This weekend we count five potentially defining games among the twelve, all along a similar theme: one of the tournament contenders must travel to one of the mid-ranking teams. They’re the sort of games that if they were held in the reciprocal ground, they would be home bankers. But such is the home-away swing-o-meter in rugger, that they take on a huge defining quality; any win on the road is to be prized in the Heineken Cup.
Indeed, these sort of tough away days against the makeweight division are exactly the sort of games that are the making of champions, or genuine contenders anyway. They’re rarely all that memorable, the good teams are usually made to look pretty ordinary, but if any of the five can get the win and move onto somewhere between eight and ten points after two rounds, it sets them up for the all-important December head-to-head. Think back to Munster beating Sale away in 2009, or Leinster toughing it out in Glasgow last season. Can you remember too many of the finer details of the matches? Probably not, but both wins were pivotal in ensuring not only qualification, but a home draw for the quarter final.
All five of the big fish won their opening games at home, as one would have expected. This week will teach us a whole lot more about their title credentials. For the medium-sized fish, this is already last chance saloon stuff. With one defeat already on the board, defeat at home in round two and it’s more or less thanks and goodbye. But win, and suddenly the picture is completely altered, and all sorts of possibilities open up.
And just who are these famous five? Leinster, Ulster, Northampton, Clermont and Harlequins. Here’s a look at what they can expect.
Llanelli v Leinster
In our preview we’ve already identified this as the key weekend in Leinster’s pool. Last week’s decidedly uninspiring victory over Exeter has only served to ratchet up the importance of this game, and also the sense of trepidation among Leinster fans. It’s looking like a tougher match by the minute. Gordon D’arcy is likely to be in contention for selection, but Rob Kearney’s return appears uncertain. The Louth man is badly missed at the moment, as he’s the only back who gives them real muscle, and the Scarlets backline is big on… bigness. With Leinster yet to click, this one’s all about hanging in there and coming out with any sort of a win.
Leinster will win if: their front five is almost feral. Scarlets are weak in the tight and Leinster can cut off supply at source, but only if Cian Healy is back on top of his game and Leinster get their second row selection right, and that could mean putting Cullen on the bench.
Scarlets will win if: Priestland keeps his cool. Just what is this fellow all about? We can’t make him out at all. If he can keep the scoreboard working, Scarlets should have enough firepower outside him to finish the job.
Glasgow v Ulster
This is the very sort of game that would have scuppered the campaign of the Ulster of three or four years ago. The onus is on the new teak-tough and increasingly impressive model to show they are no longer susceptible to such tawdry away days. Last year’s defeat in Leicester was one such moribund performance, but they atoned in the Auvergne and, of course, Limerick. Glasgow were in contention in Northampton until the last few minutes and led 15-0 after half an hour. They’re no mugs.
Ulster will win if: they hold on to the ball. They have the forward power to beat Glasgow, but away from home, they can’t afford the sort of sloppiness they displayed against Connacht and Castres. More incision in their back play is the order of the day.
Glasgow will win if: they can hold their own at the set piece. Ulster’s set piece is formidable, both in lineout and scrum. If Glasgow can neutralise Ulster in this facet of the game, they’re halfway there.
Connacht v Harlequins
Surely Quins won’t be caught cold a second time? We all remember what happened last year, when Connacht held out for a 9-8 win in horizontal rain to end a 14-game losing streak. Last season, every time we felt Quins had run out of puff they seemed to find an extra reserve somewhere, and ended up English champions. They look like bona-fide contenders in Europe this year. Having already come out 5-0 at home to Biarritz, and with Zebre in the double-header, only a loss in Galway stands between them and topping the pool. They’ll surely be too well prepared this time around for an ambush.
Quins will win if: they prepare correctly. They have no excuses ans should know what to expect in Galway this time.
Connacht will win if: they can conjure up the spirit of last season, when they somehow held a one-point lead playing into a 10-point gale.
Exeter v Clermont
A most intriguing fixture. In truth, the two halves of WoC aren’t seeing eye to eye on this at all. Egg Chaser does not believe Exeter have the stuff to worry Clermont, and sees Les Jaunards pulling away in the second half. But Palla Ovale, fresh from last weekend’s nerve-shredder, reckons Exeter at Sandy Park to be more than capable of beating a team which – let’s face it – doesn’t have a good away record. Can Exeter back up their performance last week? Do they have the power to match Clermont’s pack? And do Clermont have the appetite to go to one of Europe’s more obscure corners and come away with the win?
Clermont will win if: they bring the same intensity as they do at the Marcel Michelin.
Exeter will win if: they can give the crowd something to shout about early on. The Chiefs fans are a raucous bunch, and if their team can get their noses in front, it could be a long way back for the Bananamen.
Castres v Northampton
Saints gave themselves a fair bit of work to do last week by giving Glasgow a 15-point start. They finished in credit though, and it was their cool heads in a crisis that impressed the most. Now they must back it up with a win on the road. Castres rested their first team in Ravenhill last week, but will be a different proposition at home. More than any other French club, they are schizophrenic. It’s back to back games with Ulster in December, so the onus is on them to at least match what Ulster accomplish in Glasgow.
Northampton will win if: their half-backs have a good day. They have great power upfront and in the Pisi brothers, enough flair in the backline to make up for Foden’s absence, but at out-half they must pick the flaky, but occasionally brilliant Ryan Lamb, and hope he has one of his better matches.
Castres will win if: they get a sniff of a result. Like Racing Metro, they’re not that worked up about the H-Cup. But you can make the French interested by letting them into the game, just as Munster did last week. If Castres get the feeling they can take a scalp, they’ll dial up the intensity.
We were tempted to include Cardiff v Toulon, but decided Cardiff were too rubbish to be taken seriously. They even lost to Sale, for goodness sake!