THE MAKE-OR-BREAK line is spun out each season, from the first Heineken Cup match to the last.
Despite wins for three Irish provinces last weekend, we go into another fascinating passage of rugby with three teams needing to secure wins to secure their future involvement in Europe’s top tier.
Ulster are the only province with some breathing room but they will not be willing to give up their unbeaten start to 2012/13 to a Saints side that are a pale shadow of their former, mouthy selves.
Munster will not have French referee Pascal Gauzere dogging their every step and mis-step but a try or two from their backline would not go astray in they are to put themselves in the Pool 1 driving seat.
12 games await in the space of 48 hours but before a FURU, COYBIB, SUFTUM or SUAF is sang with lusty fervour, let us highlight areas that will prove crucial in determining this weekend’s winners and losers.
Connacht seeking respect
They will not appreciate the sentiment but ‘poor Connacht’. They go and knock off the five-time French champions Biarritz – a team with serious European pedigree – and give themselves a real chance of quarter-final qualification – when it emerges that one of the star players will be joining Leinster.
Connacht must feel like TV3 did when Gráinne Seoige jumped ship to Sky News Ireland.
Mike McCarthy will be sitting in the away team dressing room at Parc des Sports Aguilera this evening but it is hard not to imagine Eric Elwood using his defection as a motivating factor for his side to go out and prove just how good they can be.
With Imanol Harinordoquy back to captain Biarritz and the very real threat of the sack hanging over the French team’s coaching staff, the task for Connacht will be mighty. Encouragement comes from a backline that is one part rough, one part diamond, Dan Parks as general and the performance of the Connacht pack in their 22-14 win last week.
An away win was close last season, it arrived against Zebre in October but the best message to send to the other provinces would be toppling the French giants in their back garden.
Henderson to delight Deccie
The injury to Johann Muller – a broken arm – is liable to keep him out until February so Henderson could have a long spell at number four to bed in. His form at blindside flanker for Ulster, and Ireland, has been of high enough calibre to confine Nick Williams to the bench since his international return.
Declan Kidney mentioned in November that the Irish back row could easily feature three players from eight outstanding candidates and Henderson’s long-time future may lie at six. Nonetheless, serious examinations await against Castres and Northampton, not to mention festive inter-pros.
If Henderson can take his recent form into the second row with him, Kidney could soon be presented with another option for the Six Nations if Paul O’Connell can not shake his injury woes. An Iain Henderson/Donnacha Ryan lock combination suddenly looks an exciting Irish prospect.
Could Iain Henderson (left) and Donnacha Ryan (right) be the new Irish second row? (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)
Beat Bonnaire, beat the Vulcans
The Frenchman may have retired from the international scene following this year’s Six Nations but, at 34, is showing all the signs that made him such a dangerous player for nigh on a decade.
Les Jaunards have beaten all-comers in Europe this season – leaving visible bruises on Exeter and Scarlets and making Shane Jennings a touch more ‘rugged’. Bonnaire has been at the heart of their supremacy.
He is a menace at the breakdown, secures almost 50% of his team’s lineouts and hunts down ball barriers with relish. It is interesting to see Leinster coach Joe Schmidt bring in Jennings at openside in an effort to tie Bonnaire up as much as possible.
If Leinster than negate Bonnaire’s indefatigible influence on Saturday, and keep him out of TheScore.ie Team of the Week, they stand a good chance to plotting a course to the knock-out stages.