Plenty on the line as Irish provinces turn attention back to European Cup

FOLLOWING AN INTRIGUING couple of weeks in the United Rugby Championship, this weekend sees the provinces head back to European Cup action – with all four sides involved across a busy weekend in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

The tournament format hasn’t proven overly popular in recent seasons, with the pool stages only serving to whittle 24 teams down to 16. As a result, at the halfway point of the pool stages the two tables have a congested look – six of the 12 teams in Pool B of the Champions Cup have five points to their name.

A quick reminder of how it all works: following the completion of the round four fixtures next weekend, the eight highest-ranked clubs in both pools will advance to the round of 16, while the top four in each pool will also secure home advantage. The teams that finish ninth and 10th in the Champions Cup will also remain in the European competition as they drop into the Challenge Cup round of 16.

Here’s how the picture looks for the provinces heading into round three this weekend.

Leinster

Barring disaster, Leinster look extremely well placed to claim a top-four finish, and have their sights locked on finishing top of Pool A.

The province claimed bonus-point wins in their opening two games, comfortably seeing off Racing (away) and a heavily-depleted Gloucester side (home) before Christmas, leaving them joint-top of their pool with 10 points from a possible 10.

It’s hard to see them losing their grip on pole position over the next two weekends. Gloucester will revert to a stronger selection at Kingsholm tomorrow but have been struggling for form and even minus the likes of Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw, the visitors should have enough to get the job done ahead of next weekend’s Aviva Stadium date with Racing .

And if they can power to another bonus-point win at Kingsholm, Leinster could even afford to rest a few key men when the French side visits Dublin, although they will be determined to keep their impressive momentum going ahead of the Six Nations break.

Münster

Munster’s task is trickier but the province head back into Europe with the wind behind their sails having beaten Ulster and the Lions in their last two URC outings.

In the opening rounds of the Champions Cup, Munster battled hard but were overpowered and eventually outclassed by Toulouse on a bitterly cold and foggy day at Thomond Park, before a determined second-half defensive effort saw them take a deserved win in Northampton.

Sixth in Pool B with five points, tomorrow’s rematch against the Saints in Limerick looks a great opportunity for Munster to put themselves in a strong position in the table before they head to Toulouse next weekend. In short, a win would be great, defeat utterly deflating given the recent positively.

The Saints haven’t been traveling well this season – winning just twice on the road in the Premiership – and the game comes at a good time for a Munster team who are beginning to find their feet under Graham Rowntree.

This is a fixture Munster should be winning and a bonus point success would go a long way to easing the pressure ahead of next week’s trip to France.

Ulster

And while Munster appear to be heading in the right direction, the same cannot be said for Ulster, who are in real danger of seeing their season slip away from them.

Last weekend’s URC defeat away to Benetton means Ulster have now lost five of their last six in all competitions. Looking at their upcoming fixture list, it could easily get even worse for Dan McFarland and his squad.

Their European season got off to a horror start, shipping 39 points at Sale with no reply. They looked set for another hiding against La Rochelle in round two, trailing 29-0 in front of an empty Aviva Stadium (with the exception of a small group of traveling La Rochelle supporters), before a spirited second-half performance ended in a 36 -29 defeats.

It was a dismal week in which nothing appeared to go right for Ulster – before the Sale game some disruptive winter weather led to lengthy airport delays while a frozen Kingspan pitch saw the La Rochelle fixture moved to Dublin less than 24 hours before kick-off.

The province are 10th in Pool B, with just two points, ahead of this weekend’s trip to play holders La Rochelle, who warmed up for the game with an impressive 30-7 home win against Toulouse in the Top 14. On recent form, it’s hard to see Ulster going to France and getting the win they need.

Of course, much can change across the next two rounds – in Pool B ninth-placed Montpellier have the same amount of points (five) as fourth-placed Sale – but Ulster need a lot to go right if they are to sneak into the knockouts . Throw in injuries to Robert Baloucoune, Marty Moore and Sean Reffel, and the picture doesn’t look good.

Connacht

In the Challenge Cup, Connacht are on course to ensure their interest continues into the knockout stages.

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

In the opening two rounds the province beat Newcastle (home) and Brive (away), taking nine points from a possible 10, leaving them just inside the top four on points difference.

Tomorrow’s clash against Brive in Galway comes at a good time for the visitors. When Connacht won in Brive before Christmas, it was the French side’s ninth successive defeat, but the Top14 strugglers head to The Sportsground having won their three league games since that round two clash.

With home advantage, the province will back themselves to make it three wins from three before heading to Newcastle next weekend, where a home quarter-final should still be on the cards for Andy Friend’s team.

Fixtures (all Saturdays)

Champions Cup:

Gloucester v Leinster, Kingsholm, 1pm [ITV/BT Sport]

Munster v Northampton Saints, Thomond Park, 3.15pm [RTÉ/BT Sport]

La Rochelle v Ulster, Stade Marcel Deflandre, 6.30pm [BT Sport]

Challenge Cups:

Connacht v Brive, The Sportsground, 5.30pm [epcrugby.tv]

Get instant updates on your province on The42 app. With Laya Healthcareofficial health and wellbeing partner to Leinster, Munster and Connacht Rugby.

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *