What The Provinces Need To Do This Weekend (And How To Do It!)

Ulster v Glasgow Warriors - Celtic LeagueSomehow, for Irish fans, the Heineken Cup all of a sudden looks a little glum. New coaches North and South, an impeccable run of form in the East and a feeling that greatness was coming from the West has all boiled down to one team all but gone, two clinging on for dear life and one that soared through on Friday night with a game to spare. So let’s try and put our minds at ease here, that’s right, time for some maths.

Connacht have by all accounts had a fantastic time of it in Europe, though their losses to Biarritz and Harlequins were arguably within their power to control. Still a massive home win over Biarritz and an opening away win against Zebre sees them with double the wins already this season. Still though these two losses may haunt them as had they even managed a bonus point in both they could still be on the hunt for Amlin qualification. As it stands however, with their eight points seeing them behind teams like Montpellier and Ospreys one would think their European campaign will end next weekend. Still though there stands a good chance against Zebre in Galway to end on a fluttering high and of course you can’t completely write them off against Quins either. All in all this should still stand as a great outing for Elwood in his final season in charge and the pressure will be on new coach Pat Lam to make sure Connacht continue the form and look like serious contenders for qualification next season.

The biggest doom and gloom causer of the competition at the minute is surely Leinster and Munster’s situations, where results from other pools as well as try bonus points will be watched intently for them to ensure qualifying. For Leinster, their job is arguably easier after a solid display against Connacht last week where players like O’Brien rediscovered form of old and the returning trio of Kearney, O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald survived above all else and should have plenty more to give on Saturday. For them to qualify though they are realistically looking at a need for two bonus point wins, as well as some bad results for teams such as Toulouse/Leicester and unfortunately, Munster. Yes on paper there is a possibility that qualification for either Leinster or Munster could come at the expense of one or the other, depending on how the points fall next weekend. It’s all a little strange given how promising the season looked over the summer, but this is sport after all and predictable behaviour is not what it’s made for. On the to the Munster men who, like Leinster, are going to rely on some favours to progress, as well as some displays from themselves like that which they turned in against Northampton last season. The problem with Munster is that as unpredictable as they have been they could find themselves qualified with nowhere to go, just like Edinburgh last season. So far they have flip flopped between a new energetic style of rugby, and the old bruiser up the jumper rugby Munster achieved so much playing. But should they find themselves faced by an extremely hungry Clermont or Ulster team in the Quarters, qualification will be irrelevant should they not bring their new game. Key to this is the relegation of Ronan O’Gara to the bench. Now I don’t say this in my usual O’Gara bashing form of late, the simple fact is that he is an older generation and plays the older game. Keatley is always improving and desperately needs this pressure to drive him on, alas Penney has gone with the tried and trusted but I would worry Munster will regret it.

Lastly then we have Ulster, who it must be said are in fantastic form and being truthful, stood to exit the competition only as a result of a dramatic loss of form and extreme bad luck. However a 23-6 win over Glasgow has put them through to the final eight. It is now key that they play like winners, for again the knock outs are no good to a team if they don’t know what to do with them. Ulster should now realise how great an opportunity they have and how over the last few years they have been destined to be the team they are today. The win over Glasgow, has given them the momentum to give Castres a serious go and hopefully secure a home quarter final. They are the elite of Ireland at the minute and it is no less than justice for their effort and work rate. So to summarise, what we need is this: Connacht have to be readily aware that they are playing for reputation, that their fans will quickly tire or one off performances and that they owe their lives to their coach who is deserving of a big win send off. Leinster need to rise up through their returning war horses and find that majestic form they are so capable of, they are counting on miracles but have had many through the years. Munster must look to the future, if the chips are down tomorrow regrssion will be their downfall. As for Ulster, more of the same of the majority of their season and they can do no wrong. It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.

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