Connacht vs. Harlequins @ The Sportsground
Friday 20th January (20.00) Sky Sports 1
Connacht make just one change from the team that went down bravely against Toulouse last weekend. Ronan Loughney comes back in at tighthead meaning Dylan Rogers drops to the bench. Connacht’s injury list is crippling at the moment so Elwood doesn’t really have the option to change much else. He will expect a similar effort to last week and hope that Connacht can take the chances they create. Several try-scoring opportunities were left behind in Toulouse.
Harlequins also make a single change to their starting team. Wing Tom Williams has stayed in England with his first child on the way. Sam Smith is his replacement. Fullback Mike Brown was recently named Aviva Premiership Player of the Month for December and will have to be watched closely. Matt Hopper is a livewire at 13. Chris Robshaw captains the side at openside flanker.
Connacht will hope to go out of the Heineken Cup with a bang tonight. Harlequins come to Galway still in the hunt for a quarter-final spot so it would be massively surprising to see Eric Elwood’s men end their losing streak. However, Connacht will give everything to the cause in search of a first Heineken Cup win. The Sportsground is a sell-out as Connacht fans hope to see another performance like that against Toulouse last week. A Connacht win would be mean Ulster definitely going through to the quarter-finals, as one of the best placed runners-up. Here’s hoping!
Verdict: Harlequins, just.
Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Paul O’Donohoe, 1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Adrian Flavin, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 Michael Swift, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 John Muldoon, 7 Ray Ofisa, 8 George Naoupu.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Dennis Buckley, 18 Dylan Rogers, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Henry Fa’afili.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Ugo Monye, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Sam Smith, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 1 Joe Marler, 2 Chris Brooker, 3 James Johnston, 4 Tomas Vallejos, 5 George Robson, 6 Maurie Faasavalu, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt.), 8 Nick Easter.
Subs: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Tim Fairbrother, 19 Ollie Kohn, 20 Luke Wallace, 21 Richard Bolt, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Tom Casson.
Leinster vs. Montpellier @ The RDS
Saturday 21st January (13.30) Sky Sports 1
Joe Schmidt has made several changes to the team that secured a quarter-final spot with a 23-16 win in Glasgow last weekend. After being left out of the Ireland set-up, Jamie Hagan comes in for Mike Ross as tighthead. Damien Browne replaces Devin Toner in the second-row while Richardt Strauss is in for Sean Cronin at hooker. Rhys Ruddock is at blindside flanker, with Shane Jennings dropping to the bench.
In the backs, Isaac Boss is preferred to Eoin Reddan at scrumhalf this time around. Jonathan Sexton continues at 10 despite picking up an ankle injury last weekend. In the centre, Gordon D’Arcy is partnered by Eoin O’Malley this week, with Fergus McFadden moving to the right wing. David Kearney drops out of the squad completely.
Despite already being out of the tournament, Montpellier have named their strongest available side. They have included French international half-back pairing Julien Tomas and Francois Trinh-Duc. In the back row, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Mamuka Gorgodze are key men. Ex-Ulster man Timoci Nagusa starts on the right wing.
A bonus-point win for Leinster would guarantee them a home quarter-final and that should certainly be their target. A normal 4 point win would secure that home QF spot too, unless Ulster get a bonus-point win in Clermont. Although Montpellier have surprisingly named a full-strength team, Leinster have more than enough to comfortably overcome the French side.
Verdict: Bonus-point win for Leinster.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Damian Browne, 4 Leo Cullen, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke Van der Merwe, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fionn Carr.
Montpellier: 15 Lucas Amorosino, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Yoan Audrin, 12 Paul Bosch, 11 Martin Bustos Moyano, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Julien Tomas, 8 Alex Tulou, 7 Mamuka Gorgodze, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Mickael Demarco, 4 Drickus Hancke, 3 George Jgenti, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Na’ama Leleimalefaga.
Subs: 16 Rassie van Vuuren, 17 Juan Figallo, 18 Maximiliano Bustos, 19 Joe Tuineau, 20 Vassili Bost, 21 Benoit Paillaugue, 22 Santiago Fernandez, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Clermont vs. Ulster @ Stade Marcel Michelin
Saturday 21st January (15.40) Sky Sports 1
This could be the game of the weekend. Two in-form teams, some world-class players, a sold-out 18,000 crowd, and the winner goes through to the quarter-finals. What more could you want?
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has made just one chance to the team that hammered Leicester last weekend. Darren Cave has been ruled out for up to six weeks with a foot injury sustained in that win. Ian Whitten is his replacement. Elsewhere it’s as you were. Johann Muller captains the side from the second-row once again.
The Clermont team looks incredibly strong on paper. Welshman Lee Byrne is at fullback. Sitiveni Sivivatu and Julien Malzieu make up a potent-looking back-three. Aurelien Rougerie and the supremely talented Wesley Fofana start in midfield. Half-backs Morgan Parra and David Skrela make up a strong back-line. Up front, there’s six more internationals including Julien Bonnaire at No.8 and Nathan Hines in the second-row.
A win for Ulster would most likely get them a home quarter-final. And a win is certainly possible, especially if the northern province can recreate the performance of last weekend. Clermont are unbeaten in the Stade Marcel Michelin since November 2009. In the last 36 games there, only seven of the visiting teams have picked up losing bonus points. Even if they lose, Ulster can still top the group if – 1) they prevent Clermont getting a try-scoring bonus point 2) get a losing bonus point themselves and 3) either score more tries than Clermont in the game or lose by less than five points. Whatever happens, this one will be well worth watching.
Verdict: Clermont by 2 or 3 points, so Ulster to go through.
Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 David Skrela, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire (capt.), 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Gerhard Vosloo, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Clément Ric, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Lionel Faure. Subs: 16 Ti’i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Daniel Coetzee, 19 Jamie Cudmore, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Kevin Senio, 22 Brock James, 23 Regan King.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court. Subs: 16 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Nevin Spence, 23 Adam D’Arcy.
Northampton vs. Munster @ stadium:mk
Saturday 21st January (18.00) Sky Sports 1
Another massive game in the final round of Heineken Cup pool games. Munster secured a quarter-final spot by beating Castres last weekend but will be hoping for the win that would guarantee them a vital home QF. Northampton are out of this tournament but still have a chance of dropping into the Amlin. Revenge will be on the cards for them too after Ronan O’Gara’s late drop-goal in Thomond Park derailed their season.
Munster have been forced into making one change from last week. Niall Ronan’s season is over, with the openside set for surgery on his cruciate injury. Donncha O’Callaghan replace Ronan, meaning Donnacha Ryan moves back to the blindside. Peter O’Mahony switches to openside. David O’Callaghan comes onto the bench for the first time in Heineken Cup.
The Saints have dropped Chris Ashton after he announced his decision to join Saracens next summer. Jamie Elliot takes his place on the wing. Ryan Lamb is back at outhalf after Steven Myler started against the Scarlets last weekend. Lee Dickson returns at scrumhalf while James Downey starts at inside centre.
There’s a temptation to write off Munster for this one. They have been winning games all season but their performances have been far from complete, by their own admission. Northampton will be desperate to get one over on Munster and do have something to play for in terms of Amlin qualification. But writing Munster off is always a dangerous game. They may not be playing the best rugby in the tournament but it hasn’t prevented them from winning yet. A tough one to call.
Verdict: Northampton by 5 points.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 James Downey, 11 Vasily Artemyev, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt.), 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Subs: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran Jones, 19 Christian Day, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Scott Armstrong.
Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Peter O’Mahony, 6 Donnacha Ryan, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Mick O’Driscoll, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Tomas O’Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Danny Barnes.
Photos courtesy: Vincent Cornelius, Art Widak, Chris Brown, Ivan O’Riordan.