What do Champions Cup performances say about Irish rugby?

IF Ulster’s amazing 38-0 demolition of Toulouse on Friday night suggested talk of the demise of the Irish provinces in Europe is a bit premature, the performances of Munster and Leinster only served to open the debate once again.

What do Champions Cup performances say about Irish rugby?

Leinster are out, Munster all but out and Ulster are already consigned to chasing one of the three best-placed runners-up slots as Saracens appear certain to top Pool 1.

It was very difficult to escape the feeling that Munster’s game at home to Leicester in Limerick on Saturday night had far more hanging on the performance and result than the maximum five Champions Cup points on offer.

Munster hosting the Tigers is about as traditional as you can get in Europe. Both had a storied history of achievement and success long before the advent of professionalism but each has fallen short of the high standards set at the outset of the noughties.

Thomond Park on a European Saturday evening conjures up all sorts of memories and this game offered the current squad the opportunity to make a statement.

The stark realisation is that Munster just weren’t good enough to win this game or threaten Leicester for long enough periods despite a surfeit of possession, especially in the opening half.

With an even stiffer test to come when the two sides meet again in Welford Road next Sunday, Munster could be out of Europe before the Christmas break. That will be two years in a row without knockout rugby for the first time in 18 seasons.

While there was no shortage of effort or urgency on the part of the players — in fact Munster played with great width and continuity for large tracts of this game — they were undone by a series of poor decisions, poor handling and silly errors.

The concession of two tries in the six-minute period before half-time was catastrophic and symptomatic of a side playing without conviction or confidence.

Munster have to make opposition teams work harder for their points in Thomond Park. The concession of all three Leicester tries can be traced to basic errors on Munster’s part, in terms of missed tackles and poor execution.

Having done so many things right in that opening half, to go in 12 points in arrears — Leicester’s eventual winning margin in a record home defeat in Europe — was completely against the run of play. No wonder Anthony Foley’s men looked shell-shocked as they headed for the dressing room.

Foley was incensed, and rightly so, for the penalty reversal by referee Romain Poite against James Cronin who was the victim rather than the perpetrator of a cheeky push from Dan Cole. That provided Leicester with the field position for their opening try from Vereniki Goneva.

That fact that Ian Keatley had missed a sitter in front of the posts to put Munster ahead three minutes earlier only served to make matters worse.

For a team short on confidence, that six-minute period did untold damage.

Just about the only positive was that Leicester failed to secure a four-try winning bonus point but the fact that Munster failed to scrape even a losing bonus of their own will prove adequate compensation for Richard Cockerill. They will now look to finish Munster off next Sunday.

This was a strange game in many ways, with only three scrums contested over the 80 minutes.

Given that two of those resulted in penalties to Leicester, maybe that was just as well. With BJ Botha ranked as a serious doubt for the return leg with a second concussion in as many games, and his replacement John Ryan far more at home on the loose head side of the scrum, Munster’s problems in a key phase of play could escalate.

While Munster did many things well on Saturday, once again, their link play was very poor.

With 10 line breaks and 12 offloads in this game, they should be threatening the try line far more.

Unfortunately players seem incapable of reading what the ball carrier is going to do and the amount of passes to fresh air is alarming.

With two tries butchered against the Dragons last weekend at a stage when the game should have been sewn up, Munster again appeared incapable of capitalising on well created line breaks due to their inability to keep play alive.

By way of contrast on limited opportunities Leicester — with only 38% of territory and possession throughout — gave their hosts a lesson in the art of taking their chances. Every time they got a sniff of the Munster try line, they registered points. The big worry here is that Leicester are competent rather than brilliant.

In many respects the same accusation could be labelled against reigning champions Toulon, who were made work extremely hard yesterday for long periods by a very competitive Leinster side who managed to frustrate Toulon.

From the outset, they competed like men possessed in the contact area and at every breakdown, unfortunately not always within the laws of the game. Fear is a mighty force when your back is against the wall, and with two defeats in their opening Champions Cup games, it was win or bust for Leinster.

Time has helped in that their World Cup representatives have now been fully integrated into Leo Cullen’s systems and that international pedigree kept Toulon at bay for long periods. Both sides started with nine players who saw game time at the World Cup, with Leinster outdoing their big budget hosts in the sense that six of their bench also participated at the global event. Toulon had none.

It helped Leinster’s cause enormously that their set piece was excellent, with their lineout in particular creating big problems for Toulon all through the game. Their scrum generated three points from the opening exchange while the psychological boost in holding their hosts scoreless in the 10-minute period when Cian Healy was in the sin bin for a stupid use of the knee on French captain-in-waiting Guilhem Guirado energised them even further. All of this with Johnny Sexton offering nowhere near the assured presence that was taken for granted in his previous tenure in blue.

The big question was could they sustain that intensity into the second half, given that Toulon have made an art form of blowing sides away at the Stade Felix Mayol in the third quarter? On so many occasions in the Top 14, of course, that is predicated on the opposition lying down and taking their medicine.

Leinster were never likely to do that but the physical toll in pushing the boundaries to contain the massive Toulon pack was always going to tell. They wear you down and force you to push things to the edge, a fact that resulted in three Leinster players banished to the sin bin over the course of the game.

That indiscipline proved too costly in the end and Leinster are now out of Europe at the halfway mark of the pool stage.

The frightening prospect of no Irish side making it through to the last eight remains a strong probability.

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