At this two-thirds stage of the last-ever HEC (in this form anyway), the Irish provinces are all in a reasonable position, and Ulster are best placed of the lot. That’s not to say they’ll all be feeling happy about the opening four games, and Leinster in particular will be pretty pissed off they lost at home to the No-Pressure-On-Them edition of the Northampton Saints; and that insipid performance in front of both fans in Murrayfield will likely cost Munster a home quarter-final, but with three wins both are expected to qualify.
Leinster would have looked at their trips to the Hairsprays and Franklin’s Gardens as odds-against trips – and the results and performances were excellent. The flip side has been the rubbish home form, which is a particular worry ahead of the Ospreys game. The last-minute concession of their bonus point against the Saints might come back to haunt them, particularly if it ends up consigning them to a trip to Toulon or Clermont.
In Munster, they will be
hyping up talking about JJ Hanrahan’s try for a while to come, but it got them out of jail after a pretty average performance and a systemic defensive meltdown at the worst possible moment. But a win is a win, and it feels even better when it’s in France. But because of the aforementioned defeat to Embra, they’ll need to win in Kingsholm to even have a chance of a home quarter. It’s been done four times in the Premiership this season, by such luminaries as Sale Sharks, Wasps and Exeter, and once by Embra, so Munster shouldn’t travel in fear, and really should be able to navigate that trip. A low seeding and a trip to France might beckon, but that’s the stuff tears are made of, so how bad.
Up north, Ulster will bask in the glow of their 100% record over Christmas. Problem is, with Leicester’s win in Montpellier, they’ll probably need a bonus point in Welford Road (while losing by less than six) to get through, something that proved beyond them two seasons ago. If they don’t win the pool, they should still qualify, but by our reckoning they’ll be playing for home advantage in the next round. Incentive to give it a lash for sure, and they are much better than they were two years ago. However cloudy the future of the competition, Leicester will play every game they face at full throttle, and their last-minute victory was tribute to their never say die attitude. They are a worthy adversary, and have much to admire. Even though they haven’t won the pot in 11 years, they have been eliminated by the eventual winners five times, the runners-up once, and big-game bottlers Clermont twice – if Ulster can win this pool, they are contenders for the trophy.
As for the province we get most-accused of being biased against, Connacht can retire from the HEC happy that they have their memory to dine out on for years to come. They’ve had quite a few oh-so-nears away from home in their few seasons in the elite competition, and its well-deserved. Some of the minnows add nothing (looking at you Zebroni), but Connacht have been consistently competitive and the Sportsground has translated well to games with big teams, and Saracens.
Predictions for qualifier rankings:
- Globo Gym
Now that that’s all gone, we have to talk about Leinster. A most disappointing and worrying performance – the last-minute withdrawal of Sean O’Brien left them without any effective carriers and the Saints managed to tackle Leinster backwards almost every time. When the Saints ambushed Ulster in similar fashion last year, they produced the physical template that Globo Gym used to administer the knockout blow in the quarters. Leinster better hope that they have O’Brien and Cian Healy fit for any trip to France in the knockouts, or it’s curtains.
Still, they nearly won it right at the end. When Kahn Fotuali’i sacrificed a penalty advantage to drop a goal with over a minute left on the clock, we smelled a mistake. All the Saints needed to do was go through a few more phases, then take the full minute to kick a penalty and the game was won. The decision to nick the drop gave Leinster the final chance they needed and they were incredibly close to punishing Fotuali’i for it. Small things add up at the highest level, and the likes of Leicester, Leinster, Munster, Toulon, Toulouse would never allow their opponents another chance in such situations.