Almost with a sense of perversity, it must be pointed out that the Irish run cannot continue forever. Perhaps Ulster have not yet had the proverbial “rub of the green” in the Heineken Cup this season – and Connacht certainly haven’t – but neither Munster nor Leinster can claim that to be the case.
Certainly, both provinces will say that it was their hard-won experience which rescued victories – or a draw in the case of Leinster – from probable defeats. But the certainty remains that in sport that luck eventually evens out. As all four provinces face the second helping this weekend, there is little indigestion in sight and the big three must be happy with how they emerged from the first course.
But maybe this is just the weekend that Lady Luck will tog out with the opposition. Certainly Scarlets have shown all of the confidence necessary to attract her to their side. Probably no performance in this year’s competition was quite so unexpected as their showing in Franklins Gardens, and this may have fatally undermined Northampton’s confidence [if only for the season]. The Northampton crowd arrived wondering what would be the consequence of their Head Coach being whisked off to English duty, only to see their team hit by a maelstrom of red-shirted running which didn’t stop all night. Performances since haven’t inspired them and last weekend’s surrender to Castres bodes ill for their confidence up to the end of January.
Scarlets have that performance in their memory-bank , and their Welsh squad players have retained the confidence acquired in RWC2011 to be a danger to Munster in Thomond Park, no longer the citadel it once was. Certainly as we here in Ireland have felt the first real lick of winter this week, there has probably been some satisfaction at the University of Limerick training ground as the “hardy boys” look forward to an evening in the trenches against a Llanelli pack that they do not fear. But Munster should beware: Scarlets have skill as well as the confidence of yoof, and the return of George North will provide them with a massive boost. Sean Lamont provided the template for how to pierce the Munster back line defense, and North is bigger, more explosive and has more out-and-out pace. They only need a 40% share of possession to cause mayhem within a good defence and if they get in behind once, they could do it three or four times.
If Munster display the same snarling attitude towards the officials, most recently seen in their defeat by the Ospreys, they will be playing against 16 men with attitude. O’Connell needs to get his troops up for the game but resolute to direct their efforts against their opponents, not the officials. If they can produce 40 disciplined minutes and get seven or more ahead, they should take a victory. But if Scarlets, or the officials are allowed to have a say, it could be a very disappointing night for the “home” Red Army.
The Ulster task is different. Aironi have not performed to their expectations in the Pro12 league to date after a promising start. They have a strong pack, decent halves and a couple of strike runners. But they have not yet got all three units working together often enough in the same game. But they will … eventually! At home in front of a crowd who will support them passionately, Aironi could cause Ulster frustration and if they do, Ulster will regret it. Expect an Ulster win, but 5 points should not be anticipated.
Connacht face an uphill battle in Kingsholm. Heavily penalized in front of a home crowd last week, it’s highly likely that they’ll be force-fed the same audible diet of whistle-screech in front of the always-vocal Shed. Gloucester aren’t a particularly formidable team in European terms, but they have a good bit more depth in their squad than the Westies and can boast a lot of genuine pace wideout in Charlie Sharples, Sinbad and young Henry Trinder, who was very impressive against Toulouse in the Pink City. They’ve also got the choice of HRH Tins-Upon-Turnpike or legendary Samoan Twitter-muppet EFS in the No12 jersey, two highly experienced and very physical bosh merchants who can truck it up the middle to set targets for the pack if it turns out to be that sort of game. Once again, it looks like the Galways boys are sh*t out of luck.
Keith Wood and other commentators believe that Ian McGeechan will want to keep the momentum of the Bath performance going from last week and thus will travel at full strength to the Aviva Stadium this weekend. McGeechan is a purist, but coaches Brad Davis and Martin Haag may have a slightly different view as they consider the prospect of a visit just a week later to Franklin Gardens on Christmas Eve. When you’re sitting just two places above the relegation slot, it’s not as easy to look at the big picture, and a fixture against a ‘humbled’ Northampton may seem a very attractive prospect.
If Bath do travel at full strength, Leinster will probably select a team to up the tempo of continuity right from the start. Healy, Toner, Jennings are obvious additions to the pack with Reddan, O’Malley possible alterations to the back division. McFadden could get the No 14 jersey with Nacewa getting first run at full-back. But this may a step too far in the Irish team player management strategy.
Whatever the selection, Leinster must be wary of taking the win before it has been earned. Their pack should be able to compete at set-pieces and increase the pace of the game whilst retaining possession. This should undoubtedly cause trouble to the Bath front five who, it should be conceded, lasted longer last Saturday than the Mole had anticipated or predicted. Leinster must retain possession, the only certain way of increasing the pace of a game, and use the full width of the pitch to stretch the entire Bath defence. Despite the skills of Louw, Taylor and Mercer in the Bath back-row, few teams have the defence to keep a sharp Leinster attack at bay, as Glasgow and Cardiff have both recently discovered.
Can Bath cause an upset? Certainly, if they travel strong and Leinster take the game as a given. However, Lady Luck may be elsewhere on Saturday evening because the Boys in Blue will not be in the humour to allow her influence proceedings in front of 47,000 witnesses.