context closing out the deal means securing a home quarter-final as opposed to simply being in the hat.

That is the position Leinster find themselves in, with Jonathan Sexton speaking quite openly about the importance of an away win against Bath this weekend in that context.

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We will come back to that because the pick of the reverse fixtures has to be Munster versus Scarlets. The first of these sees Munster travel to Parc y Scarlets with the extraordinary Ronan O’Gara set to make his 100th Heineken Cup appearance, joining his old ‘mucker’ John Hayes as only the second player to reach this milestone.

He just does not know when to stop breaking new ground, that lad. What chance that he wins this game with a last-minute drop goal?

You have to hand it to the Welsh. They have a truckload of new, young talent establishing themselves right now. It is only last season that the Scarlets were supposedly in crisis, with their budget slashed and having to depend on Academy players coming through.

Playing bright, ‘heads up’ support rugby they have given themselves a new lease of life and what appeared to be a pool of death seems to be between these two teams after just two rounds.

Stephen Jones, Sean Lamont and Deacon Manu provide a fulcrum of experience but the likes of George North and Jon Davies are also well not shy of that despite their youth.

Other players such as Ben Morgan, Aaron Shingler, Damian Welch, Daniel Evans and Rob McCusker have not established themselves as household names but are part of unit that knows how it wants to play and delivers on it.

This game will essentially be about tempo with the Scarlets looking to play at high speed and the canny O’Gara looking to slow it down and pin them in the corner. It will be fascinating to see who can inflict their preferred game on the other.

The news of Doug Howlett’s injury causing him to miss the rest of the season is a bad blow for the player and squad. The former All Black had been in flying form, sharp as a tack as he showed in scoring against the Ospreys last week.

On a rolling one year deal (as is the norm for overseas players over 30), it has to be questionable as to whether the PAG/IRFU will sanction another contract for Howlett given his age, but hopefully this does not mean we have seen the end of the hugely committed New Zealander in a red shirt.

With Felix Jones also long term injured and Keith Earls only now back in training and unlikely to make the starting line-up, Munster are without their first choice back-three.

This will likely mean they are even more focused on Rog kicking the corners. Munster supporters are rightly discombobulated with their injury situation with a third of their starting side now out. As one fan put it on hearing the Howlett news, ‘Haven’t we been punished enough for Good Friday pints’.

Meanwhile, having digested the impact of Brian O’Driscoll’s injury-enforced absence, Leinster sail on serenely. Last week’s disposal of the Cardiff Blues may have been assisted by the Wales match against Australia, but they still looked mighty impressive in clocking up over half a century of points.

Bath at the Rec is never exactly easy but Bath are struggling at the moment, languishing in tenth of the twelve Aviva Premiership sides.

Their coach Bradley Davis bemoaned their form after they lost 16-13 at home to Sale last weekend, saying: “We’ve all got to look hard at ourselves – coaches included – because the performances we are putting in at the moment aren’t of a standard that’s expected at Bath Rugby.”

There was a hint of desperation in that home defeat to Sale as Bath were 10-0 up at half-time. Tony Buckley made an important carry for Sale in the build-up to their try that brought them back into the game, but Bath could not convert late pressure into a match-winning try.

When you look through the Bath team last week they have a few marquee names in the back-line such as Banahan, Abendanon, Barkley and Claasens, but their pack looks somewhat callow, with the exception of Dave Flatman.

Ryan Caldwell has been playing well for them, carrying a huge amount of ball but they were missing 13 players last week, having to recall Josh Ovens from loan to play.

Dan Hipkiss, Stephen Donald, Lee Mears, Lewis Moody, Ben Skirving and Tom Biggs would make a big difference to their team but it remains to be seen what kind of side they can put out on Sunday.

Donald made a big difference for them in their 16-13 win at home to Montpellier in their last Heineken Cup match, looking a class act with ball in hand.

For all the doom and gloom enveloping them, they were a ridiculous bounce of the ball away from beating Glasgow away in their first match which would have left them on top of the pool in a very different frame of mind.

When last drawn together in 2005/06, both sides beat each other away, with Leinster’s thrilling win in the reverse match putting them through to face Toulouse away in that memorable quarter-final. I would expect Leinster to repeat that away win, though it will not be easy.

Ulster can put themselves in a challenging position with home and away wins over Aironi over the coming fortnight. They will come up against their old mate Marco Bortolami, whose team are winless since their first league match at home to Edinburgh.

Although the Italians got hammered away to Clermont Auvergne, their first match in the pool at home to Leicester saw them deny the Tigers a bonus point. That may become significant later on in the pool, but for now we can expect Ulster to collect the bonus point win.

Connacht welcome Gloucester to town after the high and low of Toulouse. Their first home match took a little wind out of their sails after such a good performance away to the other high-flying team in the group.

Gloucester represents a far more achievable objective, even if Connacht’s form is not as they would wish as they have now lost eight straight.

However, if they can play as they did away to Harlequins they would surely get the ‘W’. As disappointing as the home defeat to Benetton Treviso was last weekend, it did feature David McSharry’s first try for the province.

McSharry and fellow centre tyro Eoin Griffin are prime examples of how Connacht can bring young players through and expose them to top level rugby.

Of the six Heineken Cup matches this is certainly the most winnable for Connacht and with the backing of a full house, I think they can take this one against a less than fully focused Gloucester side.

All in all, another action-packed weekend coming up with prospects looking pretty good for the Irish sides.

However, with the exception of Ulster, the matches could go either way – just the way they should be. It is ‘moving Saturday’ as the golfers say – time to get the course management right and trust the swing.