Conor Buckley (aka @22dropout) takes a look at the Irish team’s prospects in Europe this season, offering his predictions for the opening round this weekend.
Ulster Rugby v Aironi Rugby
Ulster are being widely tipped as a team to watch this season, and go into this game as hot favorites. Ulster seem to be the IRFU’s ‘project team’ since they injected extra cash for them this season to bring in some new players. They have signed well during the season break: Ruan Pienaar joins his fellow 2007 World Cup-winning South Africans BJ Botha, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg in the Ulster camp and he made an impressive debut last Friday night, scoring all of Ulster’s points in a 19-17 win over Glasgow.
Friday night kicks off with Ulster facing Italian minnows Aironi Rugby in Ravenhill. Ulster are currently the only unbeaten team in the Magners League and their current form suggests this should be an easy home win for them. Aironi have struggled in their first season in the competition having lost all their games so far, and the only highlight has been the narrow defeat to Edinburgh last Saturday. Ulster have already defeated Aironi this season in Viadana.
Prediction: Ulster should cruise to a bonus point victory.
Leinster v Racing Metro
Leinster have only won two of their opening 5 games in the Magners League, but their defeat of Munster at the weekend could be a turning point that their season requires. The return of out-half Jonny Sexton is a massive boost for the side who have been struggling through their opening games without a recognised out-half in the squad. There are also hopes that their captain Leo Cullen may make a return before Saturday’s game – this potentially could be much more important, as when the chips have been down in recent games, Leinster were leaderless and they need some of their senior players to steady the ship. Cullen can provide this experience.
Leinster’s opening fixture could be one of the highlights of the first round. Racing Metro arrive in Dublin with a raft of big-name players in tow, including Sébastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet and Francois Steyn. This is Racing’s Heineken Cup debut and they will want to make a big impression on Saturday – they are flying high at the top of the Top 14, and have taken big name scalps early in the season: Toulon, Clermont and Biarritz. Leinster will not hold any fear for Racing, and they will want to put down a marker early on.
Leinster will have a lot to do to turn their recent inconsistent form around and get a point from this game.
Prediction: Racing may steal the win here. Leinster for a losing bonus.
London Irish v Munster
The Madejski stadium hosts the glamour tie of round one with Munster taking on London Irish. The top team of the Aviva Premiership versus the top team of the Magners League. Munster supporters will be travelling in big numbers for this game and the atmosphere in Reading is sure to be electric.
London Irish disposed of Leeds at the weekend with a more flattering scoreline than it deserved, but their weaknesses were exposed – they were slow off the mark and some serious questions asked of their defense. The London Irish center pairing of Seilala Mapusua and Dan Bowden will be facing off against Munster’s Sammy Tuitupou and probably Johne Murphy in what is surely going to be an explosive hard-hitting encounter.
Munster had an unbeaten Magners League record up until the weekend’s defeat at Leinster. There will be a lot of bitterness and a few points to prove when they line-out this weekend. There will not be two teams qualifying from pool 3, so whichever team loses this weekend could very well be writing their Heineken Cup season off from the first game. Munster are missing their captain Paul O’Connell who reiterated his goal of retirning by Christmas from a lengthy layoff, and they are also missing midfield maestro Keith Earls. Expect to see a real battle at the lineout this weekend, with Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy having a point to prove against Donnacha O’Callaghan and co.
Prediction: Munster’s experience to edge it late on. Irish for the losing bonus.
I Cavalieri Estra v Connacht Rugby
Well, what can one say about I Cavalieri that hasn’t been said before? Who?
This is the Italian side’s debut in the Amlin Challenge cup. Connacht are old-hands in this tournament and they’ll make history playing in their 93rd European appearance on Saturday – their superior experience should see them dispose of the Italian side easily. They hope to be welcoming their inspirational captain John Muldoon back after a long layoff with a broken arm, whilst Connacht winger Fionn Carr will be looking to improve on his impressive start to the season having bagged 4 tries already. Discipline will be key in this game, but I can’t see past Connacht doing the business in Italy.
Prediction: Connact will need to keep their discipline but should end up easy winners.