We’re in for an­other cracking weekend of nail bit­ing rugby as Toulouse come call­ing to Lim­er­ick

Bray People - - SPORT - SI­MON NOR­TON

I FEEL I’ve been a wee bit ne­glect­ful of our Western bretheren in my last few out­ings so I’ll start this week’s Front Row View by con­grat­u­lat­ing Con­nacht on their re­cent run of good form in the Pro 12.

While I’ve had my eyes firmly fo­cused on the 6 Na­tions and provin­cial der­bies, the men from Galway have been hav­ing some­thing of an In­dian sum­mer, win­ning four on the trot (some­thing they haven’t man­aged for 12 years) be­fore se­cur­ing two los­ing bonus points against a near full strength Scar­lets away last weekend.

It shoots Con­nacht up the ta­ble from the dol­drums to sev­enth place and puts them in touch­ing dis­tance of a Euro­pean qual­i­fi­ca­tion spot (what­ever com­pe­ti­tion that may turn out to be). To see them achieve this with a squad of young, mainly Ir­ish qual­i­fied play­ers is great for rugby on this is­land and here’s hop­ing that Pat Lam's charges can push on from here.

Next up for this young side is Ul­ster whose most re­cent form has been in di­rect con­trast to Con­nacht. The North­ern­ers last two games have hardly been the best prepa­ra­tion for their up­com­ing show­down with Sara­cens in the Heineken Cup quar­ter fi­nals as they stut­tered to vic­tory over a poor Ed­in­burgh side be­fore get­ting a first half thump­ing from a fairly rag tag Cardiff out­fit.

The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor from both of these per­for­mances was the ab­sence of a cer­tain Ruan Pien­arr who fights a race against time to be fit for the Sar­ries game. His in­flu­ence will be vi­tal if Ul­ster are to suc­ceed.

Poor de­fence and dis­ci­pline marred their per­for­mance against Cardiff. You got the feel­ing that this match was an in­con­ve­nience be­fore the real job at hand the fol­low­ing weekend but if they play like that again they’ll be wal­loped un­der the fancy new stand at Raven­hill. I haven’t seen a 50 me­tre maul (like the one Cardiff pro­duced in the first half) since watch­ing UCD play sev­ens and it re­ally un­der­lined the anaemic na­ture of the front five as they failed to front up.

There were mo­ments of hope, mainly from the back three of Andrew Trim­ble, Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne and Ul­ster could have even snuck the win fol­low­ing a late rally but they’ll do well to put this per­for­mance be­hind them.

I’m quite sure there’ll be an in­crease in tempo and ac­cu­racy (par­tic­u­larly at the li­ne­out with the re­turn­ing Rory Best) against Sara­cens but I get the feel­ing that with­out Pien­arr, they could re­ally strug­gle. Sar­ries are still top of the Aviva Pre­mier­ship by a fairly healthy mar­gin and tend to rack up some hefty score lines with their beefy pack and nippy back­line.

While Ul­ster's lead up to the quar­ter fi­nals hasn't been ideal, you can’t ar­gue the same about both Le­in­ster and Mun­ster.

Their head to head bat­tle at the Aviva was the per­fect dress re­hearsal for the knock out stages as they kicked the prover­bial seven shades out of each other with­out suf­fer­ing any ma­jor in­jury wor­ries.

The fact that it was played out in front of 50,000 sup­port­ers shows the ap­petite for the Pro 12 is still alive and well (in Ire­land any­way) de­spite what the Welsh think.

Jerry Flan­nery cheek­ily quipped that it was good to see so many Le­in­ster fans look­ing through the match pro­gramme to learn the player’s names be­fore kick off but I’m sure it was all good na­tured provin­cial ban­ter.

Un­for­tu­nately my Ir­ish isn’t what it should be so, bar Jerry’s well timed in­ter­jec­tions, the rest of the com­men­tary was a bit a blur.

While I ap­pre­ci­ate the idea be­hind show­ing matches on TG4, it'd be great if they had a ‘red but­ton’ op­tion for an English speak­ing al­ter­na­tive like the Welsh chan­nel S4C pro­vide. This was a match that quite a few ca­sual or even first time fans would have tuned in for and if they didn’t un­der­stand the com­men­tary they may have been a lit­tle lost, par­tic­u­larly with some of Alain Rol­land’s de­ci­sions.

With Le­in­ster’s in­jury plagued prop sit­u­a­tion, Mun­ster had the dom­i­nant scrum and I don’t think Rol­land gave them the ben­e­fit of this. In other ar­eas I can’t fault him as much how­ever as Mun­ster were fairly ill dis­ci­plined at the break­down, par­tic­u­larly when it came to rolling away. It cul­mi­nated in David Kil­coyne (al­ready warned at scrum time) head­ing for a ten minute breather as he slowed down yet an­other ball.

This was prob­a­bly the turn­ing point of the game as Brian O’Driscoll can­tered over the line soon af­ter for the only try in what was a close and bruis­ing en­counter. On the whole, as much as it breaks my Mun­ster heart, Le­in­ster were prob­a­bly more de­serv­ing of the win.

Peter O’Ma­hony’s late with­drawal through in­jury hadn’t helped Mun­ster’s build up but hope­fully he should be fit for Toulouse’s visit on Satur­day. While Damian Var­ley stepped in as cap­tain on the night you could tell it was Paul O’Con­nell pulling the strings be­hind him.

They’ll need all the lead­er­ship they can get to tackle the aris­to­crats of Euro­pean rugby but the task is made a hell of a lot eas­ier by the fact that it’s in Lim­er­ick. On paper this should be a Toulouse win but you could say the same about last years quar­ter-fi­nal in Har­lequins and Mun­ster are in a far bet­ter state now.

The Toulou­sian away form is hardly what you’d call im­pres­sive and they may well be with­out their two be­he­moths Cen­sus John­ston and Louis Pi­camoles (un­con­firmed) for the trip. Al­though I was wrong in my pre­dic­tion of a Mun­ster win last week I’m go­ing to go with them again.

Le­in­ster, on the other hand, have a far more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge ahead of them. Not only are they tack­ling last year’s Cham­pi­ons, they’re do­ing it away from home.

Both O'Driscoll and Cian Healy are ex­pected to be fit and with names like Bryan Ha­bana, Johnny Wilkin­son and Carl Hay­man amongst the all star ranks of Toulon, they'd cer­tainly want to be.

The whole squad reads like a ver­i­ta­ble who's who of world rugby and they showed last sea­son that they can now play as a team rather than a bunch of over paid mer­ce­nar­ies. Le­in­ster will have to bring their A game, es­pe­cially when it comes to their de­fen­sive pat­terns and set piece, if they are to gain any par­ity with the French jug­ger­naut. The bulk of this Le­in­ster side are no strangers to win­ning in France though so this trip shouldn't phase them too much.

By to­tal co­in­ci­dence Toulon hosted Toulouse last Satur­day in a car­bon copy of the Le­in­ster vs Mun­ster match with the home side also clinch­ing the win via a nar­row score line.

There's very lit­tle to choose from be­tween all four sides so I think we're in for an­other cracking weekend of nail bit­ing rugby!

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