George Hook: Attacking pace and guile will send Leinster into bonus territory
The Heineken Cup confrontations have been somewhat downgraded because of the momentous news from the Ireland squad surrounding Brian O'Driscoll's captaincy.
However, as the weekend countdown continues, the fate of the Irish provinces hangs in the balance, which will certainly concentrate the minds.
The bookies have already installed Leinster as favourites to get through ahead of Munster. It is an indication of the relative strengths of the sides that, despite Leinster facing the task of winning with a bonus point away from home, the Thomond Park factor is discounted.
Exeter will pose a stiff challenge, but their record at home hardly warrants calling the Devon ground a 'fortress.' The English club are coming off the back of a hiding against Clermont in France and a comprehensive defeat at home by Northampton. The last two weeks hardly inculcated confidence, but Exeter have made no secret of their desire to pay Leo Cullen and Co back for Leinster's lucky escape at the RDS.
Exeter will offer a lot of perspiration, but, even if Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and O'Driscoll are not firing on all cylinders, Leinster still possess enough pace and guile to open them up four times in 80 minutes.
The back-row also has a threatening look to it and the news from inside the Leinster camp is that the coaches are surprised at the negative reports being offered by the media on Jamie Heaslip. Apparently, he tops all the statistical charts for performance.
Clearly, Heaslip is a throwback to the old days of Irish selection, when the amateur selectors used a rule of thumb that if they did not see the prop forward, he must be having a good game. The Ireland No 8 and captain seems to have foregone – according to the coaches at least – electric carries in the open in favour of hard work at ruck and maul.
This is a very different Leinster from the opening rounds of the competition. They are at full strength; they have every incentive to win and, despite the presence of Heaslip in the team, the players will want to give Brian O'Driscoll a platform to show how ready he is for the difficult tasks ahead.
The scene is set for a Leinster victory and a place in the knockout stages. One suspects that in Montpellier, the home side will come away with qualification and Toulon the home quarter-final they crave.
There is one caveat. By this evening, the south-west of England may be in the throes of a blizzard. A set-piece brawl would not suit the visitors and brawny Exeter would relish an arm-wrestle.
A few seasons ago, the Thomond Park faithful would have relished the arrival of a French side with nothing to play for. Better teams than Racing have been gobbled up when the red-shirted hordes – on and off the pitch – get their dander up.
This time around, it could be very different. The supporters are not the same confident bunch that toured Europe during Heineken Cup odysseys of the past.
Surprisingly, the loss of Ronan O'Gara may not be crucial to the result. Ian Keatley is perfectly capable of kicking the goals that this French team offered to Saracens. Tomorrow, referee Wayne Barnes will be equally tough on the team in blue and white, which could play into Munster's hands.
The home side's hopes of scoring four tries were enhanced by the Racing team announcement in Paris. They have made 13 changes from last week and in resting Juan Martin Hernandez and Juan Imhoff, the strike quality is massively reduced. The French have declared their lack of interest in the fixture, but even that may not be enough for the pedestrian Munster attack.
Racing may be happy to lose, but unwilling to be humiliated. They look set to join the other 20 French sides that have failed to win away to Munster.
Meanwhile, at the Stade Pierre Antoine, Castres will almost certainly put up stern resistance against Ulster. Yet again the French have made a raft of changes, but it does not have the sense of a second XV. North of the border there is a feeling of pre-destination for the men in white, but failing to get a home draw could see Ulster make an early exit.
Come Sunday night, I expect Ulster and Leinster will be still in the competition, but there will be no place for the most recognisable shirt in European rugby.