By Brendan Gallagher
IF there is one date in the rugby calendar which tops a good Six Nations weekend it’s the European Cup quarter-finals. Year after year this is the weekend that provides some of the best rugby and most compelling stories of the season and it won’t be any different this time round.
Despite the presence of four French teams the big question for me is can the Irish, and in particular the all- singing, all-dancing Leinster team, keep surfing the perfect wave they are currently riding? Who out there can stop them? Will fatigue in fact be their biggest enemy?
To get a guide on this I revisited the 2009 season when Ireland last won the Grand Slam and Leinster – serial underperformers in Europe up to that point – finally nailed it in Europe and marched to their first trophy. At first glance that would suggest there is nothing much to worry about on the fatigue front and that players should have no great trouble getting themselves up again for a challenge that might actually prove more difficult than winning the Six Nations.
But dig a bit deeper and there is a major difference between the two seasons. Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam team had a very considerable Munster and Ulster input. In fact if you look at the Ireland 22 that were on duty in their final Championship match against Wales in Cardiff there were only four Leinstermen involved – Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip. Two months later in the Heineken Cup Final only O’Driscoll, D’Arcy and Heaslip started against Tigers up at Murrayfield.
Leinster’s class of 2009 was an eclectic mix of overseas players such as Isa Nacawa, Stan Wright, the brilliant and influential Rocky Elsom and Chris Whitaker, while they were backed up by fantastic stalwarts like Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Bernard Jackman. There were also two very promising kids on the block in Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy. The point is, just for that one season, Ireland’s call didn’t stress Leinster too much.
In contrast, this year Leinster players have been in the thick of everything. Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw (currently injured), Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Tadgh Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Fergus McFadden, Jordan Larmour, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Some it’s true have had limited game time – although others will be feeling pretty bruised and sore – but all have been in the Ireland bubble for the last two months. Now they must become Leinster again.
So that will be interesting. Irish players have, as we have been reading all week, been looked after very well in terms of minutes played this season after the Lions tour but it’s now getting to the stage when there is no hiding place. Some of the key names, having played five Six Nations Tests on the trot, will have to go to the well at least three more times in European Cup games of equal intensity while there is also the sharp end of the PRO14 and its play-offs.
I still make Leinster favourites even though they will have to overcome the defending champions Saracens first. Sarries’ international contingent haven’t got the spring in their step that victory brings and they have way more miles on the clock this season. Saracens can surely beat Leinster only if the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell are at their very best and frankly none of them, with the possible exception of Farrell, have quite hit the heights this season. Sean Maitland did but then again he didn’t tour with the Lions and also had time out with injuries. I’m expecting an heroic all guns blazing effort from Saracens but that almost certainly won’t suffice.
Munster are Ireland’s other representatives and while their biggest names – Connor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and CJ Stander – have been on Ireland duty many of the core squad haven’t. Munster are a team who at their best are more than the sum of their parts and despite some injury problems – Earls will be a big loss with his knee ligament problem – they should hit the quarter-finals running with the minimum of decompression needed by their Ireland contingent.
Another potential match-winner, Simon Zebo, omitted by Ireland because he is heading to France next season, will be looking to sign off in style but this is going to be close. Toulon haven’t been ripping up trees but they have been hanging tough and showing great desire and with Toulon you just know that at some stage some of the stellar talents are going to ignite and do something special.
Thomond Park is just the arena to inspire the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud, Ma’a Nonu, Chris Ashton, and even the ageing Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who can normally manage only a half these days.
The weekend kicks off with the prospect of another full-house at Parc y Strade – how that stadium comes alive when full – for the visit of La Rochelle. On paper this could be an exhilarating free-flowing affair with both sides at their very best when slipping the leash but I just wonder if big match nerves might make it a slightly more cautious and tactical game. We’ve seen it before with likeminded sides sometimes cancelling each other out.
La Rochelle might prefer not to engage the Scarlets in a full on 80 minute ‘Sevens’ contest. The French have the heavy artillery up front to slow things down and deny the opposition ball but that seems also to compromise their own attacking game. I can see La Rochelle thwarting and frustrating Scarlets in the first half and a little bit beyond, but the home side will eventually engage top gear and start to run La Rochelle ragged
Which leaves the all-French clash between Clermont and Racing 92 which will be a cracker no question. Clermont have had big injury problems this season – in fact only a club of their resources could still be in the ring slugging it out – and are of course always a different beast at home in Europe.
Nothing much changes with Clermont over the years. They have always been a side of huge talents who can be completely untouchable for 20 minutes during which they put most sides away. They do, however, have a habit of ‘declaring’ a bit early and if you can either keep the score respectable during their inevitable purple patch or maintain your own intensity and quality during when they go off the boil you can sneak up on Clermont.
Racing, with their big match players, are more than capable of doing both even in the bear pit of Stade Michelin. So in short I’m expecting a fast Clermont start, a steady Racing fightback and a thrilling finale. This one could even flirt with the possibility of extra time, it’s too close to call really but I will opt for Racing.
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