Mc­Grath in­jury a blight on an oth­er­wise per­fect week­end

Four Ir­ish prov­inces still need one more win to make sure of qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the knock­out stages

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Gerry Thorn­ley

An­other per­fect four from four leaves the quar­tet of Ir­ish prov­inces on course for qual­i­fi­ca­tion, al­though all are still in need of one more win to make sure.

For all four to se­cure places in the knock­out stages would be a first, and a huge fil­lip be­fore Eng­land come call­ing on the open­ing week­end of the Six Na­tions on Satur­day week.

How­ever, with the lat­ter also in mind the Ir­ish four-timer came at a cost, most no­tably at the RDS where Le­in­ster em­phat­i­cally avenged Oc­to­ber’s de­feat by the other four-time win­ners Toulouse with a 29-13 bonus-point vic­tory.

The ex­tent of Luke Mc­Grath’s in­jury will be con­firmed by Le­in­ster this week but the scrumhalf is un­der­stood to have sus­tained a knee lig­a­ment in­jury which is li­able to rule him out of Le­in­ster’s fi­nal pool game against Wasps next Sun­day and at least the start of the Six Na­tions.

Kieran Marmion, who started the Novem­ber wins over Ar­gentina and the All Blacks, has been side­lined since then after un­der­go­ing an an­kle op­er­a­tion, and is due back around the week of the Eng­land game.

John Cooney also pulled out of Ul­ster’s 26-22 win over Rac­ing 92 at the Kingspan Sta­dium due to back spasms, but he is ex­pected to re­turn for Ul­ster’s game away to Le­ices­ter next Satur­day. As things stand he may be the only es­tab­lished Ire­land squad mem­ber to act as back-up to Conor Mur­ray.

It is par­tic­u­larly hard on Mc­Grath, who was an un­used re­place­ment in the open­ing win of last sea­son’s Grand Slam away to France, and missed the re­main­der of the cam­paign through in­jury.

“It would be a cruel blow for him, but we’ll see how it un­folds,” said Le­in­ster coach Leo Cullen. “We’ll get him as­sessed. I’m only spec­u­lat­ing re­ally at his stage. We’ll get him scanned at the start of the week, and make a plan from there.”

Mc­Grath’s likely ab­sence will have an im­me­di­ate rip­ple ef­fect on Le­in­ster, with Jami­son Gib­son-Park in line to start against Wasps, which in turn would mean no place for Scott Fardy or James Lowe due to the rules lim­it­ing teams to two “non-EU” play­ers.

No guar­an­tees

Lowe will be avail­able after sus­pen­sion, and Le­in­ster could also wel­come back Rob Kear­ney, Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Dan Leavy, and pos­si­bly Seán O’Brien. Al­though there are no guar­an­tees, as Jack Mc­Grath’s sur­pris­ing ex­clu­sion from the 23 for the Toulouse game demon­strates. The odds are that Le­in­ster will again be with­out Johnny Sex­ton.

Joe Sch­midt would like to see his back­row op­tions boosted given Mun­ster’s equally em­phatic 41-15, bonus-point win away to Glouces­ter on Fri­day night was also tar­nished by the “popped rib” which Peter O’Ma­hony suf­fered.

Mun­ster will give an up­date on their cap­tain to­day, but O’Ma­hony must be con­sid­ered doubt­ful for both their epic grand pool fi­nale against Ex­eter at Thomond Park on Satur­day (kick-off 5.30pm) and the Eng­land game.

Ex­eter set up a po­ten­tially epic pool de­cider – one of three next week­end – by dint of their bonus-point win over Cas­tres

yes­ter­day. Mun­ster lead Pool Two by four points, and hav­ing drawn on the open­ing week­end Ex­eter know that a win by more than seven points, pro­vided they don’t con­cede four tries, would see them top the pool and qual­ify.

For their part, a bonus-point

de­feat would be suf­fi­cient for Mun­ster to qual­ify pro­vided they did not con­cede four tries. Cur­rently ranked fifth of the pool lead­ers, more per­ti­nently a win could se­cure a home quar­ter-fi­nal if one of their other cur­rent pool lead­ers were to slip up.

“Ex­eter at home, it’s a team that I re­spect so much,” said Mun­ster coach Jo­hann van Graan. “I’ve said it be­fore, the way they play and con­duct them­selves, it’s a fan­tas­tic club. What bet­ter way to set things up than Mun­ster v Ex­eter at our home ground, al­ready sold out?”

“We’ve played them be­fore. It was a gale force wind on that day with two dif­fer­ent halves – one of de­fence and one of at­tack. I think this will be a to­tally dif­fer­ent game at Thomond.”

Home quar­ter-fi­nal

Pool One is the last to be com­pleted next week­end, and come Sun­day Le­in­ster may have qual­i­fied de­pend­ing on re­sults be­fore­hand. Le­in­ster suf­fered their heav­i­est Euro­pean de­feat, 51-10, against Wasps in the cor­re­spond­ing game three years ago. How­ever, as things stand vic­tory over Wasps would not only se­cure qual­i­fi­ca­tion but a home quar­ter-fi­nal as well re­gard­less of re­sults else­where.

“It was al­ways go­ing to be a huge game, and we were ner­vous lit­er­ally since that game be­cause we knew that was com­ing,” said Cullen in the af­ter­math of the win over Toulouse.

“Now we’re go­ing to be ner­vous be­cause it’s an­other huge game against Wasps. The job’s not done, peo­ple will talk ‘oh great per­for­mance,’ etc etc . . . but the job’s not done. So we’ve a hell of a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be, which is top of our pool, then try and get as de­cent a seed­ing as you can, ‘cos you’re not only com­pet­ing against your own pool, but other pools too, that’s an un­usual dy­namic.”

Un­beaten

Sara­cens re­main the tour­na­ment’s only un­beaten team after yes­ter­day’s bonus-point win away to Lyon, and thus the only team to have en­sured qual­i­fi­ca­tion so far at the very least as one of the three best run­ners-up.

Le­in­ster would need them or Pool Four lead­ers Rac­ing (at home to the Scarlets) to slip up next week­end to earn a top two rank­ing, and with it the car­rot of home coun­try ad­van­tage in the semi-fi­nals, with Sara­cens at home to Glas­gow next Satur­day in one of three pool de­ciders.

Pool win­ners

Ul­ster’s 26-22 win over Rac­ing leaves them well placed to ad­vance too, al­though they would need Rac­ing to lose at home to the Scarlets in or­der to ad­vance as pool win­ners. How­ever, a win away to Le­ices­ter on Satur­day would be enough to se­cure one of the three best run­ners-up spots.

“We have put things back in our con­trol and that is how we are look­ing at it,” said Ul­ster coach Dan McFar­land. “Look, play­ing Rac­ing 92 at Kingspan Sta­dium – what an ex­pe­ri­ence. Play­ing Le­ices­ter at Welford Road, what an ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Even on it­self, for­get about the ta­ble, what a great place to go and try and win in a tight game of Euro­pean Rugby. Is it go­ing to be tough? Of course it is. They are play­ing some very good rugby as we know, so we will look for­ward to that.”

Sale still lead Con­nacht in their Chal­lenge Cup pool on the head-to-head records de­spite the lat­ter’s 20-18 win at the Sports­ground on Satur­day. How­ever, a win away to Be­gles-Bordeaux next Satur­day af­ter­noon would see Con­nacht ad­vance as one of the best run­ners-up at the very least.

Pts diff and then tries scored de­cides ties. Head-to-head de­cides pool ties

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