The former Kings of Europe, Toulouse, return to Dublin, hoping to re-exert their past dominance over us. It will not be an easy fight.
The winner this Saturday will be in command of Pool 1 with only a single game each left to play the next weekend. Toulouse hold the advantage with seventeen points, two ahead of Leinster.
Bath and Wasps are out of the competition, however, that does not mean that the games in the final weekend will be easy. There is still pride at stake.
Having the pool split so decisively means that both Leinster and Toulouse have almost qualified, but nothing is guaranteed. Leinster need a win and a draw (or two bonus points) to be absolutely safe; Toulouse need a win.
So they arrive in Dublin knowing that they will qualify if they win and they will play at home the following week to ensure a home quarter final. Incidentally, it could easily be Leinster that they get in said quarter final, so it is vital to get a result on Saturday.
The provincial series was exciting, but there was something missing this year. Leinster seemed simply too far ahead. The results would not matter if you looked the whole season. We will still top our conference.
Pride was at stake. Connacht came with a burning desire to topple us off our hill. There was plenty of fire in the Munster game. Last weekend we saw our dominance return, albeit against a weakened opposition.
This weekend is completely different. We need to win. The whole season is on the line this time. Lose and we face a difficult trip to Coventry to play Wasps. If we qualify after that, we will play an away quarter final.
Win, however, and everything looks better. We will head to Coventry playing to win the group and possibly to clinch a home quarter final, although that may depend on the results in other pools.
Bad news this week as we hear that Johnny Sexton is a doubt for the game. While I have some reservations about him playing as captain, not because he is too hot headed, rather because he has to bottle up his emotions too much when playing that role, he was in good form against Munster. If not available he will be missed.
That news was tempered by the promise that Robbie Henshaw might be make an appearance in training this week. While possibly too later for Europe, it is good news for the Irish squad. There is just enough weekends to get hime some game time before the opener against England.
Saturday’s game is in the early slot at 1:15. I’m not sure how I feel about the scheduling. It feels like this should have gotten a later time slot. The Scarlets against Leicester dead rubber game at 5:30 is the one I’d swap it with.
This is the first year where the January pool games were all scheduled and assigned ahead of time. It is better for fans that travel to the games, but creates a slot in the television schedule that no audience is going to be interested in.
Toulouse is second in the Top 14 at the moment, three points behind Clermont. Traditionally they are better in the second half of the season, really kicking into gear come April and May.
If we beat them on Saturday, then we can face them later in the year on our terms, with luck in a home quarter final or in the final in Newcastle rather than away in a semi-final. Playing them in the south of France is a distinct possibility should we lose.
The team that wins this year’s competition will have to beat Toulouse at some stage. We might have to beat them twice.