O'Brien loss will take Leinster out of comfort zone
A difficult away trip in the quarter-final awaits Matt O'Connor's side, says Jim Glennon
Their Christmas period, if those involved in professional sport notice it at all, is over and done with. The interprovincial fixtures caught the interest during the downtime with their old-fashioned parochialism and some glimpses of intensity and quality, but the overriding image was simply that of a means to an end, namely preparation for rounds five and six in Europe over the coming fortnight.
Leinster, Ulster and Munster top their respective pools, while Connacht will be looking to finish off their third campaign by confirming it as their best yet with at least another win.
Entering round four in mid-December, we were in an enviable state of good health across all the provinces following a clean sweep in the first of the back-to-back meetings. Toulouse managed to reverse their horror result with Connacht but Leinster's reverse loss to Northampton in the Aviva was undoubtedly the shock of the round.
Leinster remain clear of Northampton and Castres in that order, but their run-in is challenging, with a trip to the south of France followed by a visit to the RDS from their traditional bogeys, the Ospreys, to close off the pool. Crucially important at this stage of the competition is the issue of bonuses and their current points total of 13 is the lowest of all the pool leaders, meaning they are looking at an away quarter-final as things stand.
The prospect of a lengthy spell out for Seán O'Brien, possibly extending as far as an April quarter-final, is a massive blow. O'Brien has already assumed the mantle of the team's talisman from Brian O'Driscoll and his absence will be keenly felt, particularly in Castres where all of the team's heavy artillery, the ultra-physical, are needed to step up and grind out a result. You only have to cast your mind back to the flanker's performance in Swansea in round one for evidence of his importance to the Leinster effort.
All in all though, I don't expect another slip-up like the last round; on the contrary in fact, some serious lessons will have been learned from that reversal. They should advance, but the bonus point lost in such dramatic circumstances last time could well condemn them to an away quarter-final.
As expected from the outset, Pool Five looks likely to go down to the wire in what will be a massive showdown between Leicester and Ulster at Welford Road in a fortnight. Not exactly the destination of choice for a team in that situation but Ulster have done everything asked of them up to this point, including an outstanding win in Montpellier. While the challenge of the French in the return at Ravenhill will need to be navigated before the trip to Leicester, Ulster should still put the visitors away. A cold January Friday night in Belfast is not something that Fabien Galthie's players, already out of contention for qualification, will relish and a bonus point should be the target for Mark Anscombe's team.
It's possible then that a losing bonus could be enough for Ulster in Welford Road but, regardless, it will be a battleground. If they do manage to emerge from the pool, a Ravenhill quarter-final could well be on the cards -- a daunting proposition for any opposition; after that, it's all about momentum, the luck of the draw, and the injury list.
Munster's back-to-back wins put them in the driving seat in their pool, five points clear of Gloucester, and Kingsholm next Saturday evening will be the decider. The evening kick-off will ensure an even more raucous 'Shed', but Munster have been there and done that in Gloucester and the challenge will hold few fears for them. In addition, Nigel Davies' team, currently languishing in ninth position in the Premiership, could by no means be described as a vintage crop of Gloucester players.
A nine-point return from the two outings, with Edinburgh visiting Thomond Park in round six, should be enough for a home quarter-final and, like Ulster, it's a draw that many will want to avoid.
In terms of loftier ambitions, Munster have yet to convince. On their day, they are near untouchable and among the best around
and although they have demonstrated a degree of consistency in the Pro12, it's been of a level below what's required in Europe and a further step-up is needed for a return of the glory days. They've yet to show the levels of firepower needed to compete at the highest level but they will, in all probability, progress to the knockout stages where anything is within their compass, as they showed last season against both Harlequins and Clermont-Auvergne.
Connacht's win in Toulouse will go down as one of the outstanding results in the history of the competition. Next week's visit of the Italian franchise Zebre to the Sportsground shouldn't present any difficulty, and a bonus-point win is a realistic aim. The trip to Saracens' all-weather pitch the following week will be a horse of an entirely different colour, though, and will ask a lot of questions of Pat Lam's squad. The legacy of that win in Toulouse, and the manner of its achievement, should bring the team to a new level of confidence and provide them with another opportunity to leave their mark on one of the competition's big names.