Medium Sized Fish Hosts Big Fish

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!

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11 Comments

  1. Xyz

     /  October 18, 2012

    Healy has been moaning on twitter about having a cold this week which doesn’t bode well for him being back to his usual rampaging self.

  2. John C

     /  October 18, 2012

    It’s always interesting when WoC is a house divided (Bob’s yellow card was a great twitter moment). I was at the Exeter game, and I still can’t decide how much was down to Leinster performing way below potential and how much was down to Exeter. Clermont to win, but no BP

  3. Sam

     /  October 18, 2012

    Normally I wouldn’t be worried about VDM starting, he’s excellent. But our pack lacked bight in the last match. As you said, we need that extra bit around the pitch that he adds. Outside of Heaslip, Cronin and Strauss, our pack looks decidedly laggard. McL is not inspiring from 6 in these past few matches. He really needs to up his game.

    There’s a flawed part of my heart that wants Clermont to really fulfill their potential this year, not ahead of an Irish team, of course, but it’d be good for the competition to see them or ‘quins make hay.

    • McLoughlin has had a slow enough start to the season. It was the same last year. He seems to be the type of player who takes a while to get motoring but is very consistent once he hits his top level.

      We’d share your sense of goodwill towards Clermont and Quins. Clermont are accumulating hard-luck stories at a rate of knots, whle Quins were a breath of fresh air in the Premiership last season. Two teams most fans neutrals like to see do well.

  4. Sam

     /  October 18, 2012

    By he, I meant Healy.

  5. While I believe that Exeter are a good team and deserved more than a LBP last week, I still think that clermont will win handily enough this week. This will leave nothing for the Chiefs to play for and we will be looking back at the end of the pool stage wondering why we thought they were any good at all. Leinster are not playing anywhere near the level they were last year and that wasn’t just down to Exeter’s defensive brilliance. Clermont on the other hand are much closer to last seasons form. Clermont to win the group comfortably with Leinster struggling for best runner up.

  6. KeithEarlsisnota13

     /  October 18, 2012

    @WOC, You suggest leaving Cullen on the bench(which I can agree with in theory) but who would you replace him with? What would be your lock pairing?Roux and Denton? Roux and Browne? or B&I cup standard(hyperbole,but they are not Leinster standard) pairing of Toner and Browne? Cullen is finished, yet Leinster have no one who has surpassed his performances to any extent.
    Denton and Roux are still bedding in and look callow at times,Browne is what he is and hasn’t shown he can play at anything more then the consistent mediocrity he has brought for the past few years.As for Toner, I’m on the record for saying I don’t rate him.That he punches far below his weight and height.Hes to tall and thin to do any bludgeoning come ruck and tackle time and doesn’t dominate the lineouts to the extent a man of his height should.
    Its well and good to call for Cullen to be benched( and in essence retired.as hes not going to get any better) but Leinster have no credible alternative.I’d go with a Roux, Cullen partnership with Browne or Denton to come at 50 minutes for Cullen.

    My predictions. Leinster to beat Scarlets by 10, Quins to trash Connacht, Ulster have to beat Glasgow if they have any pretension of winning the HC. Clermont to steamroller Exceter. Castres Northampton is tough,if Castres put out their frontliners they will shade it.

    • @Keith Earls agreed, none of the options are particularly inspiring. I’ve a sneaking feeling management rate Roux quite highly and expect him to have an impact once he overcomes this annoying spell of niggly injuries. Cullen still has some things going for him, most notably his captaincy. He’s good at dealing with the ref. But he carried seven times last weekend, for a gain of 4m. And that’s just not smart play. I’d vote for Toner-Browne for the moment, with reservations.

  7. toro toro

     /  October 19, 2012

    I’m just leaving Exeter en route for Llanelli now! Disappointed to miss Clermont’s visit…

    I would characterise my attitude to both games as one of trepidation; Leinster should have plenty, but the margins are very tight at this level, while Chiefs and their fans are – believe me – well up for this and after last week in no way overawed by HEC royalty, though a lack of caution could really be exposed by Les Jaunards. They’ll be happy with, and should at least get, an LBP, but too little respect paid and they could end up hurting badly. Then again, I think they realise that…

  8. zdm

     /  October 19, 2012

    Tonight will be more of a sign of Ulsters credentials than last week.
    As you rightly said, Ulster had a tendency to get bogged down against mid-level teams and struggled to come away with points that should have been bankers on occasion.

    I think this is probably why Pienaar is starting – this is a sign from Anscombe that he expects a win in every match, that there are no gimmies this season and that no-one can afford to relax, not even the man of the match. Tom Court was on the BBC this week talking about the hunger for places in the squad and by changing from a positon of strength, Ulster are trying to preserve that hunger.

    Expectations are much higher this year and to meet those expectations, Ulster can’t afford to rest on their heals and get mugged in the dark by the Glasgows and Dragons of the rugby world anymore.

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