European Cup: Irish Provinces Round Two Preview

Tough road trips the order of the day

After a superb opening weekend for the Irish provinces last week (three wins and one draw), things went tougher in round two where all teams except for Munster Rugby are on their opening European Cup road trip. A weekend which should indicate plenty on how the season in Europe should pan out. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Leinster Rugby good form to continue?

Sexton on fire

No disrespect to Wasps but Leinster Rugby’s first real test in Europe will be this weekend. A trip to Toulouse is always a challenge but given how Leinster Rugby are playing currently, it is a trip which the Irish province will look with confidence. 

Leinster Rugby team news is minimal to say the least. Rob Kearney misses out due to injury so Joe Tomane slots onto the wing while Jordan Larmour if provided sufficient time and space could destroy Toulouse from full back. It is as you were for the rest of the side which comprehensively routed Wasps 52-3 last weekend. 

Toulouse won at Bath Rugby last weekend on the road. Yes, they were let off the hook by Freddy Burns’ late horror show and Toulouse will be the first to admit that they got out of jail. The weather in the South-West of France in recent weeks has being horrendous; rain aplenty which should slow the pitch down significantly.

The pack platform is going to be vital and Toulouse’s disciplinary issues after last weekend could come back to haunt them. Kaino is such a big loss, imposing back row whose tackle count and ball carrying are sensational. If Leinster Rugby are patient here, they will see joy in the third quarter particularly as Toulouse start to tire and give away penalties. 

Leinster Rugby will be asked questions out wide with the likes of Medard in the ranks but Leinster Rugby have the ability to beat you in the loose, set piece or out wide. Leinster Rugby to go away here by ten points after an opening period arm wrestle. 

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby look to kick on 

Grobler on the bench for Gloucester Rugby

Saturday lunchtime kickoff at Thomond Park. An opening European Cup rugby home fixture in Limerick and the venue will be buzzing. After a good draw on the road to Exeter Chiefs last weekend in stormy Sandy Park, Munster Rugby need to kick on and get their campaign fully up and running with a full eighty minute performance against Gloucester Rugby. 

The team news is interesting. Munster Rugby have made four personnel changes for the clash. A brand new front row is a shrewd move and reward for the likes of James Cronin and John Ryan on their cameos last week. Tommy O’Donnell as well gets the nod in the back row, his ball carrying was on point last week and setup Stander’s try. 

Gloucester Rugby make two changes to the side that beat Castres at home last weekend. Grobler must make do with a place on the bench and is replaced by Ed Slater. Matt Banahan replaces Charlie Sharples. The side showed good attacking cameos last weekend with Tom Marshall prominent. 

The key point here is the pack and who creates the platform. Munster Rugby have to start at a high tempo to allow Carbery to orchestrate his three quarters. A big game is required from Dan Goggin who needs to unleash his wide men at regular intervals. Gloucester Rugby were vulnerable on the flanks defensively against Castres last weekend at times. 

A fixture which Munster Rugby know that a win is required; a bonus point is attainable provided that the home side’s basic skill set is up to standard. Gloucester Rugby will look to bed in and try to stay in the contest until the third quarter; hoping that Danny Ciprani produces moments of brilliance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)

Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge 

Daunting road trip

A trip to Racing 92 and the Arena beckons for Ulster Rugby this weekend. It was a good morale boosting win over Leicester Tigers last weekend but the level of competition this weekend is a significant upgrade. 

Racing 92 will look to impose their will on Ulster Rugby in the pack battle; the set piece battle has prompted Marty Moore’s introduction to the side. Kieran Treadwell comes into the lineup at the expense of Alan O’Connor. 

The worry is the absence of John Cooney at nine. The scrum-half has being outstanding again this season. No disrespect to David Shanahan but he will put under the cosh from the first whistle, struggling to see where Ulster Rugby create in the half-back channels and Racing 92 will look to create gain line breaks at will too. 

Racing 92 back line arsenal is vast. Finn Russell should see game time and then you have the likes of Simon Zebo lurking with intent. Ulster Rugby have to be completely switched on here from minute one; tempo will be sky high and the game will be uptempo given the closed roof and pitch. 

The Parisian side for me are one of the sides which could seriously put it up to Leinster Rugby this season in Europe. A statement of intent unfortunately may be issued at home and Ulster Rugby could feel the full force despite a positive opening period. Squad depth issues will be exposed for the Irish province.  

Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)

Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby

Interesting team lineup from Andy Friend

An interesting team lineup from Connacht Rugby. The term ‘youth and experience’ abound from this team sheet. A momentous day for Fitzgerald (ten) and De Buitlear (wing) who make their starting debuts for the province. Buckley, O’Halloran and Farrell return to the side to provide experience as well. 

This is such a key fixture in the context of Sale and Connacht’s aspirations for European Challenge Cup glory. With the French sides in this pool not genuinely interested in the competition, it is a two horse race to secure top spot in the pool. 

Sale Sharks have shown their intention loud and clear with a very strong team selection. McGuigan, O’Connor, Ashton and De Klerk will provide massive attacking threat. Rob Webber and Josh Beaumont will lead by example in the pack. 

Hopefully, the rookies in the Connacht Rugby side have good afternoons but this is a tough assignment given the selection of Sale Sharks. If Connacht Rugby can get a loser bonus point, then would be a good outcome. 

Verdict: Sale Sharks 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 1

New name, same exciting competition!

After the opening salvos in domestic competition, European Cup action looms large on the horizon for the next two weeks. The Heineken Champions Cup sees five intriguing pools with quite a few teams fancying their chances of quarter-final progression. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the pools. 

Pool 1: Pool of Champions

When this pool emerged, it was dubbed the ‘pool of champions’ and rightly so given the history of Toulouse, Wasps, Bath Rugby and Leinster Rugby in this competition. However, one side looks destined to rule the roost in this pool and it is the reigning European Champions Cup holders. 

Leinster Rugby have started as they finished last season, the side have gained momentum in recent weeks with some keynote interpro wins against Connacht Rugby and Munster Rugby in recent weekends. Squad depth looks good for the province and with James Lowe on superb try scoring form, hard not to go past Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s charges. 

Wasps come into the competition on the back of a solid domestic league opening. Third place in the standings with four wins and two losses, the most recent came to Gloucester Rugby (21-35) and a performance which was described by Dai Young as a ‘kick up the backside’. Several injury concerns coming into the competition with the likes of Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson and Brad Shields. Home form will be key for Wasps. 

Bath Rugby come into the competition with more questions than answers. Undoubted talent in the ranks but there are vulnerabilities in the pack which were exposed by Exeter Chiefs last weekend (24-39). Teams need to play clever against Bath Rugby, go too expansive and this team will punish any inaccuracies in open play. Their home game against Toulouse will be a key fixture in determining how far Bath Rugby go in this pool phase. 

Toulouse have an amazing rugby union fan base, historical success but in recent times, success has dried up. The squad boasts the likes of Gray, Medard and Kaino but the Top 14 results have being a mixed bag. An unconvincing 10-0 win to struggling Agen last weekend, a thumping loss away to Montpellier (66-15) on the road. All pool opponents heading to Stade Toulousain will get a tough game, the road trip form of the side is a big question mark.

Verdict:

Provided Leinster Rugby can safely negotiate their first two opening fixtures (Wasps at home, Toulouse on the road), they should be well set to advance as pool winners with December fixtures against Bath Rugby. I do not see two teams advancing from this pool; the English teams potentially cancelling each other out and a vulnerable Toulouse side on the road will not win enough points away to secure a quarter final spot.