Ireland trio face make or break European weekend

Ireland’s three former Heineken Cup winning teams Munster, Ulster and Leinster all face make-or-break matches in this weekend’s fourth round European Champions Cup.

Perhaps most precariously placed are 2006 and 2008 champions Munster who were turned over 16-9 at home to 2013 finalists Clermont last weekend.

Ahead of their return trip to the Auvergne on Sunday coach Anthony Foley has warned his side they need to step things up in the combat zone.

“We lost the physical battle,” he admitted about their first ever defeat to a French side at Thomond Park.

“But I think we can turn it around. We’re not going to throw in any towel. We’ll give it our best shot and make sure we stay fighting.”

A defeat in Pool 1, which for many is the toughest including Saracens and Sale, would leave Munster with an uphill battle to qualify for the knock-out rounds as they still have to travel to London and play last season’s finalists Saracens in their final group game.

What’s more, Clermont’s Marcel Michelin stadium has been a fortress for the Vulcans where they went unbeaten for four and a half years and 77 matches until Castres defeated them there in the French Top 14 play-offs in May.

The shock to Clermont’s system lasted until the beginning of this campaign when they lost their second home match to Montpellier, but since then normal service has resumed.

“It’s an unbelievably hard place to go. I’ve played there a couple of times. The crowd will be in behind them. Similar to what you expect when you come here (Thomand Park) as an away side,” added Foley.

The second Irish province in deep trouble are 1999 champions Ulster, who lost their first two matches before beating Scarlets 24-9 last Saturday.

They travel to Llanelli on Sunday knowing they will quite possibly need to win all their remaining matches to qualify, and that includes a trip to reigning double champions Toulon.

While few would expect Ulster to prevail, even if they can win in Wales, Ireland’s hopes for success in the competition this season may rest with Leinster.

But they will entertain Harlequins, who beat them 24-18 at the Twickenham Stoop last weekend, at Lansdowne Road on Saturday knowing it has been an unhappy hunting ground for them when leaving their regular RDS Arena home for the increased capacity at the national stadium in Dublin.

“There has been an acknowledgement for the players this week that the last two games Leinster have played in the Aviva (Lansdowne Road), we’ve lost both of them,” said fly-half Ian Madigan.

Leinster lost to Northampton there last season while Clermont came away victorious the year before.

The three-time champions have another problem — scoring tries.

They have not managed one in their last two games but Madigan insists they have not been far away.

“We’ve been one ruck or one pass away from scoring a try. When we get the simple things right we can put together a good performance,” he added.

In fairness, a Leinster victory would put them top of Pool 2 where they trail Quins by three points.

But anything less would mean them likely needing a win from a tricky trip to Wasps, who are on a charge after their bonus point victory at Castres, in order to qualify.

Things look far more rosy for French giants Toulon and Toulouse.

The champions may have lost at Leicester on Sunday but they remain top of Pool 3 and host the Tigers on Saturday.

Record four-time winners Toulouse can consolidate their lead at the top of Pool 4 if they get a positive result away to Glasgow, whom they beat at home last weekend.

Northampton have come storming back since losing their opening group match at Racing-Metro with two successive bonus point wins.

They will expect another at home to Pool 5 whipping-boys Treviso.

Racing, who remain unbeaten, can also improve their knock-out stage chances if they beat Ospreys at home.

The action begins with Bath hosting Montpellier on Friday night.

The English side need maximum points to stay in the Pool 4 running and will be favourites to do so as their French opponents are on a run of six successive defeats placing great pressure on their head coach Fabien Galthie.

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