Ireland's flag bearers will struggle to carry the day
Clermont and Ospreys will make it difficult for Leinster and Munster, writes George Hook
Toulouse eased past Glasgow in the Heineken Cup on Friday night en route to defending their title. The Scottish club's head coach, Sean Lineen, had an unintended warning for Leinster after the game.
"At European level you need to get your setpiece right; we were destroyed there," admitted Lineen. "Our performance at the scrum killed the game. Toulouse stretch you. The way they off-load and counter-attack shows what a quality team they are."
Today Leinster face Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin. Leinster have won all three previous meetings between the sides, but this time it could be very different as the champions of France made a resounding statement of intent last week with a 32-25 victory over European champions Toulouse.
Joe Schmidt's inside knowledge of the opponents may be important, but New Zealand great Brian Lochore was always of the view that the All Blacks did not care how much their opponents knew about their strategy; perfectly executed plays would always win out irrespective of the preparedness of the defence.
Leinster's coach has gone for experience in his selection. It screams a commitment to grizzled and experienced old pros to counter the difficulties posed by a French team playing in front of its own supporters. Nothing else explains the preference for the predictable Isaac Boss, the ageing Nathan Hines, and the expatriate Heinke van der Merwe, over the inventive Eoin Reddan, the line-out expert Devin Toner or the committed Cian Healy.
Schmidt has taken Lineen's advice to heart by picking his best scrummagers in the front row and picked his toughest and most experienced players everywhere else. Losing Brian O'Driscoll was a blow, but this is a team picked to salvage a bonus point. It is hard to find anybody likely to take a step back, although it will be a quick education for Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley.
The youngsters must first and foremost be resolute in defence and it is there that chinks may appear as Shane Horgan, in defiance of accepted wisdom, has seen his defensive qualities desert him before his attacking skills lose their lustre. It is much more usual for veterans to use their experience to make up for ageing limbs. Perhaps Horgan, a giant wing, has never had to worry about the finer points of defending, preferring to rely on his physical presence.
The French are waiting for fitness reports on centre Aurélien Rougerie and fly-half Brock James. At least James, present or otherwise, will not affect the kicking as presumably the eminently reliable Morgan Parra will take over the place-kicking duties.
Leinster, despite the enforcers in the pack, will, I suspect, go the same way as Glasgow and be beaten up by a superior force before being opened up out wide. A bonus point may even be beyond them. The vision of the 'Last Chance Saloon' may prove the spur to French ambitions. Club rugby is in a very different place to the national team in France.
Ninety minutes earlier today, Munster will, if the bookmakers are to be believed, have dispatched the Ospreys. The southern province is well-nigh unbackable at 2/9, but it may be closer than people imagine. The Welsh team spoiled the Leinster party last year and has come through difficult groups to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup in the last three years.
Tony McGahan is pretty pleased with his selection and particularly with his bench. Only neophyte hooker Mike Sherry would be less than a certain starter on another weekend. However, Lineen's cautionary words strike a chord here also. Tony Buckley will almost certainly face a difficult afternoon and the arrival of John Hayes after an hour is unlikely to improve the situation. That said, the Bruff prop might arrive with Paul O'Connell, which certainly would cause some excitement.
Nevertheless, this Welsh pack must give cause for concern. A suspension-free Marty Holah working with Jerry Collins will test Denis Leamy's rehabilitation; a second-row partnership of Alun Wyn Jones and Ryan Jones will test Munster with or without O'Connell; and the Jones boys plus Paul James will ensure it is hot and heavy at scrum time. Lest we forget it was the arrival of Adam Jones for the hapless Phil Vickery that changed the Lions scrum in South Africa.
Peter Stringer is unlucky to be dropped for Tomás O'Leary but it is a clear indication that the Reds' management fear Mike Phillips. Stringer has never been good against a breaking scrum-half, whereas upfront defending is meat and drink to O'Leary. Still, there is a price to be paid for physicality at scrum-half and the Munster back line may have less space to move off the inferior passing skills and ruck clearance of O'Leary.
The loss of Lee Byrne may be unimportant in the scheme of things. The full-back seems to be mentally out of sorts and the arrival of Dan Bigger is of greater importance. Ospreys now have a competent kicking game and the young fly-half has allowed James Hook to move to his best position at centre to bring the best out of flying wings like Tommy Bowe and Richard Fussell. Shane Williams seems to be hardly missed.
This is a classic Welsh side: strong in the setpiece, tough in the forward exchanges and imaginative out wide. In fact, the kind of side that has always made life hard for Munster -- a French style with a Welsh hard centre. Hard to see from where the bookmakers got their odds. Munster being Munster will probably eke out a victory, but if a surprise is in the offing today, I suspect it will be in Limerick rather than in Clermont.