Friday 20 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Provinces primed to make move on the double'

Leinster and Munster to accelerate European progress but Ulster must avoid Scarlet fever

Johnny Sexton in action against Toulouse. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton in action against Toulouse. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

December in the Champions Cup is like a golfing major on a Saturday; it's time to move and, although nothing is won this month, teams can kiss their title hopes goodbye if they falter.

LEINSTER
Pool 1 Position

Second. A five-point romp against Wasps followed by a losing-bonus point blip in Toulouse.

Current form

So irrepressible that they pretty much gave their entire first-team squad the last fortnight off, battening down their almost unbreachable hatches in order to place their entire focus on Europe.

Without their Irish heroes, the plan worked to perfection, as the remorseless Academy production line wheeled out a series of debutants who, with ne'er a brow furrowed, compiled successive bonus-point wins against hapless Edinburgh and Dragons.

What they must do next?

Given Bath's dismal form and prospects, the champions should be expecting to plunder a hatful of points from their two meetings as they reunite with former coach Girvan Dempsey.

Nine points is the minimum requirement - the Rec is a bog at the moment which may make it a slogfest this weekend - but it is difficult to see Leinster not making hay at home.

December doubles: Saturday Dec 8: Bath v Leinster 3.15; Wasps v Toulouse 5.30. Round 4: Saturday Dec 15: Toulouse v Wasps 3.15; Leinster v Bath 5.15.

MUNSTER
Pool 2 Position

First. A gritty draw in a Sandy Park gale followed by a five-pointer against Gloucester.

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Current form

Munster's away draw in Sandy Park might have been the result which eradicated their early season difficulties once they swap the comfort of home for life on the road, albeit Zebre and Cheetahs hardly represented significantly high watermarks in terms of difficulty.

Still, Johann van Graan's side seem to be more capable of rotating their squad without losing traction, albeit he once again chose to front-load his squad in the final game before a European window.

What they must do next?

Castres suffered a surprise defeat against resurgent Agen at the weekend so Munster, energised by the returns of Conor Murray and Chris Farrell against Edinburgh, and with CJ Stander re-integrated this weekend, will have their eye on a five-pointer.

The return fixture will be crucial but the confidence gained in the away display at Sandy Park should boost their chances of taking a grip of the pool, particularly if Exeter struggle to extract two wins this month.

December doubles: Saturday Dec 8: Exeter v Gloucester 1.0; Sunday Dec 9: Munster v Castres 1.0. Round 4 Fri Dec 14: Gloucester v Exeter 7.45; Sat Dec 15: Castres v Munster 5.30.

ULSTER
Pool 4 Position:

Third. Expected home win against Leicester followed by predictable away defeat against Racing.

Current form

Victory against Cardiff last weekend was a boost but that it was such a struggle - Rory Best was hauled on to drag them across the finish line - reflected the questions still swirling around the side.

Ulster have been boosted by the emergence of some exciting youngsters like Michael Lowry while the signings of Billy Burns and Will Addison have been inspired but their resources in the tight five remain pitifully paper-thin.

What they must do next?

It is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that whoever wins in Parc Y Scarlet will also be favourites to win the following week as well. It is that important. Winless Scarlets have struggled in Europe this season; Ulster must make them pay.

It is hard to see beyond Racing 92 as Leicester under Geordan Murphy are flat-lining; their double will ease them towards top spot but a second qualification spot is there to be won for the Ulster men, although there is little hard evidence to support such a claim.

December doubles: Friday Dec 7: Scarlets v Ulster 7.45; Sunday Dec 9: Racing 92 v Leicester 3.15. Round 4 Friday Dec 14: Ulster v Scarlets 7.45; Sunday Dec 16: Leicester v Racing 92 1.0.

POOL 3

Saracens should soar ahead this month and Glasgow, who have already pushed them close, should be good enough to claim a second quarter-final slot.

POOL 5

Arguably the most compelling group of the bunch; mainly because Toulon are bunched. Edinburgh and Newcastle are lurking as surprise packets but Montpellier class should prevail.

PREDICTED LAST EIGHT

Leinster, Toulouse, Munster, Exeter, Saracens, Glasgow, Racing 92, Montpellier.

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