WHEN reviewing the performances of the three Irish provinces on the opening weekend of Europe’s new Champions Cup, one word springs to mind for Donal Lenihan: character.
AS countless teams across a range of sports have discovered to their cost over the years, to be successful requires far more than just assembling a galaxy of stars and marquee names.
When the pressure comes on, the injuries mount, and your resilience is questioned, that is the time when the true character of a side shines through.
When you consider that Munster, Ulster, and Leinster were all staring down the barrel of a gun and forced to chase substantial leads at various stages of their respective contests, two wins and a losing bonus point on the road is quite a decent return from the opening three games.
Winning away from home at this level is never easy, with Munster the only side to do so last weekend. To claw back a 16-point lead in very testing circumstances was a marvellous achievement and adds further to the mystique surrounding their exploits in Europe. Munster’s history in the Heineken Cup has created an aura around the red jersey that has seen some teams either beaten before they start or lacking the necessary belief to close the deal.
Sale fell into the latter category.
To give a team like Leicester Tigers a lead of 19 points at Welford Road is asking too much of any side but Ulster almost reeled them in, without ever approaching their best. Paddy Jackson was careless in the extreme in allowing a conversion that would have closed the gap to five points to be blocked down.
Having conceded a number of stupid penalties and seen their lineout destroyed, Ulster showed amazing character in snatching a losing bonus point to ease the journey back to Belfast. The fact Toulon failed to secure a winning bonus over the Scarlets provided further cause to be cheerful.
Leinster’s achievement in overturning a nine-point deficit against a decent Wasps side at the RDS offered another big statement in the context of the calamitous injuries they carried into the game. They were without first-choice props in Cian Healy and Mike Ross, along with back-up tight head Marty Moore, yet they did a number on the Wasps scrum.
Credit here to the much-maligned Michael Bent for his role in this win. He was way off the pace when he arrived in Ireland two years ago and should never have been awarded an Irish cap straight off the plane but he has shown resilience and worked hard. Recruited to ease Ireland’s problems at tight head, he is now far more comfortable on the loose-head side, even if he put in a very decent shift against England hopeful Matt Mullin at tighthead on Sunday.
That resilience was evident right across the board in this Leinster performance, epitomised by outstanding performances from Dominic Ryan and Jamie Heaslip in the back row. Ryan has been touted as the next big thing in Leinster rugby for a number of years now but despite clocking up over 50 appearances, had still to leave his mark on the big day.
Like CJ Stander in Munster, he has been afforded a run of games and has gone from strength to strength. Would that have happened if Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings and Jordi Murphy had been fit? Probably not.
It’s just another example of a good young player forced to bide his time but having the maturity to seize the moment, his reward a place in the Irish squad for the Guinness Internationals.
Leinster’s catalogue of injuries would test the resolve of most sides and when Rob Kearney was ruled out on Friday, you feared the worst. Yet it was another unsung hero in Darragh Fanning who stepped up and helped turn the game, with two crucial tries.
If the Kearney brothers, Fergus McFadden and a match-fit Luke Fitzgerald were available, Fanning wouldn’t be near starting. Yet, like Ryan, he was primed and ready to make the desired impact.
How important will his input be when all the stars return and Leinster are contending for a quarter-final slot next January? When the silverware is being handed out at the business end of the season, sometimes only those close to the squad are cognisant of the input of key contributors like Ryan, Bent and Fanning.
Munster are well aware that it will take a vastly improved performance to account for a Saracens side who will pose a far bigger challenge than Sale. Last season’s beaten Heineken Cup finalists will also benefit from their Thomond Park experience of two seasons ago. They underperformed that night yet only lost by six points, with Owen Farrell missing four from six penalty attempts. They will not be as accommodating this time out.
Eleven of their match day squad from that pool outing in December 2012 were still on duty against Clermont on Saturday and they will be better primed for what to expect on their return to Limerick. Incredibly Munster may only have six of the starting side from that game due to a mix of injury, retirements and players moving on.
Saracens are a more mature and balanced side now and will prove a more difficult obstacle to overcome. To win, Munster must show improvement in a number of areas, not least with their discipline, defensive organisation, ability to create line breaks — they only managed two against Sale, while Saracens made nine against Clermont — and physicality at the breakdown. That is a lot to address in six days.
The big question for Munster is when they are matched up front, where will their cutting edge come from? Saracens employ the play-making ability of Charlie Hodgson to create uncertainty in opposition defences and present opportunities for Chris Ashton and David Strettle on the wings. That duo were on fire last weekend, scoring four tries between them.
Munster have to look at the balance of their midfield again and at some stage go for broke with a 10/12 axis of Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan. It is a big ask for Denis Hurley to make the transition from a back-three player to inside-centre in a role where the ability to kick and pass with the vision of a fly-half is equally as important as having the physical presence to take the ball to the gain line.
Munster toyed with the idea at times last season but were concerned with the potential defensive weakness the smaller duo brought to a key channel. It is all about achieving balance but the current midfield set up appears far too one dimensional. It will be interesting to see which route Foley goes down on Friday but there will be changes with James Cronin and BJ Botha both likely to be employed from the start to anchor the scrum against a powerful Saracens front row. It is changes made elsewhere however that could be more significant in deciding this one.
nPS: Michael Cheika’s appointment will have a galvanising effect on the Australian party which plays Ireland next month. For a side reputed to be in turmoil to draw 12-12 and a 28-29 loss to New Zealand within the space of a few weeks, things can’t be that bad. More in the coming weeks.
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