European Champions Cup
This week we look at how Ireland’s three provinces in the European Champions Cup, fared in the third round of the tournament. After an exceptionally successful November campaign which saw Ireland win all three of their Internationals including the two against Southern Hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa, all eyes were on Ulster, Leinster and Munster to see if this success could carry through to the provincial level. Furthermore after all the hype surrounding the Irish performance in November, would the standard of play in the European Champions Cup in December give us an insight into how Ireland might fare in the Six Nations? I for one, am not a great believer in the theory that how teams do at club level competitions is a reflection of how the corresponding national teams will perform. Super Rugby form in the Southern Hemisphere does not often translate into international Test success, if that is so then Australia should have won the Rugby Championship this year and cleaned up on their November tour – not the case. Also South Africa should have also done much better in past years than they have. So on that note although relevant the performances by the three Irish provincial sides in the third week of the European Champions Cup should not necessarily be read as an indication of how Ireland may or may not perform in the Six Nations but should help focus national coach Joe Schmidt on some areas that his charges will need to work on come February/March next year.
Munster vs Clermont Auvergne
Final Score – Mun 9/Cle 16
No doubt the big upset of the weekend as Thomond Park has been a fortress for Munster throughout the history of the tournament and a win here for a visiting team is a task of Herculean proportions. However, at no time did Clermont look daunted by the task ahead of them and produced a superb performance masterfully orchestrated by the boot of their exceptional fly half Camille Lopez to see them emerge deserved winners as a stunned silence fell on Thomond Park.
Despite the traditional physicality of Munster, some uncharacteristic mistakes especially at the breakdown and some line-outs gone begging helped ensure that Clermont were able to spread Munster wide and thin on defence which saw them get two tries in the first half and ultimately this scoring cushion would give Clermont the edge, forcing Munster to have to chase the game for the second half. While Munster were accurate with the boot through Ian Keatley who kept them within reach of Clermont throughout and helped ensure a losing bonus point for Munster, Clermont were able to match man for man Munster’s physicality. What was particularly impressive and perhaps worrying from an Irish perspective was that despite Munster being firmly camped in Clermont’s half for a good twenty minutes of the second half they were unable to translate this territory and possession into points. Despite Ireland’s success in November we saw this a few times and it will be an area of concern for Joe Schmidt come February, especially up against the enormous physicality of a side like England.
I thought that Ireland displayed several weaknesses in the line-out in November and this was evident in this game despite the towering presence of Paul O’Connell. A snatch of the ball from a Munster throw in during the dying minutes of the game by Clermont ensured that a draw for Munster was out of the question, leaving the Thomond Park faithful to mull over what will be an uphill battle for the rest of the tournament for Peter O’Mahony and the boys in red.
Ulster vs Scarlets
Final Score – Uls 24/Sca 9
Ulster in front of a rapturous home crowd came out firing in this must win match in order to get their European campaign back on track, and in doing so scored four well worked tries. At times it was a scrappy game and a challenging swirling wind meant that extreme care was necessary when exercising kicking options but to Ulster’s credit they were more clinical in their execution of this aspect of the game. Despite the difficult conditions Ulster played a tactically more astute game especially in the second half, and the contribution of returning South African scrum half Ruan Pienaar to this was immense, perhaps South African coach Heineke Meyer should have been watching this game.
The Scarlets never gave up for the full eighty minutes but much like the Munster game Ulster’s opening two tries would give the Ulstermen that critical cushion on the score line. It was a clinical display from Ulster which saw some key performances from Irish stalwarts such as Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Darren Cave all of which bodes well for Ireland’s Six Nations campaign as well as seeing an Irish provincial side get their European Champions Cup efforts back on track even though they essentially need to win all remaining three matches in their pool including an away game against French giants Toulon. A very tough test of Irish resolve awaits the men from Belfast which if successful would lend some real character to Ireland’s Six Nations campaign next year.
Harlequins vs Leinster
Final Score Har 24/Lei 18
From an Irish perspective although a loss by Leinster, this was nevertheless one of the better games of the weekend. This was a very hard-fought game and Leinster battled bravely to get the losing bonus point and keep their campaign hopes alive with a return fixture to be held in Dublin the following weekend.
Harlequins displayed much of the physicality that had been evident in England’s autumn Internationals and particularly in the last match against Australia. At half time the game was a totally even contest with both sides trading penalties and neither able to cross the other’s try line due to some outstanding defence. Of the two sides for the first fifty minutes of the game, Leinster seemed to have the edge over their English rivals but ultimately some poor finishing touches at key moments let them down. It was exciting rugby with the ball constantly changing ends of the field and both teams playing some superb rugby. Ultimately, English veteran Nick Easter showed that age is of no concern as ultimately through some superb work from his forward pack the number eight bludgeoned his way to the Leinster try line and opened up the scoring in Harlequins favour. Leinster then made a concerted effort to return the favour but to no avail and in a desperate move on attack Rob Kearney made an uncharacteristic error in an offload to Noel Reid and Harlequins Fijian whirlwind, Aseli Tikoirotuma, made the intercept from deep within his own 22 and the rest was history.
Leinster battled bravely for the remainder of the match and the boot of Ian Madigan kept them in touch and within striking distance of Harlequins, but the Englishmen held on through some brilliant defence. Although the loss will be hard to swallow for Leinster, they can take heart in some key performances that bode well for the remainder of their campaign. Darragh Fanning on the wing was particularly impressive and is some exciting new talent for Ireland going into the future. The centre pairing of D’Arcy and Madigan worked well and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald barring a few errors looked to be returning to form. Meanwhile an Irish all-star forward pack boasting the likes of Heaslip, Cronin, McGrath, Ruddock, Ross and Devin Toner looked solid under pressure for much of the match. However, once again as in the Munster game the line-out looked weak at times and some defensive lapses by the forwards will need to be tightened up along with greater accuracy at the breakdown when under extreme physical pressure. A match which will hopefully give Irish coach Joe Schmidt much to think about and work with for the Six Nations, despite Leinster now having to work that much harder to keep their European Champions Cup campaign on track.
In short, a troubling weekend for Irish teams in which many expected them to dominate but in which they sadly came slightly short. A sobering lesson that despite the euphoria of Ireland’s performance in the November tests, all teams must focus on the job at hand and not get too carried away by thoughts of future glory. There is enough talent in Ireland at the moment that I am confident this weekend’s upsets were a mere blip on the radar and a reorganisation and healthy dose of self-analysis will see Ireland’s provincial sides dust themselves off and tighten up the gaps in their game plans. Let’s face it this is only the halfway mark in what promises to be a nail biting European Champions Cup!