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Big two provinces are well placed as Cup enters crucial stage

AS the four provinces prepare this week to resume their Heineken Cup campaigns, it can be said that while a team's season can't be made over the next fortnight, it most certainly can be broken.

Connacht entertain Gloucester at the Sportsground on Saturday and will do so in somewhat chastened mode. Toulouse gave a lesson in professionalism in the last round to anyone interested in one.

Eric Elwood and his team will have earmarked this game as soon as the draw was made as their best opportunity for a win in their debut season at Europe's highest level and will be hoping for the lightest possible injury list. That, and much more, will be needed if the win is to be achieved but it is by no means beyond them, despite Friday's horror show.

The Connacht pack must get on the front foot from kick-off this time, and get the crowd behind them; from that position there must be no retreat. Toulouse have been and gone, and with them the stage-fright that afflicted Connacht's performance, which should be written off as the bad dress rehearsal, with Saturday next as, hopefully, the good first night.

Ulster, having launched their campaign in great style, appear to have come off the rails slightly since their subsequent defeat at Leicester, and will need to put their indifferent league form behind them. Nothing less than a bonus-point win at home to Aironi will be enough to keep alive their hopes of emerging from their pool, and such a result will not be easily come by in the face of a dogged and ever-improving Italian opposition.

Brian McLaughlin has a selection dilemma at scrumhalf with the diminutive Paul Marshall having staked a serious claim for the starting position in the absence through injury of Ruan Pienaar, but it's difficult to imagine the Springbok's services being dispensed with, if fully fit.

Munster head to Llanelli and a side who have emerged as pool surprise packets following their win at Northampton. However, unbeaten and with reputation enhanced, Munster will be looking to build on their great start, preferably without the need of further heroics from Ronan O'Gara. What seemed at the outset to be a potentially defining campaign for them may well turn out to be just that, though not in the way most of us had expected.

Parc y Scarlet is familiar territory. It will hold no fears for them and the incentive of welcoming a vanquished opponent to Thomond the following week will be immense, as will the currently vacant driver's seat in this pool. Scarlets too are unbeaten and this is a massive game for them after a few lean years.

Finally, Leinster will be satisfied with their position as they prepare to meet Bath at the Rec. The champions' comfortable dismissal of a resurgent Glasgow at the RDS was an indicator of their strength in depth.

An unprecedented level of intensity in the competition for starting places will be giving Joe Schmidt the type of problem that every coach envies, and one with which he has shown no little expertise to date. Having managed a draw in Montpellier, they'll be anxious to go one better here, nicely teeing up the return in Lansdowne Road where they could almost put themselves out of sight of their pool rivals. Interesting selection issues at hooker, where I expect Richardt Strauss to start, and around the backline

combination, with David Kearney having put his hand up on Friday against Cardiff, and the ongoing question around his brother Rob or Isa Nacewa for the start at fullback.

Leinster and Munster have consistently displayed a capacity, born of winning experiences, to absorb with a minimum of discomfort the very best their opponents can throw at them while at the same time retaining a clear focus on their own performance. The hallmark of champions, it's a quality which was once the preserve of only Toulouse and Leicester in this competition but has now been acquired by Ireland's two leading provinces.

It's not beyond the bounds that the Irish sides could enjoy a clean sweep next weekend. Ulster at home to the Italians should be the banker, Leinster at Bath solid enough, and I think Munster will also win. That leaves Connacht. If they've learned their lessons from Toulouse, and if Gloucester aren't quite on their game, which I suspect might be the case, then it might just happen.


Sunday Indo Sport