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Munster best fixed of Irish provinces going into Heineken Cup

Leinster face a stiff test away to Northampton next week and Connacht’s away day in France looks a hopeless task.

Paul O'Connell salutes the Munster fans after last year's quarter-final win over Harlequins.
Paul O'Connell salutes the Munster fans after last year's quarter-final win over Harlequins.
Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

THE HEINEKEN CUP returns next weekend and all four Irish provinces remain in the mix to qualify for the knock-out stages.

This is how the sides are shaping up going into their crucial back-to-back December ties.

Northampton v LEINSTER – 7 December

Matt O’Connor’s men are well poised, having beaten Ospreys away and Castres at home. They have overcome a slow league start to secure some narrow wins and climb the Pro12 standings. Saints were briefly tested by Paul Warwick’s Worcester on Saturday before scoring three tries in the final 20 minutes to win 33-10.

Leinster will hope to have international stars Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip back for their away trip to Franklin’s Gardens. The presence of Brian O’Driscoll [concussion/calf] and Rob Kearney [ribs] place them on their coach’s fitness wishlist.

ULSTER v Treviso – 7 December

Mark Anscombe’s side lost their opening Pro12 fixtures but recovered their senses, and 2012/13 form, to start scoring tries and winning ties. Paddy Jackson has grown in stature with each passing week and unsung heroes such as Darren Cave and Roger Wilson have kept the province ticking over.

Treviso have underwhelmed in the league and lost out to Leicester and Montpellier to effectively end their European interests.

Injuries to key players such as Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Rory Best [out until February] may hinder hopes of securing bonus point wins against the Italians. Anscombe would trade the absence of Henderson and Williams against Treviso to get them back, and fit, for tougher tests to come in January.

imageCraig Gilroy scores a try against Edinburgh. INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

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MUNSTER v Perpignan – 8 December

The two-time Heineken Cup champions have started the season in winning, if not scintillating form. The summer retirement of Ronan O’Gara has been offset somewhat by Ian Keatley and, to a reliable back-up extent, JJ Hanrahan. Highlights of the season thus far have been home wins over Leinster [league] and Gloucester [HCup], and away to Glasgow.

Munster’s European defeat away to Edinburgh, however, will loom large unless a double over Perpignan can be mustered. The Top 14 side lost 30-23 to Heineken Cup finalists Clermont on Friday and are floating mid-table after failing to impress away from home.

Apart from Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, Rob Penney’s men are close to full strength going into their two matches with the French side. Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls bought came through Friday’s win over Dragons unscathed and prop Dave Kilcoyne will have a point to prove to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt after sitting out the November Series.

Toulouse v CONNACHT – 8 December

Pat Lam’s beleaguered troops take on a Toulouse outfit third in their domestic league and averaging over 20 points per game. The French side, who can call on Maxime Medard, Louis Picamoles and Thierry Dusuatoir, edged Saracens 17-16 in their last outing [in October] and will see the Connacht games as steady stepping stones on their way to an unbeaten finish in Pool 3.

imageA Robbie Henshaw try was the only Connacht highlight in their 43-10 loss in Scotland. INPHO/Russell Cheyne

Connacht snapped an annoying trend of narrow losses, this weekend, by losing 43-10 away to Edinburgh.John Muldoon, who has returned from a six-week injury lay-off, implored his teammates to make massive improvements ahead of a crucial period. “We can’t doll it up any way. We let ourselves down, we let the jersey down and we let our fans down,” declared Muldoon.

VIDEO: Paddy Jackson creates classy try for Darren Cave

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Patrick McCarry

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