Friday 11th November (20.00)
Harlequins vs. Connacht @ The Twickenham Stoop
Connacht are the first Irish province up in the opening weekend of Heineken Cup action. They travel to London to take on high-flying Harlequins on Friday night. ‘Quins have made a flawless start to their Aviva Premiership campaign with eight wins from eight so far. Boosted by last season’s win over Munster in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in Thomond Park, Conor O’Shea’s side have begun this season bristling with confidence and represent a serious test for Connacht on their Heineken Cup debut.
With All-Black Nick Evans directing play at outhalf, Nick Easter leading by example from no. 8 and Mike Brown threatening from full back, Harlequins are not short on experience. Jordan Turner-Hall in the centre is dynamic and will be aiming for a senior English international cap this season. Conor O’Shea will hope to keep his side’s feet on the ground and avoid complacency against Connacht.
After a solid start to their RaboDirect PRO12 campaign, with three wins from four, Connacht come into this match off the back of a four game losing-streak. The loss of last season’s key players like Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr is an obvious blow to Eric Elwood’s side. He will hope that the likes of Eoin Griffin, Paul O’Donohoe and Tiernan O’Halloran can provide supporters with new heroes.
This away fixture is a tough assignment for the Western province but they will be highly motivated. Many of the squad’s longer-serving members will have dreamed of this chance to prove themselves at the top level of European club rugby. Expect a ferocious start from Connacht. That said, Harlequins fantastic form so far this season sees them as clear favourites for this tie.
Saturday 12th November (13.30)
Montpellier vs. Leinster @ Stade de la Mosson
Leinster begin their title defence on Saturday with a trip to the south of France to take on Montpellier. Leinster will take confidence from their 24-19 win over Munster last weekend at the Aviva, even if they may not have been entirely happy with the performance. They sit joint top of the RaboDirect PRO12 with the Ospreys on 26 points after 8 games. The boost of the returned World Cup players has been tempered by the news that Brian O’Driscoll will most likely miss the remainder of this season.
Still, this Leinster side has quality all over the pitch and also within the squad. The likes of Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley will look to shine in O’Driscoll’s absence and Jonny Sexton will be eager to show Declan Kidney that he is Ireland’s premier flyhalf. Jamie Heaslip’s place at no. 8 is under increasing pressure so expect a big performance form him. Joe Schmidt has the luxury of quality squad players to provide competition in almost every position. On paper, Leinster clearly have enough quality to beat any team, but the post-World Cup form of the international players will be an issue.
Montpellier have endured a dreadful start to the Top 14 in France, winning only two of their nine fixtures so far. Nonetheless, Leinster will have to be wary of a backlash from Fabien Galthie’s team who narrowly lost out to Toulouse in last season’s Top 14 final. France international Francois Trinh-Duc will hope to pick up where he left off in the World Cup final, impressing after coming off the bench against New Zealand. Leinster will also have to halt the rampaging Mamuka Gorgodze in his tracks. L’Equipe named the imposing Georgian the Top 14’s Foreign Player of the Year last season
This is certainly a winnable match for Leinster and provides them with an early opportunity to get an away win. Montpellier certainly won’t roll over in this one, but Leinster should have enough strength to return home with four points.
Saturday 12th November (15.40)
Ulster vs. Clermont @ Ravenhill
Ulster kick off their European campaign at home to Clermont. Brian McLaughlin will hope his side can build on last season’s run to the quarter finals of this competition. They have been handed a tough task in Pool 4, facing Clermont, Leicester and Aironi. Ulster’s form in the PRO12 has been inconsistent, opening with three wins before a run of four successive losses was ended with the 22-3 won over Connacht last Saturday.
Clermont have a hugely impressive squad on paper, including French World Cup players such as captain Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Bonnaire and Morgan Parra. They also boast a whole other range of internationals like Julien Malzieu, Gonzalo Canale and Elvis Vermuelen. New signings Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Nathan Hines and David Skrela add an extra dimension and depth to their squad.
Last season, Clermont’s losses when travelling to Racing Metro and Leinster were what cost them a place in the quarter finals. Their 20-13 win at home to Leinster in a high quality match showed the pedigree of Vern Cotter’s side. Clermont come into this fixture sitting in second place in the Top 14, a point behind Toulouse.
Ulster will need to start this game well in order to counter the confidence Clermont will bring to Ravenhill after such an impressive start to the season. McLaughlin will look to his international stars like Ruan Pienaar and new signing John Afoa, as well as Irish stars Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble, to lead from the front. Home advantage should just about see Ulster squeeze through in this one.
Saturday 12th November (18.00)
Munster vs. Northampton @ Thomond Park
Finally, Munster host Northampton in Thomond Park on Saturday evening. Tony McGahan’s men will be keen to bounce back from last weekend’s disappointing loss to Leinster. Meanwhile, Northampton are on a five-match winning streak in all competitions, racking up 20 tries in the process. The Saints have welcomed Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes back into the fold, and all four will be delighted to be back playing for their club side after a difficult World Cup with England. Coach Jim Mallinder will have been encouraged by Munster’s loss to Leinster, as well as last month’s defeat in Thomond Park to the Ospreys.
Despite the form and confidence Northampton bring, no one can write off this Munster team. With experience and ability throughout the squad, Munster will fancy themselves to halt the Saints’ recent run. Paul O’Connell has been reinvented and will ensure his team are motivated for another tilt at the Heineken Cup. The injured David Wallace, Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery and Mike Sherry will all be missed but Munster still have enough in their squad to see off this challenge.
One of the most encouraging aspects of last weekend’s defeat to Leinster was the performance of the scrum. BJ Botha and Wian du Preez will relish the front row battle against Tongauiha, Hartley and Mujati. If they can get on top as they did late in the game against Leinster then this will provide the platform for a Munster win. Lifemi Mafi looks close to his explosive best and O’Gara should look to use him early on to get his side on the front foot. O’Gara will expect to show his mercurial opposite number, Ryan Lamb, how to control a game.
Both teams will approach this game with confidence, and that should make for an absorbing battle. Northampton, last season’s beaten finalists, will surely be aware of what a Munster team who have been questioned by critics and supporters alike are capable of. Expect a close-fought game here. Munster to edge it.