DONAL LENIHAN: Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

DESPITE that crushing defeat to Saracens in London, Ulster remain Ireland’s solitary contender to make the last eight of this season’s Champions Cup. 

With a home game against Oyannax to come next Saturday, they must chase a bonus point win to bag the 18 points which should, depending on results elsewhere, see them avoid the prospect of having no Irish side in the quarter-finals for the first time since 1998.

Munster and Leinster had nothing but pride to play for at the weekend with all the pressure on the southern province to deliver after the fallout from that dismal performance in Paris nine days ago.

Leo Cullen bought Leinster a bit of wiggle room by granting first ever Champions Cup starts to six recent academy products in Gary Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong and Ross Molony. Throw Josh Van Der Flier into that mix and you have a side with a definite eye on the future.

Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

Thomond Park was a tense and pensive crucible as all present looked for a reaction to the frenzied fallout from the events of the previous week. If ever a man deserved a try to seal a game it was CJ Stander, whose 68th minute score not only delivered a four-try bonus point but also triggered a few badly needed smiles from the players and beleaguered coaching staff. Stander summed up the feeling perfectly when accepting yet another Champions Cup man-of- the-match accolade. “It’s good to get goose bumps again in Thomond Park.”

Indeed it is and that was due, in no small measure, to those in the stands and terraces who stuck with the team and responded in kind to the application and effort shown on the field. Lest anyone get too carried away, this was a performance still sprinkled with unforced errors, sloppy knock-ons, and poor tactical kicking, especially in the opening 40 minutes.

The challenge now is to make this a starting point for the remainder of the season and not a false dawn like the win over Ulster proved only two weeks ago. With lowly Treviso and Zebre next up, Munster have the perfect opportunity to build some winning momentum. From here on in, the key focus must be on securing a semi-final slot in the Guinness Pro 12.

Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

For once, in what is proving a really pressurised season, Munster bought a break when Keith Earls identified a slim corridor of space and pinned his ears back to score a try out of nothing from 45 metres to propel Munster into a six-point lead right on the stroke of half-time. That represented a 16-point turnaround from the same point last weekend. At last something positive to build on.

Conor Murray confirmed before the game that it was “back to basics for Munster in training all week, concentrating on the three most important things to bring improvement”.

Undoubtedly, two of those revolved around Munster’s defensive intensity and their scrum. They were blown away in that key phase in Paris when Stade Francais approached every engagement as a means of winning a penalty.

With BJ Botha missing from the outset this time around, Stade were certain to attack every scrum with gusto. Munster knew in advance what to expect with Uruguayan tight head prop Mario Sagario set for the test of a lifetime. In challenging circumstances, he did well.

While the scrum was far from perfect, conceding a plethora of penalties for the second weekend in a row, the quality of the strike from Mike Sherry — a fading art — coupled with Stander’s ability to pick from a retreating base and still make yardage, made a big difference and limited the level of damage Stade were able to inflict. That, coupled with a far more aggressive, intense and synchronised defensive line, yielded little or no space for Stade to work with.

Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

What this performance served to highlight, however, is that Stade were there for the taking in Paris. If anything the inclusion of Rabah Slimani, Pascal Pape, Jonno Ross and Jonathan Danty from the outset, potentially made them a more difficult proposition this time out. Unfortunately Munster’s ineptitude in attack and defence at the Stade Jean Bouin handed Stade a victory that appeared to even catch them by surprise.

But for that, Munster could well be travelling to Treviso next weekend in search of a quarter-final slot as a best runner-up. Unfortunately all that trip affords now is a chance to build confidence for the domestic challenges ahead.

As Ireland found out to their cost at the World Cup, having strength in depth is an absolute necessity when it comes to toppling the top-end teams. Les Kiss learned that lesson when Ireland lost Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien for their quarter-final against Argentina.

Consequently, he must have feared the worst for Ulster when forced to play against the form club side in Europe at present in Saracens, shorn half his first-choice pack with Iain Henderson, Dan Touhy, Chris Henry and Nick Williams all absentees. To then lose the anchor of his scrum in tight-head prop Wiehaan Herbst, five minutes before half-time, almost certainly sealed Ulster’s fate, despite a very positive start.

Saracens possess a very potent mix of power and physicality up front, allied to a defence that suffocates even the most creative attacking sides. Not that they are lacking in that aspect themselves, with try-scoring bonus points secured in four of their five pool games to date for registering four or more tries. They are a very well balanced side and succeeded in making Ulster look quite ordinary.

Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

A shining light, once again, was Stuart McCluskey who looks really comfortable with ball in hand and, despite his impressive physical attributes, has so much more to offer than a stereotype midfield basher. It will be interesting to see where he figures in Joe Schmidt’s plans over the next few months.

Just about the only positive for Ulster on Saturday was Munster denying Stade Francais even a losing bonus point which should help their cause in securing one of those three runners-up slots.

At the RDS on Saturday, Cullen’s selection policy was definitely an investment in the future and, for some, perhaps even the present. Leinster have struggled to produce a quality, homegrown, second row in the calibre of the head coach himself, with Malcolm O’Kelly the last real standout performer. That is why the man-of-the-match performance from Ross Molony was so encouraging.

In the circumstances, with so many young guns on board, the performance of the entire Leinster pack was sensational. Rhys Ruddock, still only 25 but a Leinster captain in the making, adopted the mantle of seasoned veteran and elicited a stellar showing from all those around him. The scrum, with a front row of Dooley, Tracy, and Furlong doing a magnificent job until replaced by an entire international trio, was rock solid, while Tracy’s lineout deliveries had all the composure of a seasoned pro.

Irish provinces searching for positive pointers to the future

The disappointment of Leinster’s early European exit will now be tempered by this display as another promising side is clearly waiting to emerge from this developing squad. With a number of the established ranks diverting to Six Nations duty soon, the younger brigade will be afforded more opportunities to shine.

Munster also restored some lost pride and offered a chink of light for the remainder of the season even if there is still a long road to travel to scale the heights of the recent past.

It’s understandable if Ulster, the only Irish province still alive in the cup, feel the most disappointed of the Irish trio after the weekend. Reality suggests, however, that their opponents Saracens, along with Toulon and Racing 92, are the standard bears in Europe now — not Stade Francais and certainly not Bath.

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