Let the battle commence - it’s time for the Towns Cup
THE HEINEKEN CUP group stages have been concluded and the quarter-finals are set in stone. Round 6 is always a weekend of high drama and this year certainly didn't disappoint.
Connacht finished up their respectable campaign with a hard earned victory over Zebre in the Sportsground. Eric Elwood will now concentrate on making head way in the Pro 12 to try and ensure a spot in next year's competition.
The early arrival of Pat Lam in April and the news that the flyer Fionn Carr is heading back west next season (he should never have left) will buoy their spirits for the remainder of the season.
Ulster had already qualified going into last weekend so were fighting for the right to play at home in the next round.
Alas their first win on French soil over Castres couldn't seal the deal as both Saracens and Toulon brandished superior point's differences.
They now have to travel to Sarries in April but will take some solace that, should they overcome the English nomads; they'll have a semi-final in the Aviva against either the Leicester Tigers or Toulon.
If they needed any extra encouragement they'll be up against a team that's helmed by their former captain and coach, Mark McCall.
With Montpellier getting the win against what seemed like a fairly disinterested Toulon outfit (with an alarmingly poor showing from Johnny Wilkinson), it meant that only one of either Leinster or Munster could go through. This added some serious spice to the already eye watering encounters as the two rivals vied for the one remaining runner up spot to advance.
Leinster did all that was asked of them in their final two group matches. Their bonus point win in Exeter on Saturday was an immense feat when you consider the resolve the premiership outfit showed in the RDS earlier in the season when Leinster only scraped a home win.
The return of the big three (Kearney, Fitzgerald and BOD) seems to have given them a new lease of life with the back play really beginning to click.
By only scoring the bare four tries to secure the bonus point however they put themselves under serious pressure. Munster now only needed the bonus point win against Racing Metro regardless of try scoring advantages.
If the feat of getting four tries against a second string Racing side in Thomond Park wasn't easy enough, the task was made simpler in the sixth minute with the Paris outfit's blindside wing forward Antoine Batut getting a straight red following a knee to Tommy O'Donnell's head.
The debate will rage on as to whether it was deserved or not but Wayne Barnes was certainly in no doubt as he reached to the pocket. Batut sulked off and with him went Leinster's hopes of progression. Conor Murray opened the flood gates with a try on the 24th minute and Simon Zebo poured through it with a hat-trick of tries, repeating his feat from last years final group match.
They will now travel to face Conor O'Shea's Harlequins who have resisted the monetary temptations of Twickenham to stage the match at their much smaller home ground of the Stoop, thus negating Munster's famous '16th man'.
Their fans have a habit of getting their hands on tickets though so don't be surprised to see a fair few pockets of red. Hopes of a final appearance will have taken a battering with the news that a semi-final in fortress Clermont awaits the victors (unless Montpellier can cause a serious upset) but I very much doubt they're looking beyond Quins' at this point.
Leinster have to be content with an Amlin quarter-final away to Wasps. If there's any consolation it's that the final will be in the RDS in May, and with the blues hitting some fine form of late I wouldn't bet against them clinching a trophy of a different kind this year.
Meanwhile, this Sunday will mark the start of the competition to claim one of the oldest trophies in Irish rugby, namely the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup.
The silver trophy came into commission in 1892, although the actual competition had been running since 1889 under the guise of the Leinster Junior Challenge Cup, won by Blackrock College on its inaugural outing.
The first provincial team to win the cup was Co. Carlow in 1904 and they went on to dominate for much of the tournaments infancy with five wins under their belt by 1922 when Enniscorthy took over then mantle.
The competition changed to its current format in 1926, introducing the rule that eligible Junior clubs had to be at least 18 miles from the General Post Office in O'Connell Street to become involved in the Provincial Towns Cup.
From a County Wicklow point of view Rathdrum have got the toughest first round assignment this year with a visit from the Division 1B leaders Tullow under the tutelage of Sean O'Brien.
The Carlow men have been in fine fettle of late and are all but crowned as winners of the league with an unbeaten record. Rathdrum are lying near the bottom of Division 3 so it'll be a case of David versus Goliath at the Ivy Leaf Grounds on Sunday.
Arklow have been handed a far more realistic target as they welcome fellow Division 2B side Edenderry to The Oval.
Arklow currently lie fourth in their league, just eight points behind the Offaly men with a game in hand. This one could go either way with the sides so close but with home advantage you'd hope that Arklow can nudge it.
Wicklow RFC have a tricky assignment away to the somewhat unknown quantity of Skerries' J1's.
The north Dublin side are currently second from bottom in their (long-winded) Metro J1 League - Section B (Phase 2) - Group 2 so don't seem to be having the best of seasons. Recent results however suggest something of a resurgence.
Wicklow on the other hand, having started the season so well have had to contend with injuries and the loss of players in key positions of late.
Some of these players will return this week, (including their influential player/coach Niall Smullen), so Wicklow will be hoping for a big performance in Holmpatrick to march on to the second round and get their season back on track.
This year's favourites would have to be the newly crowned 1A league champions Tullamore. The Offaly men last won the cup in 2006 (overcoming Noel Greene's Wicklow in the final) and were beaten finalists three years running (2009-2011).
History tells us though that the Towns Cup tends to leave form at the front gate. Don't bet against anyone lifting that historic trophy!