Castres vs. Munster @ Stade Ernst Wallon
Saturday 19th November (15.40)
Tony McGahan’s side travel to France buoyed by their thrilling injury-time win over Northampton. This fixture has been moved away from Castres’ own 10,000 capacity Stade Pierre Antoine to Toulouse’s Stade Ernst Wallon which holds almost 19,000. Castres come into this game in need of a win after their opening round 31-23 loss to the Scarlets, where a Rhys Priestland penalty late on denied them a losing bonus point.
For Castres, the most influential players include captain Chris Masoe. The former All Black notched a try last weekend and his team will look to him for inspiration. Winger Marc Andreu, who also went over for a try against the Scarlets, has been capped for France. Samoan Iosefa Tekori moves to the second row for this encounter and he can be dangerous from open play. Fullback Romain ‘Robocop’ Teulet, who is lethal from the tee, has been dropped to the bench. Max Evans makes his first European start for Castres on the right wing, while his fellow countryman Scott Murray starts in the second row.
Castres currently sit 3rd in the Top 14 and have had wins against Stade Francais, Biarritz, Montpellier and Toulouse already this season. Clearly, this is another tough fixture for Munster. However, home advantage for Castres has been diluted with the change of venue and apparent disgruntlement of their fans at this move. With an unchanged team from last week, Munster have momentum on their side, and will target another good start. This will not be an easy day out for Munster but they should return home with another four points in the bag.
Connacht vs. Toulouse @ The Sports Ground
Saturday 19th November (18.00)
Another historic day for Connacht after last weekend’s maiden Heineken Cup match away to Harlequins. This game marks the province’s 100th game of European rugby. The Sports Ground has been sold-out so expect an extremely vocal 9,000-strong crowd. Connacht fans have been waiting for fixtures of this calibre for many years so Eric Elwood can certainly rely on a 16th man come Saturday evening.
There couldn’t be a more illustrious visitor than four-time champions Toulouse for Connacht’s first home Heineken Cup clash. They are synonymous with this tournament and represent a huge challenge. Toulouse had a difficult first fixture last weekend, having to come from behind twice to beat Gloucester 21-17 at home. They have enjoyed a great start to the Top 14 season and sit top of the table with eight wins from ten games.
With big names like Clement Poitrenaud, Florian Fritz, Census Johnston and recent Australian recruit Luke Burgess, this is another in the long line of Toulouse teams with quality all over the pitch and throughout the squad. Thierry Dusautoir, Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and William Servat all start this weekend for the first time since returning from the World Cup. Lionel Beauxis replaces Luke McAlister at out half. Meanwhile, the Connacht team sees one change, with David Gannon coming into the second row. Mike McCarthy moves to the back row and Ray Ofisa drops to the bench.
Connacht were disappointed to lose out to Harlequins and will once again aim to prove that they are in this tournament on merit. They showed up well against Harlequins, dogged in defence and with cutting edge in attack, scoring two tries. If they can stay close to Toulouse coming into the closing stages of the game then anything is possible. It would be a huge upset, but this is a Connacht side who fear no one. This should be a cracking game.
Leicester vs. Ulster @ Welford Road
Saturday 19th November (18.00)
Ulster opened up their Heineken Cup campaign with a 16-11 win over Clermont at Ravenhill last Saturday. Ulster were the stronger team throughout but an abundance of unforced errors meant they didn’t convert possession into scores, particularly in the first half. Brian McLaughlin was understandably pleased with his team but will stress to them that these mistakes must be reduced. Still, the defensive effort and overall performance from Ulster was encouraging and they go to Welford Road with belief.
Leicester enjoyed a 28-12 win away to Aironi last Friday but missed out on a bonus point. Toby Flood controls their game from outhalf while the occassionally unstoppable Alesana Tuilagi is a real handful on the wing. Geordan Murphy captains the side from fullback. The likes of Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom provide the grunt up front. Ex-Leinster winger Niall Morris scored a try on his Heineken Cup debut last weekend but is on the bench this week.
Leicester have endured a fairly torrid start to their Aviva Premiership campaign, winning only twice in eight games. As expected, they have shown better form recently with the return of their World Cup players. They will expect to continue this resurgence with a win over Ulster in front of their fans. They will not have it easy against an Ulster side led by Johann Muller and the inspired Stephen Ferris. Ulster are without Paddy Wallace for the next 6-8 weeks after he underwent thumb surgery. Nevin Spence is promoted to the centre. Declan Fitzpatrick comes in at tighthead to replace John Afoa, who had returned to New Zealand to be Jerome Kaino’s best man. The rest of the starting line-up is unchanged.
This should be a hugely physical game at Welford Road. But with Toby Flood and Ian Humphreys lining up in the number 1o jerseys, there is always a chance of play opening up. Humphreys is up against his former club and will hope to direct play in familiar surroundings. Leicester are favourites for this tie and a losing bonus point would not be a disaster for Ulster at this stage. However, with Leicester still warming up in a season that is far from vintage up to this point, McLaughlin’s men will recognise this opportunity for a vital away win.
Leinster vs. Glasgow @ The RDS
Sunday 20th November (12.45)
Leinster were fortunate to come away from Montpellier with a 16-16 draw last weekend after a last-minute penalty allowed Jonny Sexton to equalize for his team. Joe Schmidt will look for his side to be more ruthless this weekend at home to the Glasgow Warriors. Leinster failed to come away with scores from several promising positions against Montpellier and must be more lethal this time around.
Glasgow come to the RDS following a fantastic last-gasp victory over Bath. After a Stephen Donald penalty had put Bath ahead with only minutes remaining, Richie Gray recovered Duncan Weir’s failed drop goal attempt to drive over for the winning score. Duncan Weir kicked four penalties and two conversion, while fullback Stuart Hogg went over for the only other try in the game. While not a hugely worrying performance from Leinster’s point of view, Glasgow did display grit and determination to come away with a win in a match where the lead constantly changed hands.
Highly-rated second row Gray and openside flanker John Barclay lead the Warriors up front along with captain Ally Kellock. Chris Cusiter lines out at scrumhalf while Graeme Morrison and Rob Dewey form a big, physical centre pairing. Tommy Seymour, signed from Ulster last summer and a former Ireland under-age international, lines out on the wing for the Scottish outfit. Joe Schmidt has made several changes to his starting fifteen. Eoin O’Malley comes into the side in place of Fergus McFadden who is suffering with a dead leg. Sean Cronin is rewarded for his try-scroing performance off the bench last week with a start in place of Richardt Strauss. Eoin Reddan replaces Isaac Boss at scrum half. Cian Healy returns to the squad but starts this game on the bench.
Leinster have already hosted Glasgow at the RDS this season. That RaboDirect PRO12 fixture back in September saw Glasgow come away with a 23-19 win. While that match was played without Leinster’s World Cup players, Glasgow too were missing their key men. They will take confidence from that win but Leinster’s returned World Cup players will add far more than the Warrior’s additions. This is a must-win game for Leinster so expect nothing other than a commanding win.
Photos courtesy: MD+D