A good start is half the battle

IT says everything about how competitive the Heineken Cup has become that only one side — English champions Saracens — secured a winning bonus point from the opening round of 12 games with a home victory over Benetton Treviso.

As if to underline the point further, in the remaining 11 contests seven teams secured a losing bonus point while two others, Connacht and Castres, just missed out on doing so by a point in their away defeats to Harlequins and Scarlets respectively. Finally, we had that last-gasp draw by Leinster in Montpellier.

Is it any wonder that this great tournament is getting harder to win? At one stage there was a danger that all four Irish sides might lose their opening clashes but Ulster, Munster and Leinster all managed to claw their way back into their respective contests and secure notable results. Leinster’s achievement in overturning a 10-point deficit away from home to pilfer that draw at the death will prove invaluable come January. But winning your opening game at home is even more crucial. Ulster just had to somehow scrape a win in Ravenhill against a highly rated Clermont Auvergne given they are travelling to Welford Road on Saturday to face Leicester. Their forwards were magnificent and laid the foundations for a famous win, even if Clermont failed to deliver once again on Irish soil.

While Jonny Sexton’s excellent penalty with the last kick of the game proved he had put the issues surrounding his place kicking at the World Cup firmly to bed, the moment of the weekend was undoubtedly provided by Ronan O’Gara with his inch-perfect drop goal at Thomond Park. Munster could not afford to start their campaign with a loss.

Tony McGahan deserves immense credit for the manner with which he is encouraging and developing Munster’s young pool of talent and it will stand to competition debutants Conor Murray, Danny Barnes and Peter O’Mahony that they have not only sampled the atmosphere of a special Heineken Cup day at Thomond Park, but now have a reference point in the memory banks to share with the new talent which is set to be introduced over the next few seasons.

O’Mahony has been earmarked for success for some time and it was wonderful to see him deal with the level of expectation on his shoulders. For me he is a clone of Alan Quinlan in everything he does but I would prefer to see him given the opportunity to develop as a number seven in the short to medium term. He has all the attributes to make a serious impact there and in addition is a very good lineout operator. Should he revert to playing at either six or eight later in his career, he would benefit greatly from the experience of playing open side.

The injuries to Felix Jones and Keith Earls could not have come at a worse time as Munster cannot expect to prosper on their kicking game alone. At times on Saturday, O’Gara had no option but to play territory and kick to the corners even if the net result was to hand possession back to Northampton given the competency of their lineout.

Much of Munster’s play was too lateral and the opposition were quite happy to shepherd their attack towards the touchline. They achieved far more when they played more direct rugby as proven by Doug Howlett’s crucial try just before the break. The problem is that Munster are lacking a target man in midfield that can get them over the gain line quickly and have to improvise as a result.

Danny Barnes is more accustomed to playing on the wing or at outside centre and to his credit he has coped well since his elevation for the knockout stages of last season’s Magners League. Lifeimi Mafi has also begun to rediscover moments of brilliance but the midfield is still a work in progress. Will Chambers showed enough when introduced off the bench to suggest that he deserves to be looked at more closely. In fact, his Gaelic football style block-down on Ryan Lamb’s clearing kick in the closing minutes proved crucial, as it ensured that Northampton were kept pinned back in their own half.

McGahan knows Munster will be unable to summon up that type of passion, commitment and intensity week-in, week-out and therefore without a cutting edge out wide, you have to worry about where their momentum will come from. David Wallace is a massive loss from that perspective as he could always be relied on to manufacture a couple of midfield line breaks. Saturday’s game against Castres is sure to be another bruising encounter and one hopes that after emptying the tank during the mesmerising five minutes and 53 seconds it took to engineer those 41 phases hasn’t left Munster drained.

Having watched many of the games over the weekend and given the tight nature of so many of the contests, the role of the officials is becoming even more central to the outcome of too many ties.

Munster definitely benefited from some lax refereeing by Nigel Owens, not least in one of those crucial mauls near the end when Paul O’Connell was in a precarious position and Niall Ronan seemed to come in from the side.

Montpellier had reason to feel aggrieved as the winning penalty awarded to Leinster could just as easily have gone the other way. When Isa Nacewa was tackled by Lucas Amorosino, Montpellier’s Remy Martin joined the contest for possession as he is entitled to do. As he was neither the tackler nor what they term ‘a tackle assist’, he was therefore, in my opinion, entitled to contest the ball as long as he was on his feet, which he was.

Referee Dave Pearson is heard calling “no hands” but as Martin had his hands on the ball before the ruck had formed, he was entitled to continue the fight for possession. Nacewa should have been penalised for not releasing. Net result — a four-point swing in the table. How crucial will that prove by January?

Given the fallout from Craig Joubert’s performance in the World Cup final, I am highlighting this now as there is no point in crying foul when one of the Irish provinces are on the receiving end.

The suggestion that the powers of the TMO are set to be increased on a trial basis has merit in my opinion and anything that helps the officials in what has become a very complex game has to be welcomed.

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