Tony Ward: Connacht and Munster already in 'must-win' territory
Published 19/10/2013 | 05:00
The temperature is balmy for the time of year, the clocks have still to go back and yet here we are in mid-October knowing that defeat for Connacht in Italy or for Munster in Limerick this afternoon is almost guaranteed to halve Irish interest in this Heineken Cup.
Two defeats from two and it's almost certainly curtains and elimination from the pool before the traditional back-to-back December matches even come into view. The financial ramifications of that scenario need no elaboration – for Pat Lam and Connacht and for Rob Penney and Munster we are already in 'must win' territory.
So with all four Irish sides in action, today is a massive day. It's Connacht first up at Stadio XXV Aprile. And while it would be stretching it to suggest Connacht's ambitions or indeed expectations are anywhere near the other three Irish provinces, a second successive European double over Zebre, with the possibility of snatching a major scalp at the Sportsground against Saracens or Toulouse, would have likely resembled the pre-season goal.
A repeat of last season's performance could still come to pass but today is the day for standing up and being counted. Cardiff – so abysmally poor against Exeter last week – became the first team to fall to the most recent Italian franchise in the Pro12 last month.
Gavin Duffy, Michael Swift and the rest know what lies ahead – the danger of making Heineken Cup history against Zebre for all the wrong reasons.
There were so many positives against Saracens despite the defeat. Lam is having a tough time of it succeeding Eric Elwood, but when opportunity knocks to inject some winning confidence it is imperative nothing is left behind.
Rest assured Zebre will have the same mental approach, aided and abetted by home advantage, but I'm going for Connacht to take an away game they dare not lose.
Next up it's Leinster against Castres in Dublin and Ulster away to Montpellier.
Leinster produced the most complete 80 minutes – in terms of attack and defence – in the opening round against Ospreys, thereby banishing the Thomond Park glitch the previous week. Here again the challenge is psychological as Top 14 champions Castres pitch up in search of a decent Heineken Cup run.
That hasn't always been the case in the past but, having worked so hard to beat Northampton, it would be plain daft were they not to give it a right go again.
The last thing on Leinster's agenda in the build-up will have been Castres' state of mind. Only a repeat of the Liberty Stadium intensity will see the perfect winning start and two wins from two for the three-time champions. They were quite brilliant in Swansea and marginally ahead of the Scarlets (who beat Harlequins) for the most complete team performance of the opening round in my book.
Home comfort will provide an added advantage this afternoon but will not win the game as a matter of course. If Leinster are to grind out a result against gnarly opposition then they must, for the second week running, do it the hard way. Take the Leinster defence to deliver and the calm and measured Jimmy Gopperth to pull the strings for the second week running.
Ulster, much like Leinster, put in a workmanlike performance against Leicester, a club with equally lofty ambitions. The fact Ulster won in France (at Castres) last season is of immense psychological benefit.
It helps too that unlike a year ago when blemish-free leaders of the Pro12, they travel very much under the radar today. Indeed, if you're searching for a match that will produce a win on the road for an unfancied team, this could be it.
Montpellier will try to exercise the Stade Yves-du-Manoir 'fortress mentality' but Ulster are a side littered with experienced leaders prepared to stand strong in a crisis. In Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Johann Muller, Roger Wilson and Dan Tuohy they possess seasoned pros who don't understand the meaning of a backward step.
It has all the ingredients for one of the matches of the weekend, with Ulster well capable of making it two wins on the bounce on Gallic soil. However, current form suggests Montpellier are best positioned for a two-from-two unbeaten start.
Last up it's Munster at home to Gloucester in Limerick. The defeat in Edinburgh came on the back of a collective failing in the top two inches. It's not too often that could be said about Munster in this competition over the years. It might sound a tad simplistic but anyone who puts it down to the change at out-half is deluding themselves.
Ian Keatley was but one of a dozen who failed to turn up with their 'A' game at Murrayfield. What transpired could be best described as a most untypical Munster performance. They have left themselves with a mountain to climb or, as Peter O'Mahony put it, "with five cup finals to be won".
He wasn't exaggerating. Can they do it? Yes. Will they? I believe so but the heat is on, beginning in the cauldron that is Thomond Park this evening.
By the time it kicks off in Limerick, I expect Leinster to have squeezed the life out of Castres in a D4 dogfight, Connacht to have won in Italy and Ulster to have been edged out in Montpellier.
That will leave it to Munster to make it three Irish wins from four on weekend number two of this gripping competition.