IT IS set to be a good weekend for the Irish as the Heineken Cup gets under way this weekend with our panel of experts predicting wins for three of the four provinces.
Unfortunately, all three reckon that Saracens will be too strong for Connacht at the Sportsground, but Pope believes that the news elsewhere will be positive despite Leinster being involved in the toughest of pools.
The three-time champions have a new coach in Matt O’Connor and must replace Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, but the former St Mary’s coach believes that they can have too much for the Ospreys tomorrow evening in Swansea.
“Leinster have it tough and they are going to have to improve a lot from last week against Munster. If Leinster want to get out of the toughest group they will have to get an away win and they might just shade it,” the New Zealander said.
“The whole thing for Leinster is that if they can get out of their group, then hell yes they can do well. They have the Top 14 winners, the Premiership finalists and an Ospreys side who always do well in the Pro12. Leinster will target this as a must win.”
Sandymount native O’Brien is a big Leinster fan and is confident his team can do the business at the Liberty Stadium despite the seismic changes at the RDS this season.
“It will be hard for Leinster after all the changes, it might be a bit of a rebuilding phase, but I still expect them to get a win this weekend. I think winning the Heineken Cup might be a bit far-fetched, though,” he said.
The Dubliner currently plies his trade for Leicesteshire, having previously played for Northamptonshire and he admits that he may have mixed emotions when Leinster take on Northampton in Rounds Three and Four.
“I was sitting behind the goal where all the points were scored in the 2011 final,” he recalled. “The first-half I was supporting Northampton, the second Leinster – I couldn’t lose!
“They have spent a lot of money and George North is living up to his price tag. Jim Mallinder is a very good coach, I don’t think an English team will win it but they are as good as any.”
While all of our panel’s star predictions were for an opening day win for Munster at Murrayfield tomorrow, Pope warned that the Scottish stadium with a lunchtime kick-off could be dangerous.
“Edinburgh will be a bit sticky, but Munster know not to take things for granted,” he said.
“Murrayfield can be an eerie place. A bunch of people stuck in a huge stadium and Munster are coming from a packed Thomond Park full of people screaming and waving Munster flags and are playing a team who no one expects to win, who have a new coach and are at the start of the season. If Munster underrate Edinburgh, they’ll do so to their peril.”
O’Brien reckons that Ulster will have a tough job against his adopted home town.
“I think Ulster are probably the strongest Irish team, but Leicester are a good side. Home advantage might get them home. Geordan Murphy is coaching now and they’ve a good squad and I can’t see anyone get a result at Welford Road.”
As for Connacht, Pope is not writing them off completely but Saracens are top of the English Premiership and have their eyes on the Heineken Cup this season.
“I love Connacht, they’ve been brilliant but this is a huge ask,” he said. “They have a history of turning teams over at the Sportsground, but Saracens have big aspirations in this competition, are five from five in the Premiership and it looks tough. Form would indicate that Saracens will get an away win.”
To play the Heineken Star Predictor game for this weekend's games, visit www.heineken.ie/game