Leinster v Leicester – Sat. 6pm SS2
“Home quarter-final? Pah! What home quarter-final?”
That was pretty much the attitude when Leicester last visited Dublin for a Heineken Cup quarter-final and it’s their capacity to produce performances under pressure that will be of concern to Leinster when the Tigers make the trip to the Artist Formerly Known As Lansdowne Road.
On that day, Leicester brushed aside their hosts as Leinster lived up to the Ladyboy label applied to them by their witty southern cousins. That wasn’t quite a watershed moment in the history of Leinster rugby, but it certainly opened the team’s eyes to what was required if European success was to be achieved. Having dominated their pool to secure top seeding, they were annihilated by Martin Johnson and co and the net result of home advantage was there were more home supporters in attendance to witness it in the flesh. The experience eventually stood them in good stead as they got their hands in the trophy in 2009. There were a couple of transgender blips alongthat path, but the latest version of Leinster seem to have encapsulated the unwavering self-belief that has defined Leicester down through the years.
As nice as it is to take a stroll down memory lane, it’s all about what’s happening now and Leicester are blazing a trail at the top of the Aviva Premiership, so they’re likely to have that unwarranted confidence that makes so objectionable and yet so admirable. They’ve done all that’s been asked of them on the domestic front, but very often that’s like being the smartest employee in a branch of Burger King. With top players deciding that extra euros are ample compensation for enduring the gruelling French rugby season which means you have to play a game roughly every 7 hours, the Premiership lacks the quality in depth of old and their lofty position on the home front doesn’t necessarily translate into being one of Europe’s top teams.
Despite tasting defeat against Munster for the first time in a couple of years, Leinster must have been pretty happy leaving Thomond Park last Saturday night. And not just because they knew they were leaving Limerick. They played some good rugby and it took a colossal effort from Munster to stop them. The result wasn’t ideal but the intensity of the game alone will be good preparation for Saturday. Aside from Shane Horgan’s face after he slid along the grass when scoring his try, they came out of the ferocious match relatively unscathed and into this game just one Rob Kearney short of being at full strength.
After all the blood, sweat and sticking your head in-between the legs of other men to get a high seeding, landing Leicester was one of the tougher assignments open to the Blues. Times have changed however and these days they should be able to handle the Tigers. Leinster can win the match and if they build on last week, by enough to cover the -5 handicap.
Northampton v Ulster – Sun. 2pm SS2
I’ve just got a feeling that Ulster are being written off a little too easily in this one and here’s the fuzzy and quite possibly incorrect logic as to why. Saints are capable of reaching great peaks, but there also capable of substantial troughs. They can blow teams out of the water and then mess up straightforward tasks. If only Robert Louis Stevenson had written some sort of novel to summarise this phenomena in a neat analogy.
All in all, I think Ulster are the more consistent team. They’ve been impressive in the Magners League and have done enough in the Heineken Cup. ‘Impressive’ isn’t the word for their European form, but they’ve hung in there when it matters. In fairness to the Saints, some of the more recent reversals did come at a time when they had limited access to their international players. With a little bit of luck and a lot of strangling the game, Ulster have a chance, but Northampton are favourites. Just maybe not the as red hot favourites as everyone thinks. Northampton to win the match, but Ulster +10 on the handicap.
There are of course other games, but they’re between the French sides and there’s hardly anything to separate them so toss a coin and pick your winners.