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Heineken Cup: Midweek update from the four corners of Ireland

Two match swing will make or break the Irish provinces – here’s the lowdown as preparations kick up a gear.

Connacht's Frank Murphy in Galway yesterday.
Connacht's Frank Murphy in Galway yesterday.
Image: INPHO/James Crombie

THE  FORTUNES OF the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup could be well and truly decided after the double-header fixtures over the next two weekends.

Ulster are the first of the Irish sides in action as they take on Aironi at Ravenhill on Friday. Both sides have added international class to their squads as Ulster welcome South African full-back Stefan Terblanche, while the Italians have included flanker Mauro Bergamasco.

Connacht are up next against Gloucester at The Sportsground on Saturday and welcome back Irish international flanker Mike McCarthy following his two-week ban for a high tackle on Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc.

McCarthy has been one of the province’s stand-out players this season and head coach Eric Elwood will be glad to have him back in the fold as he looks to reverse an 8-game losing slide. McCarthy, for his part, is confident that Connacht can deliver a big home performance.

Toulouse paid us respect in the last home game by picking as strong a side as they could. We would always expect to win our home games and if we get our stuff right we will be in good shape.

Munster are away to Scarlets in Wales and all eyes will be on Ronan O’Gara, playing his 100th Heineken Cup game, to see if he can make it three match-winning drop goals in a row. It will not be an easy task for Tony McGahan’s men, however, as Scarlets welcome back Welsh internationals George North, Rhys Priestland and Johnathan Davies. Munster were defeated last weekend by Ospreys and lost Doug Howlett, to an ankle injury, for the season.

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Last up are Leinster and their trip to the Recreation Ground to face Bath on Sunday. Joe Schmidt’s charges have been in good form in recent weeks and should welcome back Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip to the starting line-up. Fergus McFadden has been flawless from the boot in his last two outings but Bath centre Olly Barkley is in no doubt that Sexton is the danger man.

We know that Sexton can punish you if we make any indiscretions or give away any penalties. He has been in great form since he returned from the World Cup and is one of Leinster’s biggest threats.

Meanwhile, Peter Stringer and All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu are among six players to be activated by competing Heineken Cup players as ‘additional players’ for Round 3. Stringer will line-up for Saracens after his short-term switch from Munster while Sivivatu will take his place in Clkermont’s matchday squad this weekend.

The most notable of the ‘de-activated’ players, who have to make way for the new additions, is Bath’s Lewis Moody. The former England captain has been replaced in the Bath squad by Chris Biller and will not face Leinster on Sunday.

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