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The opening weekend of the Heineken Cup is upon us. Aside from being delighted to call the competition by its real name again there is also the excitement of being on the precipice of another massive season for Leinster and an improving season from Munster. Ulster and Connacht come in to Europe with players wanting to get a shot at the big jersey too. So it is all positive for the Irish provinces going in.
Starting this evening at 19:45, Leinster welcome Wasps to the RDS. And they welcome them with a team that would be the envy of the world’s richest clubs. Player management has been paramount for Leinster early season and this is the fruits of the frustration they endured with player minutes. Last weekend against Munster, they rested some top line players, which means they could have sacrificed a result for freshness. It didn’t happen (and they were comfortable) but it means that this week Leinster have a fresh team.
If we look at the last few times these teams have faced each other, Wasps have had massive wins in 2015 and 2016 with Leinster redressing the balance in 2017. Wasps are the last team to beat Leinster in Europe in the RDS, so there are a lot of ghosts that need to be exorcized this evening. And that is important to Leinster. A team who know they are favourites and who know they can play as favourites. They need something to get the engine started and that last defeat against Wasps is exactly that. They have picked a team to dominate and a team to put points on the visitors and that is what they will do. Wasps have had some bad luck with the postponement of the citing hearing for Nathan Hughes (for punching), considering the offence I don’t think anyone has an issue with the postponement but he is a Wasps enforcer and they will need something like that in the game.
Let’s look at the Leinster team:
I don’t think any team would fancy lining out against that selection especially with the bench being so strong. That is THE Leinster starting team and the first 10 minutes will show if they can hit the ground running or not. Leinster should not depend on defence, they should march forward and put a marker down early, then strangle the visitors. I think that is how it will go and Leinster to win with a bonus point and a big score.
Munster travel to the most likeable team in England (which isn’t a massive stretch but it is worth saying) to take on Exeter. A team who have developed a Munster like culture without the need for perceived superstars and who have medals in their back pockets. They are a serious outfit and would be looking at this game as a chance to take a scalp. Alan Quinlan spoke this morning saying that a losing bonus point would be a good result. While that may be true, if he is thinking that then you know the people on Munster think that. That mind-set will creep into the players and this will take away the scrap they showed last week in the Aviva. Munster showed up that day, they didn’t have the ability to win, but they had the ability to scrap well.
The teams met in preseason, and while that is not applicable here, Exeter marched to a 12-0 win in Thomond. Exeter played a strong side while Munster got 30 players game time.
These teams have never met so this could be the start of an ongoing rivalry. A rivalry that Munster would beg for. Playing as many top teams as possible will help speed up their development. Exeter are top of the Gallagher’s premiership and have been contenders/winners over the last few years. They have more top level performances. Munster have wilted in all but 1 semi-final over the last 5 years (and that one performance came against Leinster last year), this needs to change before a rot sets in. I don’t think Exeter is the place for it to turn around. I hope I am wrong but Exeter to win and avoid the visitors leaving with a BP. There are still tickets available for the match if any Munster supporters are thinking of a last minute trip.
The European and English rugby dinosaur that is Leicester arrive at the Kingspan to take on an Ulster team who are probably performing as good as can be expected with the new coach, the trauma of last season and a list of retirees that would make your eyes water. But this is the time where standing up for the Ulster men is not just a song. This is a real chance for Ulster to take a scalp. Leicester are struggling for form on a 4 game losing streak, Ulster’s 4 wins against Leicester at home have had an average win of 23 points. That is massive. This is a real opportunity to get the season back on track after losing to Connacht last week. In Stockdale they always have a chance. The teams haven’t been named yet, but I have a feeling Ulster will squeeze this one out.
Lastly, in the challenge cup, Connacht welcome Bordeaux to the sportsground. The teams haven’t played in a long time so this is almost a blank slate where form and history doesn’t really count. The only team to go to the sportsground in Europe and escape with a win are Exeter and Harlequins. Connacht are coming in off a confident win against Ulster last week and have their international players back in business with a lean and trim looking Aki firing on all cylinders. Will the French money be able to outfight the might Connacht? This game will be close. Bordeaux will be marching forward; they had gained the most metres of any team in the competition last year (552) but Connacht broke more than any other side. So it may be a rope-a-dope game plan from Connacht, allow the visitors to attack and break them when the chance arises. It would show massive confidence and ability to do so, but I think this is just too close to call. 1 score in it.
The opening weekend in Europe is always entertaining and for the first time in a long time, the provinces have a chance of a clean sweep.