Thursday 23 November 2017

George Hook: O'Connor may rue faith in Madigan style over Gopperth substance

This week's statement from Premiership Rugby has thrown the future of the Heineken Cup, and the structure of the game in the northern hemisphere as a whole, into massive uncertainty. For now, though, all focus will be on the pitch for the back-to-back games in Rounds 3 and 4 of this great tournament.

These middle pool games have often been likened to 'moving day' in a Major golf championship. It is very rare in the modern game that two teams face each other in back-to-back games. This lends a unique atmosphere and tension to these encounters.

The Irish provinces enter these games with very different motivations.

TOULOUSE V CONNACHT

Pat Lam's reign has been a huge disappointment thus far. The Westerners are rooted to the bottom of the Pro12 table. Off the field, the resignation of CEO Tom Sears and announcement of huge losses for the year – despite the installation of a professional games board – has added to the chaos.

Connacht desperately need a big European victory to galvanise their season. The feeling among insiders in France is that Guy Novès' four-time champions are not quite the force they were as they have struggled to adapt to the new reality of French rugby where Toulon, Clermont and Racing can compete with them financially.

Despite this, if Connacht are to take anything from these encounters it will have to be in Galway, as the trip to Stade Ernest-Wallon could be a massacre.

NORTHAMPTON V LEINSTER

Any analysis of this fixture will bring up memories of the 2011 Heineken Cup final. Northampton have strengthened considerably since then. George North and Samu Manoa, to name but two, have added great physicality and firepower to Jim Mallinder's side.

This, coupled with their motivation to atone for the hurt of 2011, will ensure the most difficult of assignments for Leinster at Franklin's Gardens.

Leinster, on the other hand, have lost Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Johnny Sexton and Joe Schmidt since that momentous comeback victory. The away victory over Ospreys has, however, left them in control of Pool 1.

Matt O'Connor's selection of an all-Irish starting XV is hugely positive for the national team, but the game management of Jimmy Gopperth over the bravura of Ian Madigan may have been the more prudent call. Either way, this could be the tie of the round.

ULSTER V TREVISO

Mark Anscombe's side did much of the grunt work for qualification when beating Leicester and Montpellier in the opening two rounds.

These encounters with Treviso will be deemed a failure if Ulster do not earn a minimum of nine points from the two games.

A home quarter-final would be of huge benefit if Ulster are to challenge for European glory. With John Afoa and Johann Muller due to the leave at the end of the season and Stephen Ferris' future shrouded in mystery, the feeling is it may be now or never for Ulster in their quest to become European champions.

A word of warning, though – Treviso's recent Pro12 record at Ravenhill should give the Italians plenty of encouragement.

MUNSTER V PERPIGNAN

Like the Northampton and Leinster clash, this fixture is dripping with European history.

The major team news surrounding this game revolves around those not selected. Munster's South African duo of BJ Botha and CJ Stander have been passed over in favour of Stephen Archer and James Coughlan, while their Catalan opponents are decimated by injury.

Archer has much to prove against a big visiting pack after his difficult afternoon for Ireland against the Wallabies.

Munster's defeat at Murrayfield in the first round has left them with little wriggle room if they hope to qualify for the knockout stages. From this point it looks like they may need to win their remaining four games to ensure progress.

While Perpignan have always treated Europe with respect, their injury profile coupled with Thomond's daunting reputation may work against them challenging for victory in Limerick. The decisive action in these back-to-back fixtures will take place in the even more intimidating surrounds of the Stade Aimé Giral.

Munster are no strangers to that arena, and a good win in Thomond could lay the groundwork for a crucial away win, and with it another last-gasp escape from the pools for Rob Penney's side.

In the week where the Munster boss announced he is negotiating a new contract, victory would go a long way towards ensuring continued employment for the Cantabrian.

Irish Independent

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