Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Anglo-Irish clashes a reminder of what a 'Lions League' could look like'
GET used to these Anglo-Irish affairs, they could be a regular staple of the rugby calendar with a ‘Lions League’ in the offing from 2020.
With private equity firm CVC taking a stake in the PRO14 and the Premiership, the writing is on the wall for a more integrated approach and it will certainly make for an improvement on the current scenario where the four provinces are in the top positions in the league after seven rounds.
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The Welsh are struggling more than ever, Glasgow are in decline and, while the South Africans and Italians are improving, they’re still some way off the top and fail to command the attention their form probably deserves.
Last weekend, Leinster rested all of their front-liners and still won in Scotstoun and, while that’s worthy of praise from their perspective, it’s deeply worrying for last year’s beaten finalists.
The Welsh regions are already talking openly about the prospect and, while no Irish province has yet welcomed the idea, the prospect of welcoming the best English teams on a regular basis can only help with season ticket sales.
Not that tickets are a problem this week, with the Champions Cup putting them back in box-office territory for the first of the season-defining double headers.
All four Irish teams take on English opposition this month and by the time they have completed the return fixtures, they will know where they stand.
Unlike their opponents, the provinces largely rested their front-liners last week in anticipation of these games and will be locked and loaded this weekend.
They’ll need to be.
Leinster’s Garden party
First up on Saturday (1pm), Leinster make their way to Northampton to visit a Saints side running riot at the top of the English Premiership.
Even if Saracens were at full tilt there’s a good chance New Zealander Chris Boyd and his brand of abrasive, attacking rugby would be doing major damage in the top flight.
Unbeaten in Pool 1 thus far, the visit of the 2018 European champions to Franklin’s Gardens is the biggest test the Midlanders have faced to date.
It’s familiar territory for the Irish province, who won here in 2013 and 2017, but this time they face a coterie of young English stars complementing the star power of Dan Biggar and Taqele Naiyaravoro in the backline behind a decent pack.
This always looked like a winnable pool for Leo Cullen’s men who are quietly targeting the top seeding for the quarter-final draw. To get there, they need to win these games home and away.
Cullen has complained that there have been issues bedding the World Cup players back into the team, but he’ll hope they’ve had enough time to take on this challenge.
Given Saracens’ significant woes, a fifth star is on the table and this fixture could unlock the tournament for Leinster.
Dan McFarland’s men have put themselves in pole position of Pool 3. Their next tests come against Harlequins over the next couple of weekends, with the Londoners mid-table domestically and at risk of losing touch if they lose at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (3.15).
They did edge Bath out of the equation in round two, but the trip to Belfast is a daunting one for Paul Gustard’s men, who have not set the season alight by any means.
Ulster, in contrast, have started strongly and have a couple of the competition’s form players in their ranks in Marcell Coetzee and John Cooney, among others.
The northern province are still vulnerable in the return fixture in the Stoop on Friday week, but with a trip to Clermont on the horizon in round five they need to at least edge these back-to-backs. If they can win both, they’ll be in the box-seat.
Munster’s true test
They’ve been getting lots of good press since Stephen Larkham arrived, but the Reds put themselves in real jeopardy by failing to beat Racing 92 in round two and they need to edge these fixtures against the champions, Saracens, starting with Saturday at Thomond Park (5.35).
Still on minus-18 points after five games due to their punishment, the English side sent a reserve side to Paris and lost heavily before bringing back some of their World Cup stars against Ospreys to get back to winning ways.
Much depends on their selection as they juggle the need to stay up with their title defence.
If Saracens send over their strongest team, Munster will be in trouble having lost their last three meetings with Mark McCalls’s men heavily.
For all that their attacking game-plan has improved, the home side must win the collisions to have a chance of prevailing and staying in the hunt in Pool 2.
Munster are the masters of the pool stages, but they know that dropping points at home is not in the play-book. This is the real test of how far they’ve travelled in the short time this new coaching ticket has been together.
Connacht bid to stay in the hunt
Pool 5 is shaping up to be one of the tightest of all and, with the two French heavyweights Toulouse and Montpellier facing off in their head-to-heads, Connacht can stay in the hunt by edging these games against a struggling Gloucester side.
Under David Humphries and Johan Ackermann, the Cherry and Whites have been a coming force in recent seasons, but they’ve only won twice in the Premiership and lost two from two in Europe.
So, their Champions Cup campaign is on the line against a familiar opponent on Sunday (1pm).
Given the calibre of opposition, the western province had a tall order in this pool but their win over Montpellier and performance in Toulouse make them a quarter-final proposition.
Kingsholm has not been a happy hunting ground, but with their injury list easing and confidence high on the back of their recent displays, they make the trip as a known quantity worthy of real respect.
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