ROUND FIVE IS normally the hardest to call in the Heineken Cup as just about every team is still in with a shout. That is truly the case this season as no team has set the world alight.
As I have been saying all season, it is almost impossible to tell which Leinster side will turn up from week to week. It may be a coincidence with Sean O’Brien’s absence but Leinster have looked flat ever since he got injured.
Leinster haven’t been themselves this season and take on a Castres side who are making a fortress of Stade Pierre Antoine. They have won their last 12 games at home. French rugby is based on home pride and you can bet that they will be targeting the win. A defeat for Leinster could leave them on the same points with saints [away to Ospreys].
I expect to see the old Leinster in action tomorrow. Jimmy Gopperth is in to steady the ship at out-half and Eoin Reddan, surprisingly, gets the start beside him. I suspect that Matt O’Connor wants him in their to add some vim and vip to their play.
O’Connor has been saying the right things this week and precision is key for Leinster to get the away win. There is a new back-row in Kevin McLaughlin, Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip. Murphy has hit form at the right time and to anyone who criticises Heaslip, just watch what he does over the next few weeks. He plays a different game when O’Brien is not there and he will carry a lot more for Leinster now.
Go-forward ball, getting over the gainline and building phases are the ways Leinster will get the result in France but it is the hardest, of the games involving Irish provinces, to call.
Ulster got the win over Montpellier last night but they were up against a second string side. They face a tough game against Leicester at Welford Road next week but both sides are through. It is just a matter of who claims top spot.
Michael Allen’s foot in touch denies him what would have been a crucial, fourth try for Ulster against Montpellier. INPHO/Morgan Treacy
You would expect Connacht to get the win over Zebre today, which would mean they go into the final round of pool games with a mathematical chance of reaching the quarter finals. That is fantastic. Zebre are coming here on the back of a good league win over Treviso but Connacht will have too much for them. I can’t see them besting Saracens away, next weekend, though.
The young out-half Jack Carty has not put a foot wrong in the games he has featured in. Dan Parks is still a special player but, ultimately, his clock is ticking. If they could blood Carty in these coming months it would be a huge, huge bonus going into next season.
The physicality Connacht showed against Leinster was impressive. Leinster could not match it for long stages and were fortunate to get out of Galway with a win. Connacht’s problem is turning patches of good play into points and results. Consistency of performance remains their downfall.
Gloucester may be struggling in the Premiership but it has not dulled their anticipation for the Munster match. On their Facebook page, the club has been counting down the days to the game for the past two weeks. They are still reeking revenge from that defeat in the Miracle Match [that Munster won 33-6] even though it was over at decade ago.
Kingsholm used to be a fortress for Gloucester but their home form has been terrible this year. The have lost eight times there this season and their forwards are not the driving force they used to be. Last weekend, in a 29-8 loss to Saracens, their eight-man pack was pushed off the ball by seven Sarries.
Munster have been boosted by the return of Conor Murray at scrum-half and the group is in their hands. Donncha O’Callaghan and Simon Zebo are also back from injury and on a strong bench.
The big question mark sits over Ian Keatley at out-half as JJ Hanrahan has yet to put a foot wrong in the role. He has done more than Keatley to get himself into that role but will start on the bench. Keatley is a great player and Rob Penney has gone with his experience. I expect him to bounce back today and have a bloody good game.