Tigers on the Horizon

It’s hard to put the finger on why this Ulster fan is so worried about the upcoming HEC rounds, but the pack being shunted all around Ravers by the Brave and the Faithful last Friday night would be a good place to start – Munster got two tries from the maul, and should probably have had a third. Since the slapdown of a potentially difficult (but in the end not so much) Treviso assignment for 10 group points, they’ve struggled past the Zebras, produced a worse-than-usual performance in their habitual Oar Dee Esh defeat, then scraped home against Munster.

Montpellier might come over with a disinterested B team, and will likely be thoroughly unimpressed with the weather in Belfast, but Ulster still will need a result (of some sort, to be decided after this weekend) in Welford Road. Now Leicester’s form is fairly uninspiring – they got fed a 40-burger by Globo Gym and have 1 loss (Quins) and two draws (Saints, Ooooooooh Bath) in Welford Road this year – but if you turn up without a pack that can compete you’ll struggle.

Without Johann Muller, with Gentlemanly Conduct’s Besty just back, John Afoa seemingly still on holiday mode and Fez still out, Ulster are low on the type of prime beef needed for the kind of #unseenwork that bonus points in Leicester are made of. Ulster will undoubtedly be glad to qualify, particularly after the draw they got, but they can’t shake off the Tigers (that last minute bonus point they got in Ravenhill felt crucial at the time) and a knockout game away from Ravers will feel like a disappointment, especially if it’s the last HEC. The stadium deserves a big game, but the team need to deliver, and, right now, you’d fancy Leicester. Until Ulster actually do it, the team with the history of delivering in these games must get the nod.

Meanwhile, Leinster travel to Castres for the sort of game that players and fans simply dread.  Castres are going well in the Top 14 and won’t get out of their pool in the HEC, so one might expect them to shrug a shoulder at this game, but the ‘spirit of the belltower’ (thank you Bernard Jackman) means they will be competitive at home no matter what.  Leinster fans still have nightmares over the defeat there in December 2008, arguably the province’s nadir and the game which prompted Neil Francis to give the team an unmerciful kicking in his column, replete with ‘ladyboys’ jibes and all.  These matches tend to be grind-a-thons and as a supporter you simply hope to come out the right side on the scoreboard.  Leinster must win or risk letting Northampton sneak ahead of them in the pool.

Munster travel to Gloucester in what is no longer a must-win but rather should-win game.  Glaws’ dire home defeat to Edinburgh has let them off the hook, and even if Munster lose here, a victory at home to Embra in their final pool game will almost certainly qualify them.  A win would go some way to boosting their chances of a home quarter-final, and they should be able to manage it.  They are showing an impressive ability to keep on winning even if they have yet to put in a single really impressive performance this season.  Who’d bet against them continuing the trend, and earning Rob Penney a 12-month contract extension – which seems pretty paltry given the job he has done (see above – top of the league, top of HEC pool withoiut really playing well yet – with limited resources).

That leaves Connacht, who should give the Zebras (another) seeing-to. The big game for them is next week when they must travel to Sarries, essentially with a view to keeping the score down.  Don’t say it too loudly, but Sarries have attempted to broaden their game this season and have racked up a bucketload of tries, and Connacht are just the sort of team they will seek to fillet with a blend of sledgehammer power and incisive running.  Their backline – containing the likes of Alex Goode and Chris Ashton – always looked like it could be a threat if let off the leash a little bit, and now it’s starting to happen.  Connacht will presumably have the patronising words of Stephen Jones ringing in their ears as they take the pitch.  Another performance in the vein of the Toulouse game will be required to emerge with a respectable scoreline.

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  1. Not having to face Tuilagi could be crucial in the “The Welford Road Wrumble” (trademark pending). Having 2 weeks to knock the Ulster pack into shape could be crucial in terms of countering the maul, but I’m not sure we would have had an answer to Manu boshing his way around (even if I do dream of Paddy Wallace dumping him into touch). On paper, I’d say our currently available backs probably just about edge Leicester’s (although there’s precious little in it).

    I’m also nervous that we’re starting Best and Muller, with the former only just back (and early, no less) and the latter sadly seemingly getting increasingly (lots of “ly”s and “ings” there!) fragile, I would have felt safer running them out as subs to get them some gametime. Then again, French reputation and Ravers could combine to give them a solid run out.

  2. Hansie Macdermot

     /  January 9, 2014

    I fear that Ulster have recently cornered the market in what the tennis fraternity call
    “unforced errors”. If you add the silly penalties conceded then many of their promising moves come to nothing. I would expect the forwards will be beasted in training re
    the rolling maul. If they perform as they did last Sat, then the Tigers will waltz them all
    the way to Lands End.
    But I am optimistic that they can improve and land a home Qtr Final – 5 points from the last two should be enough.

    Whatever their most ardent fans claim, Leinster are not firing this year. I believe that they can get 8 points from the last two only if Castres have lost interest. If otherwise then 5 points maybe their maximum.
    The trip to the Hairsprays by Saints is not an easy one for the English side so all things considered, I expect that Leinster will qualify but an away trip awaits in April.

    The Munster men may have a tougher time than many expect at Glaws. The latter
    will be seething after too many recent home losses and they need to repay the fans.
    Even if they half fire, they do have many creative players unlike most sides in the APL.
    Munster may settle for a losing bonus point and then go for all 5 against Embra in the last
    match. Deja-vu all over again!.

    Connacht should treat the match against Globo Gym as a cup final. I am afraid that a moral
    victory is the best outcome and would cause fair minded fans to think again.
    A losing bonus point or depriving the home side of one would show that the win at
    Toulouse was not a fluke.
    They have gained respect in Ireland but not too much outside which is unfair
    considering how close they have pushed many big named sides. ( and beaten Biarittz and Quins)
    I am not talking about the closed minded types of journos like Stephen Jones who will never change. He has diverted from Connacht bashing for the present and was last heard slagging off the French.

    As far as rugby coverage in The Guardian is concerned, I would say that the normal rugby
    fan regards that failing organ as a joke and would not read it.

  3. Rocky

     /  January 9, 2014

    Surely Connacht are at home to Zebre this weekend?

    • Hansie Macdermot

       /  January 9, 2014

      Yes Rocky – correct they are but they will not receive any plaudits for a winning that.
      Only winning against APL and French sides will put pressure on Administrators and hacks outside of Ireland to give them respect.

  4. curates_egg

     /  January 10, 2014

    You guys (and Franno on 2nd capts) are saying Leinster need to win in Castres…but that is not what the maths says. A losing bonus and they are still very much in control…even if that would make an away QF the best they could hope for.

    Clearly a win would make things a lot easier but Castres home form (esprit du clocher or not) is awesome. The major silver lining is Kockott’s absence but Leinster will need to control this one from the off and get on top of the breakdown (unlike in the RDS). It is a big ask. A lot of people will look at who is selected at 10 but, for me, that is less important than who is selected at backrow. Heaslip will need to be at his best.

    Given this is one of the most crucial ties of the round, it is a pity is on during Sunday brunch.

  5. zdm

     /  January 12, 2014

    Is it possible for a whole rugby province to have the “wrong face”?

    Ulster have the highest points total, have scored the most points and conceded the second lowest of any side thus far, all while beating one of Europe’s heavyweight teams and while playing some lovely stuff but every week, their chances are played down.

    They aren’t playing traditional European forward based rugby but as a wise man once told me, never enter a nut kicking contest with the steel-balled man. This Ulster side will never favour pushover tries or rolling mauls but their forwards are more than facilitating their expansive, counter-attacking game plan and it is clearly their best use of resources.

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