DONAL LENIHAN: Majestic Madigan proving a kicking king

Vintage rugby was in short supply in Europe this weekend with teams more intent on delivering a result rather than a performance.

Not that Munster or Leinster will be particularly worried.

With Munster having completed the opening phase of the new Champions Cup unbeaten after that well structured win over Saracens on Friday night, Leinster and Ulster faced a different type of challenge against French opposition at different ends of the French Top 14. The only negative for Munster was the fact that Clermont Auvergne picked up a four-try bonus point in their home win over Sale yesterday.

Given that Castres are three from bottom of their domestic league, Leinster were meeting the French champions of two seasons ago at a good time, especially when they choose to let three of their most influential players sitting in the stand: French scrum-half in waiting Rory Cockett, their most effective back rower, Ibrahim Diarra and ball-carrying centre Remi Lamerat.

Then again, it is not as if Leinster weren’t short a few heavyweights themselves in the Kearney brothers, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

In the absence of Healy, Ross and his tight head understudy Marty Moore, Leinster’s biggest challenge was always going to revolve around the scrum against an opponent reputed to have the most powerful unit in the Top 14. With former All Black Saimone Taumoepeau and Argentinian tight head Ramiro Herrera in from the off, it was clear this would represent the main point of the Castres assault, even if their lineout maul produced the best possible start, with a rumbling try direct from the Munster playbook after five minutes.

Despite the loss of so much European experience due to injury and the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster still had the smarts to grind out a victory in this one with the boot of Ian Madigan a key element. He is the form place kicker in Ireland at present with a success ratio topping 90%. His seven from nine may have reduced that to 77% on this occasion but it proved the difference between victory and defeat at the Stade Pierre Antoine.

In the absence of Healy and O’Brien, Leinster struggled to generate momentum and failed to win the battle for the gain line. They were under enormous pressure on the put-in to their own scrum, conceding a succession of penalties in the crucial period after half-time that Castres full-back Geoffrey Palis converted into scores and a seven-point lead entering the final quarter.

Jamie Heaslip was fighting a lone battle in the carrying stakes with little seen of the highly-rated Rhys Ruddock in that department. The introduction of Eoin Reddan on 53 minutes helped turn the tide however with his carving runs and incisiveness around the base of the ruck asking questions of a visibly tiring Castres back row.

It helped the Leinster cause immeasurably that they stopped conceding penalties at the scrum and the breakdown with Palis left without an opportunity to kick at goal after Reddan’s introduction.

Both sides produced a clever kicking game with multiple contestables on offer for the eager chasers. Luke Fitzgerald did remarkably well considering he has seen no game time since last March and his return offered Leinster a massive boost. Likewise to be able to replace Rob Kearney at full-back with a player of Zane Kirchner’s quality was another bonus for Matt O’Connor.

In the end, Leinster won because of their ability to remain patient and play in the right areas of the field. Referee Greg Garner was in no danger of being labelled a home towner by the Castres following. Leinster worked hard to generate every penalty they got with Madigan, more often than not, racking up the points that saw them over the line.

This victory will prove invaluable in their quest to reach another quarter-final while a number of their wounded warriors should be back in harness for the back-to-back encounters against Harlequins in December. The only worry for O’Connor is with a bruising international schedule coming down the track against South Africa, Georgia and Australia next month, and so many Leinster players on the national ticket, will he lose more players than he might get back?

Ulster may be Ireland’s leading Pro 12 side at the moment but right now it appears that their dream of European glory is dead and buried for another season.

History has shown that any side without a win in the opening two rounds can forget about advancing to the knockout stage and this revamped tournament is proving even more competitive than the Heineken Cup.

With a must-win game and backs against the wall, this Toulon side is about the last opposition you want to face.

They might ply their trade in the French Top 14 but they are not your typical French side especially when it comes to performing on the road.

Then again that shouldn’t be surprising given they started with nine overseas internationals against Ulster on Saturday.

Ravenhill, or Kingspan Stadium as it is known these days, is one of the most hostile environments to play in but such is the depth of star quality available to Toulon coach Bernard Laporte, they were unlikely to be intimidated in any way.

If the first prerequisite is to silence the home crowd, then Toulon managed that far earlier than might have been anticipated. Comfortable at half-time with a 13-point lead, an intercept try from Delon Armitage on 58 minutes not only marked the end of this game as a contest but in all probability Ulster’s chances of getting out of this pool.

Injury plays its part with every rugby squad these days given the increasing physical demands accompanying every game but the loss to Ulster of last season’s guiding light in scrum-half Ruan Pienaar has proved even greater than the province’s management feared.

It hasn’t helped either that their set piece has under-performed two weekends in a row, with the line out malfunction against Leicester last week matched by vulnerability in the scrum this time out. Add in 20 turnovers with Chris Masoe and Steffon Armitage having a field day at the breakdown for Toulon and you have no chance. While Ulster have been able to paper over the loss of John Afoa and Johann Muller in the Pro 12, the Champions Cup has proved a lot less forgiving. Others could well find that out to their cost over the next few months.


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