Contenders lining up for their crown, but don’t rule out Sarries too soon

Contenders lining up for their crown, but don’t rule out Sarries too soon
Connacht’s Finlay Bealham strikes a pose at the Sportsground yesterday. Connacht spirit and commitment to keeping the ball alive was a lesson to all, says Donal Lenihan. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie.

I must admit to feeling a bit ambivalent about the opening round of Champions Cup action last weekend. Maybe I was reading so much about potential World Cup hangovers for the Irish players returning from Japan that I was duped into a journalistic or commentator’s hangover of my own.

Perhaps it was down to the fact that Munster’s game against the Ospreys in Swansea and Leinster’s opener against Benetton at the RDS didn’t quite capture the imagination or spark the enthusiasm to set the competitive juices flowing.

All that changed, however, when sitting down to watch some of the other games.Having been away for so long in Japan, the first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that I no longer had access to the Champions Cup on television.

With BT Sport now the only outlet covering all games, coupled with the fact that they were no longer available on the eir Sport platform, I had to make a quick dash to sign up for TV access, despite the fact I already had the Sky Sports package. More money, please.

That’s the reality of modern professional sport. It won’t be long before we’ll be paying a matchday subscription to view a specific game.

Let’s hope that coverage of top-class rugby doesn’t get completely lost behind a paywall or the sport could end up like cricket, where the viewership is minuscule compared to what it used to be on terrestrial television. That said, somebody has to pay the players’ wages.

Enough moaning. The bottom line is, was the action worth the money? By the time I finished my weekend’s viewing, running the rule over Munster’s Pool 4 opponents Racing 92 in action against the under-fire holders Saracens in Paris, I have to say yes.

While Munster and Leinster captured the bonus-point wins over Ospreys and Benetton that were widely anticipated, the fact that Munster had to wait until deep into injury time for James Cronin tosecure their fifth point addeda bit more drama.

The game that had me on the edge of my seat, however, was Connacht’s amazing win over Montpellier.

Already short key Irish internationals in Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux, and Finley Bealham, to lose two more in Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun, along with captain Jarred Butler, two hours before kickoff made life extremely difficult for coach Andy Friend.

The manner in which Connacht coped with adversity and the positive attitude portrayed by the impressive Friend, even after the hammering suffered at home to Leinster the week before, said everything about the togetherness he has instilled in his squad.

I must admit that it made things even sweeter that Montpellier were the ones on the receiving end. At a time when Saracens are in thefiring line about breaking the salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership, even their spending still falls short of the millions spent by many of the French clubs.

Montpellier are backed by the Syrian-born French billionaire businessman Mohed Altrad whose unwavering financial support has enabled them to attract a plethora of top stars to the club, including a whole host of South Africans including double World Cup-winner Frans Steyn, 2019 team-mate Handre Pollard, Bismarck and Jannie Du Plessis, Jan Serfontein, and Johan Goosen.

Altrad’s support of French Federation president Bernard Laporte was a contributory factor in Ireland’s failed bid for the 2023 World Cup when his resources were called upon by Laporte to increase the return available to World Rugby by France hosting the event. Altrad’s name now emblazons the French jersey as his company became the first-ever shirt sponsor of the national team. Nothing wrong with that.

Around the time of the bidding process, the Altrad brand also appeared on the Georgian national team shirt, while his company further agreed to support the development of the national academy in Georgia. Nothing wrong with that either.

The knock-on effect of this, however, was that the Georgian Rugby Union, who had been courted by a number of IRFU committee members over a long period of time for their World Cup vote, turned tail and redirected their vote to Laporte and the French bid. Another vote gone.

That’s why I derived great satisfaction from Connacht’s amazing win over a Montpellier side who looked destined for victory on a magnificent day for rugby in the west of Ireland. When they opened the scoring, with a spectacular try after only 70 seconds, things looked grim.

Connacht’s fightback, their refusal to lie down and accept their fate, and their commitment to keeping the ball alive offered a lesson to all. The old- fashioned virtues of pride in who you represent, unwavering commitment, and willingness to give every last ounce of energy to the cause still has a place in the game.

The odds against Connacht will be stacked even higher after picking up more injuries in Sunday’s heartwarming win when they have to travel to face current French Top 14 champions Toulouse in the beautiful pink city on Saturday.

The fact Connacht had a brilliant two-point win in Toulouse in 2013 and ran them close in 2017, coupled with last Sunday’s result, means that Toulouse won’t be taking the Connacht challenge lightly. That won’t do their cause any good.

An honourable mention, too, for Ulster, who started the post-Rory-Best era with a very creditable win on the road at Bath’s picturesque Recreation Ground.

What the World Cup served to reinforce in my thought process is the necessity in creating the right environment within any group of players if you want to be successful. Rassie Erasmus achieved that, in the most testing of circumstances, with South Africa.

It strikes me that Friend has succeeded in recreating that unity of purpose with Connacht after they appeared to lose it when Pat Lam departed. Likewise, Dan McFarland appears to be making similar strides with Ulster. Their captain Iain Henderson said as much in the aftermath of that vital win in Bath.

That collective resolve will be tested further when Clermont Auvergne arrive in Belfast on Friday night. With their World Cup stars slowly filtering back into the team, they sent a clear message to all comers in a highly impressive 53-21 demolition of Harlequins, that the insatiable appetite to capture that elusive, first-ever Champions Cup still burns brightly.

Despite the fact that Saracens were well beaten in Paris on Sunday, and while noting they have decided not to appeal the punishing sanctions imposed on them in the Gallagher Premiership for their breach of the domestic salary cap, they will still have a big say on the destination of this year’s trophy.

Given that only two weeks had passed since their England players competed in a World Cup final, it’s extremely unlikely that they would have played in that opening game against Racing 92 in any event. As it was, two players who featured in that final off the bench, Springbok tight head Vincent Koch and England scrum-half Ben Spencer, both saw game time in Paris.

Something tells me that when Munster rock up at Allianz Park on December 14, Saracens won’t be prepared to roll over and accept their fate meekly, especially if Munster do a number on them in Thomond Park the previous week.

What the opening weekend of action highlighted is there are plenty of worthy contenders, not least Leinster and Munster from this parish, Clermont, Racing 92, and Toulouse from France, along with Exeter Chiefs and Northampton from the Premiership, waiting in the wings to snatch Saracens’ crown.

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