Mixed, is there any other word for that opening weekend? A classic Munster performance, from a new Munster side. A near all time best from Connacht. Gusto without result from Ulster. And such muddling from Leinster. Yep, it’s gonna be a long season.
Munster got the ball rolling early on Sunday with their clash against Sale. Nobody could really call what shape Sale would show up in but in a pool including Clermont and Saracens they should not be classed as the top tier opposition for the Reds. Still an away trip to any English side can be tricky and yet another last minute get out of jail moment from Munster proved that to be the case once more.
It was evocative of that trip to London Irish Munster made a few years back. On that day they came home without the win, but the bonus point they nabbed at the death courtesy of an exquisite O’Gara grubber let London Irish know for certain they’d just felt the full force of Munster. Same too for Sale who simply looked inconsolable after Keatley lobbed an impressive drop goal over to secure the win. If you asked anytime since that drop against Northampton and the boot of O’Gara I’d have said Munster simply aren’t capable of this anymore. What significance this game could have. With some fine tuning this could finally be the birth of Munster 2.0.
Sale 26 – 27 Munster
Regardless of whether or not La Rochelle showed up or not, Connacht’s absolute hammering of them in the Sportsground was an absolute joy to (not) behold (thanks to the Challenge Cup still being mostly untelevised). Bonus point in the bag before half time, fight back from the visitors in the second forty knocked down almost immediately, it had everything Connacht have been believed to be capable of yet so rarely produce.
Only next weekend will tell with both sides facing new opposition and the results from both of those games, aside from having huge bearing on the pool, will tell a lot in so far as how far Connacht can go in this competition. But need I say it again? The wonder imports still haven’t taken the field and Connacht are putting on shows like this? The West is most certainly awake.
Connacht 46 – 12 La Rochelle
You can’t really call a team’s season over after Round 1, but Ulster could be very close to it without a speedy turnaround for next weekend. In an ordinary pool, winning all your home games and achieving at least a losing bonus point in the away fixtures is a good start to keep you competitive. When you’re pool includes Saracens and Clermont however, you really need to strive for that away win against Leicester at the very least. Unfortunately, Ulster came away from the East Midlands with a losing bonus point that with an extra minute or two, and a fair bit more composure could’ve been a whole four points.
Neil Doak’s men staged a great second half comeback and, not that I want to dwell on it as plenty are doing so already, had Paddy Jackson’s final conversion not been charged down they very well could have achieved the win they were striving for. There is a big difference between a team fighting to churn out a win versus one going for a draw and had Ulster managed to get within the five points, things could have been different you have to feel. That said, keeping the Tigers relatively scoreless for the second half and managing two tries of their own, Ulster have enough to be proud of in a way. They now have a mountain to climb however, with Clermont popping over to Belfast this weekend and Ulster will most certainly, at the end of it all need to ensure they return this favour to Leicester on the final weekend to return the favour.
Leicester 25 – 18 Ulster
Last of the provinces came Leinster on Sunday, welcoming Wasps to the RDS. The last European encounter between these sides came in that circus of a quarter final last year for the Amlin and what we got this time around, while arguably as entertaining, had nothing resembling the try scoring prowess from either side seen then. Christian Wade remained the threat he constantly was last time out, but the big difference this game was how much faith Wasps put into their pack by comparison to last year. Particularly Ashley Johnson at blindside flanker, how much havoc can one man cause at a ruck? Fittingly, it was Leinster’s own giant of the back row, Jamie Heaslip, turned out to be the only player near capable of nullifying his threat, and indeed Heaslip had one of his finest outings in a blue jersey on Sunday.
One crucial issue remains for Leinster however; they are playing with the wrong man at out half. For the game just gone we will give benefit of the doubt that Kearney’s ongoing back issues forced Matt O’Connor’s hand and so Ian Madigan was a no brainer at full back. But in weeks to come, with Kearney back to full fitness or Luke Fitzgerald with some game time under his belt, Madigan has got to make his way to the 10 position. That isn’t to say that Jimmy Gopperth is a bad out half (though he was extremely lucky that grubber worked out, given he had ruined an overlap), but Madigan as an out half gets more out of this Leinster team. Much the same as how Jonathan Sexton would likely oust Madigan from the spot when he returns next year, better out half or not he is most certainly the better out half for Leinter’s brand of rugby. A bonus point was left on this pitch, and the last time Leinster did that on round 1 they found themselves dropping into the Amlin. With the opposition to come that’s not likely this time around, but there’s still no cohesive click to this side.
Leinster 25 – 20 Wasps
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