As we continue our look at how this year’s European Champions Cup tournament is shaping up, we turn our attention to how Ireland’s three representative teams are faring. In the years gone by Irish club teams have traditionally performed extremely well in this competition, but this year with the exception of Ulster, European giants such as Munster and Leinster are struggling to make any kind of impact in the tournament. As we look at the fourth round action of the European Champions Cup, it is only Ulster who stand any chance of carrying the Irish torch into the knockout stages.
Leinster vs Toulon
Final Score – Leinster 16/Toulon 20
Irish hearts would have been gladdened to see a return of the Leinster of old in this match, who have so far this year been notably absent from the competition. Perhaps more importantly there were hints that Leinster and Irish fly half Johnny Sexton was finally starting to work his way back to form after, let’s be honest not the best few months of his career of late. However, I would caution that there was a hint of the old Sexton in this match and all Irish supporters, myself included, hope that come February such hints will translate back into hard evidence.
I must say that after finding it painful to watch Leinster of late, who once dominated European Club Rugby, this match was a breath of fresh air for Leinster supporters as they took the game to three times European champions Toulon for the full eighty minutes. Considering that Toulon is not really a French side, more like a World XV this is no mean achievement. Indeed, had it not been for a few lapses in concentration at the end, this match would have been Leinster’s for the taking. For the most part I liked what I saw, especially a more assured and confident looking Johnny Sexton, and centre Luke Fitzgerald who lit up the field every time he got his hands on the ball. In relation to Fitzgerald’s performance, he was the standout performer in that World Cup defeat to Argentina a few months ago. I for one can’t wait to see what Fitzgerald, who is clearly going through a spectacular renaissance, can do in an Irish shirt again come February. It was also nice to see fullback Rob Kearney really assert himself in this match, a quality I felt has been absent in Leinster’s play prior to this outing. Whether or not this was due to the presence of Irish Coach Joe Schmidt in the stands remains to be seen, but either way there is more than just a hint of excitement returning to the Irish camp as we build toward the Six Nations.
What was worrying for Leinster however, and Ireland by default ahead of the Six Nations, was the fact that despite a strong showing, Leinster faded out as the clock wound down in the second half. Furthermore, the bench added little if any value to Leinster’s cause. Zane Kirchner fluffed the one opportunity Leinster had to seal the match, while Jordi Murphy’s indiscipline and resulting yellow card left Leinster having to withstand a final determined assault by a revitalized Toulon in the last quarter. While the Kirchner episode can be brushed aside as he won’t be featuring in Ireland’s Six Nations efforts and for the life of me I can’t really see what if any value he brings to Leinster, Murphy who has shown such promise for Ireland will have to reflect on a valuable lesson learnt.
For me from an Irish perspective there are two key concerns coming out of this match. How much form has Sexton lost and are we seeing the beginnings of a comeback? Secondly, it is surely time for Ireland to take a very hard look at Cian Healy. While he is regarded by many as part of Ireland’s bedrock, I for one am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this. He strikes me as poorly disciplined, mildly arrogant and not quite the team player that Ireland really need. Often pursuing chances on the field that would make him look good but put the team in jeopardy, I can’t help feeling that Schmidt and company will need to look very carefully at their options going into the Six Nations. In my opinion Healy is rapidly becoming more of a liability for the Irish cause than an asset. While few in Ireland have Healy’s experience, there would appear to be more reliable options coming through the ranks. At the expense of angering every Irish fan I know I would also say that Sean O’Brien is also starting to show some similar tendencies.
In short, the great Leinster juggernaut is clearly a beast of days gone by. However, it still boasts talents like Fitzgerald, Kearney and Sexton along with South African imports Richardt Strauss and the newly eligible for Ireland Josh van der Flier. As a result there is enough to give the Irish plenty of ground for optimism as their thoughts turn toward Ireland defending their Six Nations title in February.
Toulouse vs Ulster
Final Score – Toulouse 23/Ulster 25
For the remainder of this year’s European Champions Cup, all Irish eyes will firmly be on the men from Ulster. Looking good, and having a potential wonder weapon for Ireland in centre field in the form of Stuart McCloskey, Ulster have been the form Irish team in the competition. So strong has been McCloskey along with Leinster’s Luke Fitzgerald and Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw, that the Irish centerfield looks exceptionally exciting going into this Six Nations and dare I say it is showing the kind of promise not seen since the days of the great one – Brian O’Driscoll.
While one should take back to back defeats of French giants Toulouse with a pinch of salt, as the men from the south of France are not quite the force they used to be, Ulster can justifiably feel that their future in this year’s European Champions Cup looks bright indeed. Les Kiss as Coach is clearly benefitting from his time as Irish assistant coach and time spent with Joe Schmidt. Ulster look sharp and their execution is solid. Captain and Hooker Rory Best, continues to lead from the front and is a consistently reliable performer and no doubt will have an enormous role to play in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign. He is inspirational and a credit to his team and country. For me however, what has been really noticeable about Ulster’s performances this year has been the growth in confidence of fly half Paddy Jackson. He has always impressed me, but just needed that extra few years of experience to make him into the class player he is rapidly becoming. With the erratic form of Johnny Sexton of late, this is only good news for Ireland, and while he still has a lot to learn and perhaps a bit more maturity is still required, Jackson and Leinster’s Ian Madigan look set to continue the tradition of great Irish fly halves.
However, the real standout for me in this match and Ulster’s previous encounter with Toulouse is centre Stuart McCloskey. Big, fast and seemingly unstoppable McCloskey is going to be one to watch. Pair him up with Luke Fitzgerald’s dancing feet and all of a sudden Ireland could have a centerfield partnership the envy of all their Six Nations rivals. Add to that mix Robbie Henshaw and the excitement builds, leaving Joe Schmidt with a myriad of exciting combinations. Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble look good on the wings as always, though Gilroy is really starting to come into his own as I always thought he would. Luke Marshall is also proving to be no slacker as McCloskey’s centerfield partner and the Ulster backline is well worth watching. Joe Schmidt will certainly have some fat notebooks to pore over when it comes time to deciding on who will feature in the backs for Ireland come February.
Ulster took this match to Toulouse from the outset, and while at home Toulouse had considerably more fire in their belly than they did in Belfast the week before, Ulster still responded well to the challenge even if there was a look of controlled panic on the Ulstermen’s faces as the clock wound down and Toulouse threw everything they had at them. Ulster were pushed hard and while not as clinical in their execution and game management as the week before they still did enough to carve out a narrow but important victory. With this win they increase the likelihood that there will be at least one Irish team in the knockout stages. If they can keep this momentum up in January, then not only will they be in a great position come the knockout stages, they will also have helped put some real force into Ireland’s preparations for the Six Nations!
Leicester vs Munster
Final Score – Leicester 17/Munster 6
Always competitive, but without the towering figure of former Captain Paul O’Connell, Munster are clearly no longer the European giants they once were. What perhaps is of more concern to Irish fans with the Six Nations rapidly looming on the horizon, is the fact that Munster and Ireland first choice scrum half Conor Murray is looking less than flash these days much like his halfback partner Johnny Sexton at Leinster. This pairing has been key to Irish fortunes in back to back Six Nations titles in the last two years, but Irish Coach Joe Schmidt must surely be scratching his head as he looks at the Irish blueprint post the World Cup.
However, as mentioned above despite the score line Munster were in the hunt for the full eighty minutes and were hardly a pushover. It was just that their execution left them wanting too many times. Add to this that Ian Keatley at fly half is not really providing Munster with the opportunities they need, and although spirited and having a never say die attitude Munster sadly looked average when up against a more composed and structured game from Leicester. For me the jury is still out on Simon Zebo. Many consider him Ireland’s sleeping wonder weapon, but for me I see too much flash and not enough understanding of the bigger picture in terms of gameplay. Having said that however, there is no doubting his work ethic and under the guidance of someone like Irish Coach Joe Schmidt there is no doubt that he could be effectively welded into a daunting Irish attack come February.
Munster looked more composed in defence than attack and had it not been for this aspect of their play the score line could have been much greater in Leicester’s favor. Meanwhile squandered opportunities in attack also left little opportunities for Munster to really do much more than play catch up rugby under pressure. Leicester were made to work hard of that there is no doubt, but when it came to the basics they were clearly the better side, and will be a force to be reckoned with as the competition gets closer to its business end as for that matter will most of the English clubs.
An exciting prospect for Ireland come February based on this match however, will definitely be South African number eight, CJ Stander. The big South African is now eligible to wear Irish colors and has been at the forefront of much of what has been good about Munster so far this year. As mentioned Simon Zebo and Keith Earls on the wings show plenty of promise with Earls being slightly more efficient in terms of execution, although in Zebo’s defence much of the ball he was getting was not exactly top quality. Meanwhile Andrew Conway at fullback could provide Ireland with some food for thought. Lastly there is some promising forward material in the shape of lock Robin Copeland along with Hooker Mike Sherry. In short, Munster won’t be challenging for any European silverware this season, with the exception of the PRO12, but it still remains a strong breeding ground for some promising Irish talent.