European Preview – Round 3 and 4
Ulster Vs Toulouse –
After the postponement of round 1 for Ulster, they then went into round 2 at home to Saracens looking to defeat the team that beat them in the 2014 quarter final Saracens, a game that saw Jared Payne red carded for taking a player out in the air.
From an Ulster point of view the game never really went to plan and it saw Saracens dominate and they went on to win the game comfortably.
Heading into the Christmas double header with Toulouse that will see Toulouse travel to Belfast first and then Ulster go out to France, it is crucial that Ulster win at least one of the next two fixtures given the fact that they have to play Oyonnax in a back game in early January. Ulster will still feel they have the squad to compete in Pool 1.
Looking to the next two games, Ulster who won this weekend in the Pro 12 will want to bring the feel good factor back to the Kingspan Stadium after a few years in the European wilderness, they made the 2012 Final and with a positive result against Toulouse they might well be on the road to redemption. I think Ulster will have enough to get past Toulouse and give themselves a fighting chance in Pool 1.
Connacht Vs Newcastle Falcons –
Connacht will go into round 3 of the Challenge Cup in a rich vein of form, defeating Munster in Limerick for the 1st time since 1986 and coming up just short against Cardiff this week.
Connacht will have the edge on Newcastle in terms of form and although Connacht have picked up a number of injuries in recent times, it doesn’t seem to have slowed their progress down and with a game plan that suits Connacht, there recent good run in both the Pro 12 and Europe could be set to continue and I see Connacht beating Newcastle in Galway and in Newcastle and setting themselves up for a home Challenge Cup quarter final.
Leinster Vs Toulon –
Leinster go into their double header with Toulon in desperate need of points having being beaten in the opening two games by Wasps and Bath. Leinster are only holding on in there Pool by their fingertips and mathematically still have a slim chance of making progress into the quarter finals. Toulon have welcomed back a number of World Cup stars like Bryan Habana , Drew Mitchell and of course double World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu has come into the squad to add yet another experienced head.
Paul O Connell would also have been part of the squad only for injury to intervene and delay his debut for a few more months. Leinster will want to set down a marker and get their season back on track and a win over Toulon would be the ideal way to start that process. Toulon have had a mixed start to the Top 14 season and also they were well beaten by Wasps in Coventry. They have picked things up since that defeat and this weekend they beat Agen 53-19 in Toulon and that may also be a signal to Europe that they are ready to fire again.
Leinster would dearly love a win over Toulon to kick start a stuttering season but you have to think they may have to wait until the Pro 12 resumes for that boost in confidence. Toulon will win both legs at both home and away.
Munster Vs Leicester Tigers –
Munster go into round three with an unconvincing 32-7 win over Treviso as the starting point for their time in Europe this season. Leicester on the other hand will take huge confidence from two big wins over Stade Francais and Treviso. They of course came to Thomond Park in 2007 and delivered Munster’s first defeat at home in Europe. Since then both Clermont Auvergne and Harlequins have breached Fortress Thomond in European action.
With that 07 defeat to Leicester in mind I am sure Munster will do everything to redress the balance. Leicester have had two wins since they last played in Europe whereas Munster suffered defeats to Connacht and Newport Gwent Dragons.
The old cliché of Munster being really strong in Europe is old news but they are now is desperate need of a big result to keep any hope of European action beyond January alive. Munster will need more than just the crowd and a hell, fire and brimstone approach to get passed Leicester Tigers. Munster might just have enough to find a way past Leicester in Limerick but realistically they don’t seem to have the game plan that will see them get the required result in Welford Road. So over the next two rounds, I see Munster winning one and losing one.
Cian Mc Gibney