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Heineken Cup – Big Business Ahead For Leinster And Connacht

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So here it is, months of permutations, battles over the future of this wonderful competition and injuries and upsets to boot. It all comes down to the next two weeks. The 13/14 Heineken Cup has seen somewhat of a return to form for Leinster and Ulster, though Edinburgh and Northampton Mk2 would best be forgotten, whilst Ulster and Connacht have continued their relative progression towards being true contenders on their respective levels. In all, from an Irish perspective at the very least, it’s been a glowing highlight of exactly why the Heineken Cup needs to stay alive.

Leinster face a daunting task on Sunday, though injury and Castres generally throwing in the towel on Europe should be of some comfort. Still this is a team unbeaten at home in 18 games and if the French can show up for nothing else, it’s pride. Leinster are able to front up quite well against a second string Castres side however with Sean O’Brien being the most high profile absentee. His presence will be considerably missed but with such inexperience out on the pitch for Castres, Leinster will be hoping to use their back line to hopefully snatch some tries and grab back that extra point they lost at the death to Northampton. It may be tough but Leinster win .

Connacht have stuck to their pledge after that famous win against Toulouse when Pat Lam emerged after that fateful fortnight to reiterate that key to their success is not slipping back into their standard Rabo form. So far so good with a well earned win over Dragons, a deserved point gained against Munster and an admittedly controversial loss to Leinster. They are on the right path, but could do with another surprise in this season, and a bonus point win against Zebre would do just that. We’re well beyond famous victories in one off games now, the win against opposition like Zebre needs to now be standard fate to Connacht, and a bonus point would just send the message home, as well as keep them in good contention for Amlin qualification. Away from home, with a little hope left in the standings, this is yet another potential milestone for Connacht. Here’s hoping, Connacht win.

Ulster are arguably reaping the spoils of French defeatism this weekend as they will be pitched against a rather lacklustre Montpellier side. It’s not right that this is becoming a normal occurrence in the competition, but Ulster can of course only play what’s in front of them. Leicester will be none too happy either that the men from the north are going up against a side with inexperience that is just begging to leak a bonus point. Still Ulster will not be complacent, and nobody will be more wary than head coach Mark Anscombe. Once bitten and all that, the fourth round defeat to Northampton last season you would think has been a massive factor in upping their clinical nature on the Heineken Cup this season. Quite simply, you are never safe in this tournament. He knows this, as do the players and with Lazarus himself, Rory Best, returning well ahead of schedule there need be no fear that Ulster won’t turn up for this. Ulster win .

Finally on Saturday, Munster can essentially solidify their place in top spot and with a home quarter. Gloucester may not have had the goods to topple Munster in round two, but they made it hard work in Thomond Park. Edinburgh nay have the sole victory in the 13/14 Cup over Munster, but you would have to think this game is a more potent banana skin. That said Munster have lots of good news to bolster their chances. The loss to Ulster was somewhat out of their hands due to some conscientious refereeing and they worked hard to overcome Connacht. Conversely Gloucester have a thumping from Saracens to bring into the game. As well as that Munster welcome Conor Murray back into the fold and Simon Zebo appears in the bench. Two crucial additions back into the team at this point in the season. Nobody doubts Munster will win this game, but when you commence things with a loss to Edinburgh, fear remains. All that said, Munster win .

So a clean sweep for the provinces, always a dangerous one to call but given the look of next weekend, it should be just this once for now.

Image courtesy of Setanta.com

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