The weekend’s Heineken Cup action threw up its usual mix of high level rugby with the Irish provinces enjoying a largely successful round of fixtures
1.Munster revert to type to dispatch Saracens
Much has been made of Rob Penney’s influence on Munster’s style of play since his arrival from New Zealand in the summer. While Munster have indeed shown signs that they are embracing a more expansive style, Saturday’s performance was the Munster of old personified. A ferocious level of intensity replaced ideals of a more attacking game plan as Ronan O’Gara steered his side to victory against a dangerous Saracens outfit.
Despite victory, Munster are still in a precarious position, level on points with Saracens at the top of Pool 1 but with a daunting trip to Vicarage Road to negate next week. Saracens will be content with the losing bonus point obtained from their Thomond visit, safe in the knowledge that any sort of victory next weekend will put the English side in a dominant position to top the pool.
Munster have previous experience of escaping seemingly desperate situations and a typically dogged Munster performance next weekend may prove the most likely way to escape from vicarage Road with a much need victory. The Penney revolution may have to wait.
2. Champions Leinster are on the ropes
Sunday’s encounter at the Stade Marcel Michelin was always going to be a high quality affair and expectations for a match of Test level intensity were met as arguably the two best sides in Europe renewed their fearsome rivalry.
Although obtaining a losing bonus point was undoubtedly the minimum requirement for Joe Schmidt’s men, there will be an understandable feeling of disappointment that Clermont’s incredible run at the Stade Marcel Michelin was not brought to an end. Leinster played extremely well and were it not for a misfiring line out that spluttered twice in the final quarter when Leinster were attacking, it could have been a clean sweep for the Irish provinces. Next weekend’s showdown at the Aviva is now undoubtedly the make or break moment of the defending champions’ season.
Only a four try bonus point victory will be enough to draw Leinster level on points with Clermont and judging by the defensive systems on show in France, the likelihood of this scenario appears remote. Leinster may be forced to sneak into the quarter finals as one of the best runners up where an away quarter final will test the champions’ resolve to the max.
3. Ulster winning habit looks hard to quit
The most impressive aspect of Ulster’s victory at Franklin Garden’s on Friday night was the mundanity of it. Mark Anscombe’s side dispatched Northampton with a degree of ease that further marks out Ulster as genuine contenders for this season’s competition. They look a much stronger outfit than the one which suffered a heavy defeat to Leinster in last year’s final.
Paddy Jackson in particular has responded superbly from a trying experience in May’s defeat and should be given the opportunity to offer back up to Jonathan Sexton for the Six Nations. Much was made of Anscombe’s decision to omit Craig Gilroy from the starting XV but the Kiwi’s back three selection was fully vindicated with Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne all crossing for scores.
Ulster now possess real strength in depth and are in a superb position to secure a home quarter final. No side in Europe will fancy the trip to Ravenhill to play a side brimming with confidence and last weekend’s victory could yet prove to be a decisive step in an ultimately victorious campaign for the province.
4. Connacht proving to be more than passive bystanders in Heineken Cup evolution
Exposure to the top level of European club competition was always going to be beneficial to Connacht and this campaign has already surpassed the efforts of last season. Friday’s defeat of Biarritz while missing a host of players, will rightly be long remembered as a famous night at the Sportsgounds but it is important that Connacht as a team do not merely settle for these one-off glorious occasions.
Eric Elwood’s men must strive to build a more consistent level of performance. Connacht’s position in the competition this year is owed only to Leinster’s victory in May and in order to ensure year on year involvement and ultimately improvement, Connacht must strive to qualify through their Rabo league position rather than hope for continued Irish victories in the Heineken Cup.
5. Major threats to Irish hopes look set to come from France
Irish sides have dominated the Heineken Cup for the best part of a decade having won five of the last seven.
The emergence of Ulster to challenge the traditional powers of Munster and Leinster has further increased the likelihood of an Irish winner in 2013. As has been the case for the previous few seasons, the main threat would appear to come from France. Clermont again underlined their credentials as the best team to have never won the competition when defeating Leinster on Sunday and one senses their wait cannot go on much longer. The other two French sides with realistic ambitions of winning the overall prize are similar in ambition but diametrically opposite in terms of Heineken Cup pedigree. Four time champions Toulouse are well placed for their annual assault on the competition and the manner of their defeat to Edinburgh in last year’s quarter final will provide added motivation for the French giants.
While Toulouse undoubtedly have the experience, French rivals Toulon undoubtedly have the budget. They have amassed a squad of devastating talent, one seemingly large enough to deal with the dual demands of Top-14 and Heineken Cup action and while Harlequins and Saracens are more than decent teams, the real challenge to another Irish win looks set to come form France.