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