WITH MERE HOURS to go before the 2012/13 Heineken Cup finally kicks off after four and a half unbearable months off our screens, we thought it was time to seek professional help to iron out some outstanding issues rattling round our oval-shaped brains.
The Score.ie: I think we had better accept Connacht’s fate, but can three Irish sides progress to the quarter-finals?
Donal Lenihan: It’s going to be tough. Leinster and Munster are in very difficult pools, Ulster are in a head-to-head with Northampton.
As of now, you’d fancy Clermont to come out of the pool. Leinster might find it harder to get out of pool than win the Heineken Cup.
Munster have a difficult pool, but if they win on Saturday it will open up a bit of breathing space. If they don’t, it’s going to be very, very difficult. That said, Saracens haven’t been scoring tries recently and I think Munster will beat Edinburgh home and away.
TS: Is it now feasible that Leinster may not make it through the group phase?
DL: It’s a strong possibility. You can’t discount the Scarlets winning the group either. Traditionally, they’ve been poor at the set-piece, but they’ve brought in two or three South African forwards and all the attention is on their back-line, but the back row is outstanding.
Whoever comes out of that pool has to be favourite to win the competition outright.
TS: Do you think Paddy Jackson is good enough to compete at this level of competition? Or is Ulster’s best hope a Pienaar/Marshall combination?
DL: Paddy Jackson is the future for Irish rugby. You expect Jonny Sexton to be there for another six year, but history shows you need at least two players to push eachother, Jackson will be that player in time. Last year he was thrown in at the deep end. He’s shown character to bounce back from what was a difficult result to take in the final.
He has a long way to go, but you don’t become a dominant 10 at 20, 21 years of age. It depends on whether Ulster are prepared to work with him over the next few years and hope he can do what O’Gara did for Munster. Ruan Pienaar is currently better equipped to control a game, but he hasn’t had a break after playing the Rugby Championship all through summer.
TS: And the same query about Munster’s back-row, are they good enough?
DL: I think Munster were caught with their pants down when they did their contracts last season. They thought David Wallace and Denis Leamy would be available this season, but they had to retire.
So Munster do have vulnerability there. With back row forwards, you need at least six because of the rate of attrition. They are waiting for CJ Stander to come in from Bulls, but he’s young too, he’s not a hardened figure like Rocky Elsom or Jim Williams.
TS: What’s your view on Munster’s dilemma at number 10?
DL: A lot of that has been brought on by Ronan O’Gara coming back late. But he has always responded to pressure over the years. Ian Keatley has come on leaps and bounds but I don’t see O’Gara being surplus to requirements any time soon.
TS: What is success for Munster this season?
DL: Last season was a failure for Munster and they won six out of six in the pool stage. They will see it as a failure if they don’t get out of pool. Their aspiration must be a semi-final and after that hope for the best.
TS: Is there a young Irish player you see a bright future for? Any other rising star in Europe we should be watching closely?
DL: I though Connacht loosehead prop Denis Buckley was outstanding against Leinster and also Ulster when he came off the bench and was up against John Afoa. He’s only 22, very young in prop terms, he’s not the biggest of men, but looks incredibly powerful.
In Europe, it will be interesting to see what role George Ford has at Leicester. He is still only 19 and came on and played in the Premiership final last season. Toby Flood is the number one out-half at the moment, but Leicester may be forced to pick Ford ahead of him.
TS: Is the game as a whole going in the right direction?
DL: On the evidence of September alone there have been outstanding games. I think I’ve covered five in the Rabo alone and they’ve all been great games. There is a realisation developing in rugby that the less you kick away possession, the less chance you give the opposition to score.
You look at the All Blacks; most teams who win the World Cup have gone into a bit of a lull. New Zealand seem to have been liberated by it and have just gone from strength to strength playing incredible rugby.
Teams are trying to take portions of that template. The Heineken Cup is a great competition to watch, but the approach of some clubs is going to make it even better.
TS: Finally, Donal; the world wants to know… How do you work alongside George Hook and his never-ending rants about World War two and dances in Dungannon?
DL: I enjoy George. I always said when I was in management: ‘George is a great fella as long as he’s not talking about you.’
Donal Lenihan was speaking as an ambassador for Heineken as they launched their new Heineken Star Predictor game.
Pit your wits against Lenihan and Hook by predicting the outcome of each of this weekend’s Heineken Cup fixtures.
After each round game-players are in with a chance of winning Heineken Cup match tickets and an overall prize of a mouth-watering VIP package to the Heineken Cup Final. Play the game here.