It’s bad, it really is. Munster and Ulster are out of contention in the European Rugby Champion’s Cup. For Munster this is the campaign that began with Ian Keatley channeling Ronan O’Gara and sealing the opening win with a sumptuous drop goal. For Ulster, it hasn’t looked too good all season but damn it hadn’t once looked this bad. Leinster and Connacht now carry the European hopes for Ireland as north and south must regroup.
Munster were travelling with little hope it must be said but they couldn’t have possible gone against their legacy more than they did against Saracens on Saturday. Nothing but 3 points to show from a first half in which Saracens ran rampant. Front foot was a distant memory to them and let’s be honest; there was never a stiff that they might pull this one out of the fire. Saracens were electric it must be said and they are well and truly out front now as the most committed of the English teams in European terms. They have an ethos, aside from the flash and ridiculous exaggeration they have shown in the last decade, that sets them apart form the rest and now they are affirming their stance as a team for others to fear.
Munster missed Conor Murray far more than one would have expected ahead of kick off, with Duncan Williams not entirely standing up to his 80+ caps. European experience eluded him for the most part up until this game, seeing only 10 games in the top tier and all of those from the replacements bench, but from very early on he looked somewhat lost. Who wouldn’t in Conor Murray’s shadow I guess, but it was the first of Munster’s many problems. Losing CJ Stander just before the thirty minute mark was definitely a moment of greater significance however, leaving Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony isolated as the sole pillars of leadership. A certain media personality whose opinions we all love to take one hundred percent at face value at all times waxed lyrical on the eve of the match that Munster were lacking experienced heads in the coaching end of things. Whilst it pains me to agree with said pundit, he has a point. Not to say that Anthony Foley is lacking in experience, but there is maybe a gap there where a Jerry Flannery or Mick O’Driscoll should be making way for a more tried and tested coach with top tier experience. Plan Bs don’t seem to be at hand for the team anymore when they used to be their signature. Time now to focus on some damage control with the Pro 12 and hope to regroup next season. Europe still can belong to them.
Saracens 33 – 10 Munster
Dear dear Ulster. Cast your mind back to 2011. Ulster had signed a raft of new talent, including commander in-chief Ruan Pienaar. Brian McLaughlin was in charge, working wonders after they finished 8th in the league in 09 and 10. He, along with the new stars and old chiefs like Rory Best, brought them out of the Heineken Cup pool stages for the first time since they won it back in 1999. They didn’t have the gas to move onto to the semi finals that season, but the next saw them beating Munster in Thomond Park in their quarter final and making it all the way to the end in Twickenham. Even the 12/13 season, though a little lackluster compared to the previous two, at least saw them make the knock outs. Then came 13/14. Having lost a raft of players, then came the sudden departure of David Humphreys as Director Of Rugby, followed soon after by Mark Anscombe being given his marching orders. Bad and all as these two incidents were, the players seemed to take it all on board far more than professional athletes really should. Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Dan Tuohy and more could all be heard in media briefs talking about how much this looked to be their last season, last chance saloon to get the job done and win the Heineken. They turned out to be right, and it would seem they brought it on themselves.
Why am I harping on about all of this? Because never was it more evident that Ulster are in the middle of a serious crisis than this weekend gone against Toulon. Fair enough, the Mercenaries are on yet another upward swing that looks simply unstoppable. Fair enough too that Ulster had to travel to their seemingly impenetrable fortress, Stade Felix Mayol, to try get the job done. But 60 points being put on them in a European campaign game? No amount of injury or fatigue can forgive that with a team of Ulster’s caliber. Keep in mind too that from the 23rd to 69th minute we went from Ulster being 10 – 13 down to Ulster being 55 – 10 down. Just under a point per minute being scored by Toulon. It is not an off day, it’s not “issues”. It is Ulster in dire need of a reinvention, one you would hope Les Kiss can provide post-World Cup. Like Munster, they are down and out of the European theatre but still have all of the league to play for. As it stands they are just outside the top four in the Pro 12 and the dogfight between them and Leinster is one that has been raging for a few years now, but they can too perform some damage control on their season.
Toulon 60 – 22 Ulster
Leinster, where have you been? Yeah yeah, poor opposition, Castres were barely present in the game. Who cares. As is always the case for any team, all you can play is what is in front of you and Leinster did just that, playing a team who were unable to keep up with anything. It wasn’t all champagne and roses however. Leinster stormed out of the blocks with great intent. Three minutes in and Dave Kearney found himself on the score sheet with an exquisite try. From there until the 27th minutes however, it looked dire. Handling errors have cost Leinster more tries than anything else this season, the last pass of the play nearly never going to hand. From Kearney’s try up until the returned Marty Moore crossed for the second of seven tries for Leinster, the handling cost at least two if not three scores; there was a cup record at hand you would assume for quickest to the bonus point if Leinster hadn’t regressed that little bit. Still, once the second try was in you’d have to say Leinster looked nearly vintage from then on. Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin ensured the bonus point was in the bag before half time and the only question that remained was whether or not Leinster would then face down a slump.
Admittedly the second half saw a Castres resurgence of sorts, Leinster not crossing the line once in the third quarter of the game and Castres being denied by the TMO, but the home side got rolling again on the sixtieth minute mark courtesy of Tadhg Furlong with Darragh Fanning and Luke McGrath adding the sixth and seventh for the half century. Fanning in particular should be proud given he had literally just walked onto the pitch before scoring. Unlike Ulster and Munster, Leinster showed signs of what they had been missing, mainly the talismanic figureheads. Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan and Jack Conan in particular showed immense presence on the pitch. Watching the offensive plays in the first half, there seems to be a “give it to Ian” approach when first to third phase doesn’t get the job done for Leinster. I’ll admit, I’m still not a fan of him playing out of position but when he is as consistently reliable as he is and always achieves something on the crash ball, the lift he provides the team and supporters can’t be denied. Leinster will face tougher opposition, as soon as next week when they travel to Coventry to face a now seriously in contention Wasps, but the job done still warrants praise. This result doesn’t make them shoo in semi finalists or anything like that but you would have to say they look a lot better primed for its like now.
Leinster 50 – 8 Castres
Connacht had a less fortunate than expected weekend inviting Exeter Chiefs to Galway. At half time, excluding the wayward boot of Jack Carty, the Westerners were in solid control and one try from the bonus point. Fast forward to a supercharged Exeter stomping around the second half and getting their own back in due course and Connacht failing to nab the losing bonus point (though like Ulster they lost with a try bonus point). Arguably one of the best games of the weekend, there was still no lack of skill on show from Connacht; and Exeter for that matter.
Connacht lost this game through poor management and to a certain degree their own mistakes too. But in its own weird little way that still signifies progress. Credit to Pat Lam and company that the province can now be looked at as architects of their own demise in a given fixture. Previously all losses would be chalked up to them being out of shape, lacking in depth etc. Never before have they been such masters if their own fate. A quarter final in the Challenge Cup still dangles before them as well as those all important finishing places in the Pro 12. All eyes should now be on Connacht.
Connacht 24 – 33 Exeter Chiefs
Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk