WE GO INTO another Heineken Cup quarter final weekend with three Irish sides in the shake-up for spots in the last four and the potential of two semi finals in Dublin. Following on from the recent Six Nations success, you would have to say Irish rugby is in a good place.
The difference is that Irish players are so well monitored and are rarely overworked. You have lads like Darragh Fanning at Leinster that come in, during the international windows, and do a fine job in the Pro12. They then miss out on the big games and go back to playing ‘A’ and club rugby but are always ready for the call.
Looking at the three games involving the Irish sides and I would be confident of two home wins — for Munster and Ulster. I cannot, cannot wait for Toulon versus Leinster. The two squads for that match are unreal and Leinster will be playing in a cauldron but I would not be surprised if they come away with a win.
Toulouse went to Wembley and beat Saracens but I would be worried for them coming to Thomond Park, especially now that Peter O’Mahony is back. Munster have a proud tradition of Heineken Cup rugby and they seem to grow taller for these games. The Heineken Cup to Munster is like a red rag to a bull.
The Toulouse XV is strong and their backline is dangerous but I would expect Rob Penney’s lads to edge a tight one. The tactical kicking of Ian Keatley versus Lionel Beauxis will be interesting to watch while Guy Noves has gone with a heap of big guys in his pack — Joe Tekori, Yoann Maestri, Christopher Tolofua and Louis Picamoles.
I’d expect to see Picamoles out on the wing, in the centre and up front. I expect to see him everywhere as Toulouse will look to him to do damage from that No.8 spot. I’m still amazed that France started him as flanker against Ireland but Noves knows his strengths and will play to them. I’ve played against him before and it is so hard to get a hold of him. What I would say to people is watch his waist — how wide it is — and his quads and glutes. He is gigantic all over and a hard man to stop.
I played for Connacht against Tolofua when he was only 18 and, as a hooker, I am happy to say I missed him that evening as I was subbed when he came on. What I can recall is the massive impact, and hits, he made in his time on the pitch. He has added a few more kilos and a lot more power over the intervening years.
Dave Kilcoyne had a fine game against Leinster last week and with Census Johnston missing, he will try to get after Yohan Montes. The tight-head has Maestri backing him up — a great scrummager and someone in that Brad Thorn and Johann Muller mould. Added to that, you have Gurthro Steenkamp in there as well and Romain Mill-Chluski on the bench. Munster will try to take them on up front but Toulouse will meet fire with fire.
One of the main reasons I am looking forward to this game is that it is being reffed by Nigel Owens. He is the best referee in the world, in my opinion, and he very rarely oversees a poor game. I know, first-hand, that he is massively respected by the players and coaches as he keeps the game flowing. He is great for communicating with both sets of players.
Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO
I think Ulster are going to win their clash with Saracens and you can bet they have been aided by the kick-off time. Saturday evening at Ravenhill against a team, coached by Mark McCall, that knocked them out last year. It is all set up for a massive, massive game. Saracens have a great set of players — Owen Farrell, James Johnston, Schalk Brits, Jacques Burger — but Ulster’s set of players is seriously impressive.
You look at the Ulster XV and you ask ‘where is the weak-point?’ Do Sarries go with the kicking game to the Ulster back three of Payne, Trimble and Bowe? Do they try smash them up the middle by testing Marshall and Cave? The halfbacks — Jackson and Pienaar — are great at directing the game. Do they try them at the edges against a back row of Wilson, Henry and Williams? Do they target Tuohy and Muller in the line-out or go after a front row containing Court, Best and Afoa? If I was Sarries I would be thinking ‘Bloody hell, where do we attack them?’
Paddy Jackson proved himself against Leicester at Welford Road [second in tackles made behind Chris Henry] and you can see that he has added some musculature density. I won’t go into the Ulster bench too much but any side that has Rob Herring, Robbie Diack, Stephen Ferris and Craig Gilroy in reserve is doing all right for itself. I would not be surprised if the game is quite open and Saracens will go there and have a right crack.
Sarries have Billy Vunipola back at flanker and I would pay good money to see him and Nick Williams meet when one or the other is returning a kick-off. I’m not sure how well they have checked the new foundations at Ravenhill but the meeting of those two would certainly test them.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
We have to wait for 4:30pm on Sunday to see the stand-out tie of the round. expect fireworks at Stade Mayol as Toulon host Leinster. The Toulon team is something along the lines of Championship Manager — the rugby version — with Matt Giteau, Mathieu Bastareaud, Delon Armitage, Carl Hayman, Danie Roussouw. I’ll leave it there but I could name their whole squad. 70% of this game could be mauls and scrums and it would still be fascinating to watch.
If you want to look at one area that may well decide the outcome, go no further than the back row. Toulon go into battle with Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Steffon Armitage. That is a frightening prospect. Armitage is a pest at the breakdown and a bloody good one. He is a good ball-carrier, links up well with the backs and is seriously disruptive at the breakdown. He picks and chooses the rucks he enters. If there is any case of a ball-carrier being isolated on the floor you can bet Armitage will be the first man on the scene. He has a low centre of gravity and a strong core, which makes him so hard to shift.
I expect Leinster to go straight for them, keep the ball in play as much as possible and keep Toulon moving. There will be no shadow boxing or feeling each other out. It will be intensity, intensity, intensity. Wayne Barnes is reffing and he is another that tries to keep the game moving. the collision is key and Leinster, as Ireland did in the Six Nations, will be best served by keeping that ball presentation as clean as possible.
Toulon have Bryan Habana on their replacements bench. That says it all when it comes to demonstrating how tough Leinster will find it. Still, if any side can beat Toulon away in the Heineken Cup it’s Leinster.
@adrianflavin played 159 times for Connacht between 2006 and 2013 and earned two Ireland Wolfhounds caps.
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