Ruaidhri O'Connor: Crunch time for Irish provinces this weekend with season on line
Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30
It has been a curious European season so far but this week should establish some sense of order.
The fallout from the Paris attacks and subsequent match cancellations mean no one knows where they really stand ahead of the back-to-back fixtures that have traditionally represented the 'moving weeks' in the old Heineken Cup.
The World Cup lingers over everything and appears to be affecting the Guinness PRO12 clubs more than most.
Unless Leinster beat Toulon in both of their matches, they'll be gone before the festive season kicks into gear, while we'll know a lot more about an unreliable Munster side after they take on Leicester Tigers twice in eight days.
Les Kiss's Ulster are in need of a major improvement if they are to pick up the pieces of their embarrassing loss to Saracens, but have a game in hand against Oyonnax to help; while Connacht can take control of their Challenge Cup pool against a relegation-threatened Newcastle Falcons side in the next fortnight.
The club season has struggled to emerge from beneath the shadow of the World Cup, but if Irish interest is to last beyond January then form and results must improve quickly.
They all have experience on their side and are well-used to the nuances of the back-to-back games, but given the tightening of the margins since the number of teams was reduced before last season, thee is little room for error.
So, how do they stand ahead of the most important fortnight of the season?
The Stade Felix Mayol is not a venue a team wants to visit when looking for form and a result.
Leinster got Saturday off as a result of Storm Desmond's visit to Glasgow and, although his squad spent the weekend travelling over and back to Scotland, Leo Cullen might welcome the respite from a trying schedule.
Still, having returned to winning ways against Ulster he could have done with another game to help build confidence and structures.
Munster coach Anthony Foley lamented his side's free weekend when their game against Stade Francais was postponed and felt the long gap had affected his team against Connacht and, given their poor performances, it is clear that there are Leinster players who need to play themselves into form.
On Saturday, Toulon handed Ma'a Nonu his debut in a ridiculously strong backline to go with a formidable pack and it's no surprise that Agen gave up eight tries on their visit to the naval port town.
Leinster know all about Toulon and can draw solace from the fact that they took the four-in-a-row chasing club to extra-time in Marseille last year. Having played them in the knock-out stages in the last two seasons, they are aware of the few weaknesses the champions possess and will be determined to right some wrongs.
Last season's defeat by Leicester Tigers was the first time Toulon ever lost a back-to-back game and their comprehensive loss to Wasps has put them on the back-foot. They responded to that defeat by destroying Clermont away.
Leinster's back-to-back record in the same period shows signs of their European decline since their three titles in four years.
They have failed to win both since hammering Bath at the Aviva Stadium in 2012; losing twice to Clermont a year later, and sharing one apiece with Northampton in 2014 and Harlequins last season.
Any hope of reaching the knock-outs rests on the unlikely scenario of getting results in the two Toulon games and Wasps beating Bath home and away which could open up a second-placed slot.
It's a stretch, but it's all they've got.
Ireland's best hope of a quarter-final, the postponement of Munster's visit to Stade Francais has left the southerners in something of a European limbo.
They got a bonus point against Treviso in wretched conditions on the opening weekend, but didn't play well while doing so. Defeat by Connacht at home has opened them up to criticism, while Anthony Foley opted to rest most of his front-liners for yesterday's trip to Newport.
It means it's hard to get a read on Munster ahead of the renewal of their rivalry with a Leicester Tigers side who are riding high in the Premiership after the arrival of former All Black Aaron Mauger to the coaching ticket and the signing of an out-and-out openside in Brendon O'Connor.
They now possess the kind of wide shape that Munster find it difficult to handle in defence.
Much will depend on the work of the Munster medical team in the next week. BJ Botha's recovery will be crucial if the trend of English teams beating Irish opposition is to be reversed, Conor Murray is the province's most important player in Peter O'Mahony's absence, and Francis Saili was signed to play in matches like this.
Leicester's recent European record is not fantastic, but they've done well in the back-to-backs in recent years and, as the first team to beat Munster in a European game at Thomond Park, won't fear visiting Limerick on Saturday night.
Foley knows a promising campaign came crashing down around them against Clermont in the corresponding games last season and will be keen to avoid a repeat.
Like Leicester, Toulouse are not the force of old but , again like the English side, an infusion of fresh coaching blood appears to have had a positive effect on Europe's most successful club.
Front-runners in the Top 14 after a comprehensive win over Oyonnax, they are on the back-foot in Europe after giving a meek performance against Saracens on the opening weekend and failed to get the bonus point at home to Oyonnax a week later.
They were the only French team to play in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and there certainly seemed to be a lack of focus, but that shouldn't harm them when they visit Belfast on Friday.
Les Kiss's difficult start has been compounded by yet more injuries to his squad, with Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Peter Nelson and Darren Cave all unlikely to be available after an attritional win over Edinburgh on Friday night.
There is plenty of pride at stake for the 1999 champions, who have rarely been beaten as comprehensibly at Ravenhll as they were when they gave up the try-scoring bonus point to Saracens, but with a back fixture against Oyonnax on the horizon there remains some room for manoeuvre.
They simply have to beat the French side at home if they are to progress, however, and memories of last year's devastating defeats by Toulon home and away will linger.
After 25 years of Guy Noves, Uga Mola has Toulouse heading in the right direction again, but Ulster are desperate. Saracens are likely to put one foot in the quarters against Oyonnax, but second place remains a possibility.
Having survived Siberia, the westerners can take full control of their Challenge Cup pool against a struggling Newcastle Falcons side in the next two weeks.
Defeat by Cardiff was a set-back for Pat Lam who, like Kiss, is counting the cost on the injury front but has a squad playing with belief after their strong start to the season.
Dean Richards' Falcons are struggling on the domestic front and lost in Brive in round one, a result that leaves them needing a win in Galway on Saturday to keep up their interest in the competition.
Victory for the Irish province would probably see Richards turning his full focus to domestic matters, opening up the opportunity of a win in the north east of England on Sunday week.
However, given the focus on the PRO12 there may be temptation from Lam to rest some of his bigger names with derbies against Ulster and Leinster to come over Christmas, even if his squad is stretched as he deals with a lengthy injury list.
Certainly, at this point, it is the western province who look the most likely team to have European involvement come spring, and a win at the Sportsground this weekend can edge them closer to the quarter-final.