The Champions Cup is well and truly up and running.
After all the in-fighting, boardroom squabbles and procrastination, we have a tournament worthy of everything the pioneers of European rugby created after the game went professional in 1995.
Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the competition’s junior partner, The Challenge Cup.
Their respective tables suggest it is business as usual for Munster and Leinster, with both having come through challenging contests on the road along with securing home wins. The only slight blemish is that neither captured a bonus point, but a return of eight from the maximum ten on offer will do nicely.
Ulster’s plight is in stark contrast and, after making the knockout stages for the last four seasons in a row, it now looks as if the Guinness Pro 12 offers their only hope of silverware. It was inevitable that they would eventually lose the inspirational figure of Ruan Pienaar to injury given he has enjoyed no serious break from the game in recent years when playing for South Africa in the Rugby Championship every summer. Something had to give and his absence against Leicester in the opening round due to an injury sustained on Springbok duty proved crucial.
The defining moment of Munster’s season could well have been played already, with Ian Keatley’s drop goal at the death against Sale offering the confidence boost to go on and beat Saracens on Friday night.
Had Keatley’s last kick at the AJ Bell Stadium shaved the outside of the posts, Munster would have been under enormous pressure going into their second round encounter. Winning a game in that manner creates a greater feelgood factor than a ten-point win. It generated yet another special European moment for this young group of players to go with JJ Hanrahan’s dramatic matchwinner in Perpignan last season. It must be very difficult for this crop to constantly have to live up to the deeds of the Declan Kidney coached squad in the last decade. When I came on the international scene in the early 1980’s, Ireland enjoyed an unprecedented level of success against Wales. It was obvious to me that the Welsh players of that generation found it impossible to live with the expectation levels that accompanied their every game after the heroics produced by JPR, JJ, Gerald Davies, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Phil Bennett a few years earlier.
It haunted them.
Decent Welsh players were suffocated during that period. Yet in similar circumstances Munster, despite a massive turnover in playing personnel, have reached two Heineken Cup semi-finals in a row. While they are a long way from the finished article, they have remained true to the core values that have always seen Munster punch above the weight of their individual talent.
It helps when the one constant is a pack of forwards who thrive on confrontation and will stand toe-to-toe with all opposition. While Munster have always struggled to produce game breaking three-quarters, the production line of quality international forwards continues.
The latest crop offer great hope and once again were magnificent against Saracens. James Cronin is the closest I’ve seen to Peter Clohessy, showing the same doggedness and irreverence to all opposition. Dave Kilcoyne displayed the same grit and determination when introduced for the Ballincollig man and made it clear that the fight for the starting loose head berth is a long way from being decided in his mind. With Cian Healy out for the foreseeable future, Joe Schmidt will be the ultimate beneficiary, with those two breathing down the neck of Jack McGrath.
A few weeks ago Anthony Foley faced a mini-crisis at hooker, forcing the signing on a short-term contract of 32-year-old Argentine hooker Eusebio Guinazu. Since then Duncan Casey has emerged from the shadows of Damien Varley to make the No 2 shirt his own. Last season he announced himself off the bench in very difficult circumstances when Munster were being pummelled by Ulster in Belfast. With Varley captaining the side in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup when Peter O’Mahony underwent surgery, Casey had little opportunity to build on his promising early showings.
That has changed and the Corkman has been outstanding in recent weeks to such an extent that even if Varley was fit in the morning, Casey has earned the right to start. His lineout deliveries have been the most impressive of any of the Irish hookers in recent weeks while his workrate, handling ability and his accuracy in the tackle have been exemplary. Munster have discovered another class act.
That said the most impressive and consistent of the newcomers for me has been Dave Foley. This time last season he was trucking in behind Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan and Billy Holland in the pecking order of second rows. His biggest rivalry up to then was with Ian Nagle, whom he had soldiered with on underage duty and through the three-year cycle of the Munster Academy.
He was another to announce himself off the bench on that challenging night in Ravenhill last January. Offered a starting place by Rob Penney last February due to the unfortunate sequence of injuries that has stalled Ryan’s career just as he was reaching his peak, Foley is O’Connell’s first-choice partner on merit.
It helps as a young second row to play with someone of O’Connell’s ilk, not least as the senior partner is the one that all opposition will focus on when defending lineouts. That has enabled Foley to become Munster’s principal go-to man when under pressure and much credit must go to O’Connell for recognising that and calling much of the key throws to his junior partner.
Foley has also excelled in the ball carrying stakes and in his physical commitment in cleaning out rucks. Schmidt has been badly hit in terms of second row cover, with Iain Henderson, Dan Touhy and Ryan all out of the equation for the forthcoming Guinness Autumn series. Foley’s form has been recognised by the Irish management with his inclusion in the national training squad. He is now ready to take the next step and while O’Connell and Devin Toner have earned the right to start against South Africa in ten days time, Foley has jumped ahead of Mike McCarthy and deserves the second row slot on the bench for that game.
After a difficult finish to last season when confidence deserted him after losing his place on the Irish bench during the Six Nations, Tommy O’Donnell is playing out of his skin.
It helps to be part of an extremely well balanced back row unit along with Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander delivering a potent mix of ball carrying, ball winning, poaching and defensive solidity that has been matched only by Toulon trio Juan Smith, Chris Masoe and Steffon Armitage in the Champions Cup to date.
Munster’s player of the year in 2013, O’Donnell is back to that level again. It will be fascinating to see what roles, if any, Schmidt identifies for those fledgling Munster forwards over the next few weeks, with the physical demands sure to be posed by South Africa and Georgia looking right up their alley.
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