Irish provinces kick on
After a decent opening, the Irish provinces need to build on their Heineken Cup momentum
IT was a good start. Last weekend's opening round of Heineken Cup matches provided Irish rugby with a welcome adrenalin boost following the disappointing nature of the national side's World Cup exit.
Momentous wins for Munster and Ulster, a battling comeback by Leinster in challenging circumstances and Connacht justifying their presence among Europe's elite, while banishing some preconceived notions about their capabilities in the process.
In keeping with the pressure-packed environment, it does not get any easier and, if anything, this weekend is a tougher proposition than the opening round.
Castres are lining up Munster in the south of France, Ulster are travelling to one of Europe's most famed citadels when they take on Leicester in Welford Road, Connacht have the daunting challenge of Toulouse and, while Leinster have the comfort of home advantage, they face a Glasgow side who travel to Dublin full of confidence following an excellent win over Bath.
Provincial pitfalls abound, and there are areas for each Irish side to address to maximise their chances of victory.
1 Strong start
A 12.45 Sunday kick-off is off-putting at the best of times and the atmosphere-draining repercussions could affect both sides early on.
However, Joe Schmidt's men will be acutely aware of the need to start strongly, as it was only in the second half against Montpellier that they began to find some rhythm and it was very nearly too late.
Glasgow will take heart from their 23-19 win at the RDS in September, so Leinster, with their World Cup contingent (bar Brian O'Driscoll) back in tow, will know the importance of quelling repeat notions from the off. Hit them hard and early.
2 Stop Barclay
The Glasgow openside knows all about causing upsets in Dublin, having put in a fantastic performance in the Scotland back-row to help spoil Irish rugby's Croke Park farewell last year.
Following a torrid breakdown battle with Montpellier's Fulgence Ouedraogo last weekend, if Leinster can limit John Barclay's influence they will be well on their way.
3 The missing link
Leinster's march to Heineken Cup glory was founded, to a large extent, on a super offloading game, which allowed them to consistently get beyond opposition defences.
They have yet to rediscover that rhythm consistently this season -- understandable, given the personnel adjustments pre and post-World Cup. Glasgow have a workmanlike backline featuring the likes of Rob Dewey and Graeme Morrison, who tend to operate in straight lines, while Leinster have the steppers and linkers who can set the tone.
1 Maul order
When the preposterous ELVs were blighting the game, the maul was ended as an attacking weapon, much to the delight of those of those who do not appreciate its true beauty and potency. Thankfully, the maul is back and Munster put it to good use against Northampton last weekend -- the problem was, they didn't do enough of it.
Mauling is the ideal way to tie in defenders and create space elsewhere, and it would be an excellent tactic to frustrate Castres tomorrow and provide Munster will rolling momentum.
2 Set-piece solidity
Winning away in the Heineken Cup is always a big ask and getting your set-pieces right is crucial to that aspiration. The Munster scrum struggled last weekend, but Northampton are one of the best scrummaging units in the competition and BJ Botha and company have the capacity to provide a surer platform this time, something they have undoubtedly worked on during the week.
The line-out also needs to improve and here, again, Castres are not as proficient as the Saints and can be successfully targeted on their own throw.
Finally, restarts are an oft-overlooked, but crucial aspect of the game and Munster need to be solid receivers and competitive challengers. The small things can make big differences.
3 Win the crowd
Castres' decision to switch to the bigger capacity Ernest Wallon stadium in Toulouse looks like it may backfire. Ticket sales have been slow and, as well as robbing themselves of the advantage of the unsettling environs of their inhospitable home ground, Castres have also created an opportunity for Munster's supporters -- magnificent last weekend -- to have a greater presence.
Already miffed at having to travel, the Castres fans could turn on their own team if things go against them.
Ulster achieved a seminal victory over Clermont last weekend, but, in truth, the French handed it to them. The visitors exhibited a mental frailty in Belfast that negated their superior talents and allowed Ulster to stay in a game that should have been well beyond them by 60 minutes.
There will be no such uncertainty in the Leicester side, particularly in their Welford Road fortress, whereas Ulster have never been convincing on the road. They need to travel to the Midlands with the belief they can cause an upset -- anything less than complete mental surety will lead to an Ulster defeat, and potentially a heavy one.
2 Supreme Court
Losing John Afoa is a massive blow, especially against a side carrying the scrummaging power of Cole, Castrogiovanni, Ayerza and Stankovich.
Without their World Cup-winning All Black, extra responsibility rests on the shoulders of Tom Court to provide a propping platform.
Court is a technically good scrummager, far better than he gets credit for in his bit-part roles with Ireland, and tomorrow is the day to prove as much. Having Rory Best alongside will be a significant comfort.
3 Wide angle
If Ulster try to play percentage rugby against the Tigers, they will be savaged. While the need to be competitive up front is obvious, they must look at the lessons of last weekend if they hope to come away with a victory.
It took the running spark of Adam D'Arcy to produce the critical score and Ulster have pace in the likes of Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy that out-half Ian Humphreys should seek to exploit.
1 No fear
This is no time for stage fright. Having waited so long for their Heineken Cup opportunity, it would be a tragedy if Connacht were to crumble when their chance to announce themselves finally arrived.
The words in the build-up have been encouraging but it is one thing to say it, quite another to look across at Dusautoir, Servat, Nyanga and the other Toulouse superstars and not question your capacity to see it through.
If Connacht doubt themselves, they are sunk, but you would hope that, with the likes of John Muldoon, George Naoupu and Gavin Duffy in their ranks, fear will not be an option.
2 Scrap challenge
Connacht's greatest days at the Sportsground have come through a combination of their own tenacity and their opponents' discomfiture with the surroundings and ferocity of the challenge.
The nastier the weather, the better for the home team and a disjointed, niggly game -- while not the best spectacle for neutrals -- would be perfectly suited to Connacht's agenda of unsettling their vaunted opponents.
They need to scrap for everything in the ground and in the air, thunder into their tackles and generally make the Toulousians wish they were sipping coffee in the Place du Capitole.
3 Shock factor
The most encouraging part about Connacht's display in London last weekend was their willingness to have a go. It clearly caught Harlequins off guard and, while it is not a policy to be followed recklessly against Toulouse tomorrow, flinging the ball out to the likes of Eoin Griffin and telling him to have a cut could pay dividends.
For all their talk about respecting the opposition, Toulouse are unlikely to have spent too much time analysing their opponents and a run-and-be- damned approach at the right time could catch the French off guard.