That optimism was well founded and set the tone for what proved a productive weekend for the Irish in Europe. Leinster set the standard at the RDS on Friday night with a really impressive display against a fully-locked and loaded Montpellier side, who currently sit third in the French Top 14.
Yet, despite starting with 13 internationals, they failed to fire a shot and again highlighted the shortcomings of even the top French sides in this tournament. Is it any wonder the French national team is struggling, with only three French players in Jake White’s starting side?
From a fitness perspective, they looked way off the pace compared to Leinster and struggled to deal with the tempo, the range of passing, offloading, and variety that Leinster brought in attack. The French Top 14 has become a boring war of attrition and is far too collision-based. As a consequence, their sides struggle when pitted against teams who play at pace, as long as you can compete on equal terms at the set piece. That’s the key.
Leinster were more than capable of doing that. Not only did they run Montpellier off their feet, but by the third quarter, the famed Montpellier scrum was being propelled backwards by Leinster’s replacement front row of Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, and Michael Bent.
Montpellier were presented with a readymade excuse to throw in the towel as early as the 27th minute with the sending off of Francois Steyn. In terms of implementing the new directives applying to the high tackle, referee JP Doyle could not have had a more straightforward decision with regard to the red card issued to the Springbok World Cup winner.
In fact, Doyle summed up the circumstances surrounding the tackle succinctly when explaining to a protesting Steyn that his tackle was “high, with force, at speed straight to the head”. No scope for any misunderstanding there. He could also have added that it was reckless, thus leaving no grey area with regard to the sanction.
Result apart, the real plus for the Leinster management was in the performance of their less experienced players. On the wings, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin offer real pace, athleticism, and good footballing instincts. Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden have barely been missed.
Up front, hooker James Tracy — who has leapfrogged Strauss in the pecking order and could find himself on the Ireland bench for the Six Nations with Sean Cronin the latest hamstring casualty — continues to build on the form that won him a first cap against Canada.
The hero of the night, however, was undoubtedly Jack Conan. A No 8 by trade, he already looks the heir apparent to Jamie Heaslip, but deputised equally effectively for Sean O’Brien on the flank. It says something when you can say that the Tullow colossus wasn’t missed.
With Heaslip playing out of his skin at present, Conan will have to bide his time before inheriting that No 8 shirt. Leinster have an embarrassment of back-row riches and may struggle to hold on to all of them.
Conan was equally effective in defeat against Munster in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day and has the capacity to make the same impact that Josh Van Der Flier did last season. Leinster will be tested in Castres on Friday night but, with O’Brien likely to return to action, now have the quality in attack and the depth on the bench to win there and secure a home quarter-final.
Munster are in an even better position, given that their final pool game is at home. After back-to-back wins on the road, that is the least they deserve. The challenge for Rassie Erasmus this week is in making sure that nothing is taken for granted. When Munster drop the intensity in their play, they struggle and become vulnerable.
There is a process that has to be followed if Racing 92 are to be put to the sword as ruthlessly as they were in Paris 10 days ago. Racing finally showed their teeth with that 34-3 demolition of Leicester last Saturday and one hopes that might keep them satisfied for a while.
Much will be revealed when they announce their side on Friday, but their management team face somewhat of a dilemma, given that there is an agreement in place between the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and the French Federation that anyone in the French national squad for the Six Nations won’t be available for their club’s Top 14 games on the following weekend. So do Racing play their French internationals this weekend or select combinations that are likely to feature against Lyon the following week.
From Munster’s perspective a win, even without a bonus point, places them on 24 points, which will be sufficient to secure the all-important home draw. The maximum the winners of Pool 2 can accumulate is Connacht with 23 points. This would necessitate a bonus-point win over Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
The more likely outcome is that Wasps will top that pool on 22 points, making them the only pool winners with an away quarter-final. That is somewhat ironic, given that Zebre are in their pool and have yielded a five-point haul to all opposition in their five games played to date. It will be a major shock if Wasps fail to bag another full house next Sunday in northern Italy.
When you consider that, at least mathematically, after five games played, Castres with 10 points, along with Montpellier and Exeter on 11, are still technically in the hunt for qualification, it makes a mockery of the tournament that teams coupled with the Italian side are almost guaranteed 10 points from two outings from the outset.
It is doing nobody any good, least of all Zebre, who conceded 136 points and 18 tries on successive weekends in Ireland on PRO12 and European duty. Surely, they would be better off competing in the Challenge Cup, where they might secure a few wins?
The fact that they have a far better chance of competing in next season’s Champions Cup than Connacht, who annihilated them on Saturday, despite having a scrum-half playing his first ever competitive game at out-half, just seems wrong.
There is enough competitive rugby in the PRO12 to fulfil the aspiration of promoting and developing the game in Italy. They have to stand on their own merits at some stage. The time has come for the right to qualification for the premier European competition to be awarded to the top seven finishers in PRO12, regardless of nationality.
Zebre apart, PRO12 sides have competed magnificently in this year’s tournament compared to some of their overhyped rivals from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14. The PRO12 could yet provide four of the eight quarter-finalists, having produced none last season.
That is some good news for a tournament that is somehow struggling to match the hype and glamour of the Heineken Cup at its best.