Righting the wrongs of week one

TO borrow a phrase from one of Heineken’s rivals, last weekend’s opening round of the European Cup was probably the best we have seen for some time. Intense action, high-quality performances, buckets of tries, contentious refereeing interpretation and games that went to the wire. An outstanding medley of issues to launch the 15th year of the Heineken Cup.

In recent seasons, an element of conservatism spread through the opening pool games with teams adopting a negative approach in a bid to avoid a losing start. One could not lay that accusation at the contests witnessed at Welford Road, Franklin’s Gardens, Stade Toulousain and the Stade Jean-Bouin.

Against a background of illness and injury, last season’s beaten finalists Leicester Tigers displayed an incredible resilience and will to win to reel in an 18-point deficit at one stage and secure a draw against an Ospreys side which, for once, played a brand of rugby in keeping with the quality runners at their disposal.

Munster showed similar character in clawing back a 14-point deficit to be in a position to win the Pool 1 contest in the dying seconds against a resilient Northampton side. While Benetton Treviso’s staggering victory over French champions Perpignan has once again called into question the commitment of some of the French sides to this great competition, the displays of Toulouse and Stade Francais in their respective wins over Sale Sharks and Edinburgh demonstrate that they are fully focused on orchestrating a success in Europe this season.

Munster and Leinster have already backed themselves into a corner with the reigning champions in a more perilous position given that their defeat was suffered on home soil. They also face a tricky assignment in Brive on Saturday. Munster, for their part, must eliminate any level of complacency that may arise from the fact that they face Italian opposition. They’d be better focusing on the scare they got playing tournament debutants Montauban in their opening game of last year’s competition at the newly revamped Thomond Park.

Benetton Treviso, who have had a torrid time in this competition over the years with just 15 wins in 60 games prior to last Saturday, will now travel in high spirits and with nothing to lose.

One of the most frustrating aspects for the Munster players last weekend was having to adjust to the interpretation of the law at the breakdown. Certainly from my point of view, both Christophe Berdos in Northampton and Romain Poite at the RDS, allowed players to constantly go off their feet in contesting for or slowing down opposition ball. One Munster player said to me after the game that he ended up doing things like entering from the side that they just would not get away with in a Magners League match. As if to prove the point, Irish referee George Clancy penalised Toulouse repeatedly in the opening sequence of their game against the Sharks when they immediately bridged the tackled player in an attempt to seal off the ball without supporting their body weight.

Clancy was 100% correct in his officiating but the point is that the French players looked as if they had been coached to adopt that position at the ruck – implicit in that is the view that they’d be allowed to do so in the French championship with a French official. Former Irish referee Donal Courtney is now working full time with the ERC and this is something that he needs to address before the second round of pool games commence on Friday night. The French referees were also very lax in controlling the offside line and in dealing with the scrum wheel. This can be very frustrating for players.

Much comment has been made since last weekend’s matches on how much the lack of pitch time affected the Munster and Leinster Lions’ contingent last weekend. A parallel can certainly be drawn between what happened to Ireland in the 2007 World Cup and in the clashes against Northampton and London Irish. Two years ago in France it was a collective thing when the Irish management simply failed to factor in sufficient games between the end of the 2006/2007 season and the start of the RWC that September.

On this occasion it is slightly different as various players within the same team are at different levels of preparedness. At least if the two provinces can successfully negotiate their games next Saturday, that issue will be resolved when the Heineken Cup resumes in December. Eddie O’Sullivan had no chance to rectify his problems as the World Cup pool games came thick and fast. The important thing for both camps to recognise is that this is a reason for their shortcomings but not an excuse. Both have areas of their game that require immediate surgery and must to be rectified quickly.

Of the two, Leinster face the more difficult task. Brive lost their opening game away to the Scarlets (24-12) but will be far more formidable at home. While they have not being going well in the French championship – three wins from their opening nine games – Leinster are about to find out that the mantle of champions brings an extra spice to the opposition.

That said, Leinster are a far superior team and must not get sucked into a dogfight like when they were surprisingly beaten by Castres at the Stade Pierre-Antoine last season. In fact last Friday night their urgency, physicality and kicking quality had London Irish in all kinds of trouble in the opening quarter, but they failed to capitalise on that dominance where it matters most – on the scoreboard. They must also invest more trust in their ball-in-hand game with Brian O’Driscoll looking as sharp as ever. Overall, I think Leinster have sufficient quality to win this one. Lose and they will have to become the first side in the history of the tournament to qualify for the knockout stage after losing their opening two pool games.

Munster have the ideal opportunity to finish phase one of this year’s tournament on a high but must be patient and not try to run before establishing a platform up front. On a number of occasions last season, most noticeably in that game against Montauban, they forgot that you must earn the right to go wide. I trust they will not make the same mistake again against a Benetton Treviso side that, by all accounts, have a very good set piece and an effective kicking game, both tailor-made to frustrate even the best opposition.

Patience is the name of the game and I expect that both Munster and Leinster will have rediscovered the winning habit on Saturday.

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