Dual blogged on Irish News Review
When the European Rugby Champion’s Cup was announced the cries from this side of the pond were that the new structure was essentially designed to stop the Irish teams from winning all the time. Whilst not exactly true, this Round 6 weekend and the subsequent knock out lay out has shown exactly what is different about this new structure. The goal was to make the competition more competitive, and no team is seeing this more so than Leinster. In previous years a home quarter final was all but a guarantee of progression to the semi finals. This was down to the void that often existed between the top 4 and bottom 4 teams. However, with four less teams and therefore more competitive pools you would have to say that nobody, bar Toulon, has anything resembling an easy route through the quarter finals. And of course the draw for the semi finals can be cruel as always with Leinster likely facing down a Toulon in France engagement should they get past a resurgent Bath. Simple.
Leinster made it anything but easy for themselves in acquiring that coveted home fixture, as they went scoreless in a second half where Wasps realised they had a winnable game ahead of them on Saturday. Shining lights dotted around the entire pitch for Leinster – Luke Fitzgerald, Ian Madigan, Jordi Murphy and more, there was hardly a player in the Leinster XV who didn’t bring an A game or something extremely close last weekend. Except Madigan faultered with the boot. Can’t be helped, it happens, but the alarming part was how much it seemed to effect the team that their out half was having an off day. It is that one final hurdle of Irish teams in general, the over reliance on that player. Munster suffer it with Paul O’Connell, Ulster too with Ruan Pienaar and Connacht at times with Robbie Henshaw. Fans all have their favourites but within the squad there is usually that one player who is looked up to, not always due to his skill level but maybe just because he is the mouthiest one in the squad. Madigan is at that point for Leinster or getting there and it seemed to effect all fifteen that he couldn’t get right with the boot.
Wasps on the other hand did their maths and knew full well after the half time break that they were anything but down and out. 14 points down with forty minutes ahead of them, and a disallowed try for good measure, they felt belief and it has rewarded them now that they find themselves in the top 3 runners up and will travel to France to take on Toulon (and maybe do us all a favour). Wasps can be extremely proud of their efforts in the pool, bringing the first major shock of the tournament by knocking Harlequins out and becoming the unlikely runner up qualifiers. They face a mammoth task against Toulon in April but they have proven they are not to be underestimated that is for sure.
Wasps 20 – 20 Leinster
Connacht have once again proven comeback kings for the third time of note this season. Down 20 points to their 11 at half time it looked as though the French fancy they have enjoyed this season was finished. Queue immense defensive efforts keeping La Rochelle scoreless in the second half however and two wonder tries in the final five minutes which saw the westerners run out comfortable winners and earning them a quarter final place against Gloucester in April to boot, it truly is a season of strength for Connacht.
Pat Lam faced an insurmountable task travelling to France with a more than wounded team. No front line centres available meant Dannie Poolman moved in from his wing and Conor Finn saw a first European start. John Muldoon dropped to the bench to leave Mils Muliaina with the captaincy on the pitch. It couldn’t have looked anymore stacked against them, regardless of the prominence of the the opposition. Yet pull it out of the bag they did and now they have a chance to further their experience in higher level rugby with potentially three more upper tier games. Are we all watching yet?
La Rochelle 20 – 30 Connacht
Munster had a lot of damage control to do against Sale yesterday and they had Thomond Park to reclaim in the process. Nine tries in a game that saw Simon Zebo quite obviously grinning at his shot for a hat trick was definitely one way to go about that. Munster will cause some further upset by waiting until Round 6 to produce a performance like this, especially seeing as this games tally means that a losing bonus point against Saracens last week and Clermont in Limerick last November would see them now in eighth place on the table and Racing Metro-bound for a quarter final, but still a result is a result.
Sale, like Castres for Leinster last week, were absolutely down and out in this game and of course that contributed to the magnitude of Munster’s final score but still the skill was on a higher level than we have become accustomed to from Munster this season and for that fans will be thankful. It was indeed one of those rare games where 1 to 15 (and 16 to 23) all seemed to be gelling. Keith Earls marked his first start of the season with a superb 60 metre dash for a try; Simon Zebo played his way into the now vacated left wing green jersey with Dave Kearney injured and Peter O’Mahony certainly came good on his promise of making it up to the Thomond faithful. Brian O’Driscoll waxed lyrical on Newstalk last Friday that a Pro 12 is realistically crucial for Munster to restore the first half of their wandering pride, a European title than finishing the process. If yesterday is the mark at which the remainder of their season is set then it is all theirs for the taking.
Munster 64 – 10 Sale Sharks
Ulster too had little to play for but damage control and assurance to their following that they are still a force to reckon with. I have to admit, I just simply don’t think they are. Injuries, morale, poor consistency in coaching have all hampered a team that looked close to world beaters. Still, to beat Leicester out of a possible runner up spot and to do so comfortably with an entire quarter where they had only 14 was a task they completed admirably.
Realistically you’d nearly wish the season would end now for Ulster, not because they just can’t take anymore; rather because change is coming to their squad next season most notably in the shape of Les Kiss assuming the Director Of Rugby position. Kiss’ rugby brain cannot be faulted, he has been the one true constant in the international setup since 2009 and he can only bring positive change to the northern province. They still have the bulk of the talent that brought them so close in the last few years and the Ravenhill faithful haven’t gone anywhere. Days like Saturday when they lay waste to the bigger guns of the Aviva Premiership will become more common in the next few years, but for them even a Pro 12 title seems unlikely this season.
Ulster 26 – 7 Leicester Tigers
Image courtesy of leinsterrugby.ie