DONAL LENIHAN: Welsh rugby heading into a deep valley

On a weekend when defeat for all four Irish sides in Europe was not beyond the bounds of possibility, a return of three from four with a losing bonus point procured from the only defeat was exceptional considering the quality of opposition faced.

Connacht’s outstanding win over Biarritz, given their injury woes, was the result of the weekend for me, with Ulster’s demolition of Northampton at Franklins Gardens the most impressive performance. Munster once again nodded to their heritage with a top ranked English side dispatched with typical belligerence. The personnel may change but the attitude and commitment to the cause remains as strong and as forceful as ever.

After a slow and fractured start to their season, Leinster quickly dispelled suggestions they are not the force they were despite being severely compromised in their back-line options due to injury. Clermont Auvergne have become accustomed to bashing teams at home for 50 minutes before unleashing a potent attacking force on a fractured and drained visiting defence. Sitiveni Sivivatu, Napolioni Nalaga, Wesley Fofana and Aurelian Rougerie have learned to bide their time, safe in the knowledge that the space will open up in the final quarter.

Except on this occasion they met a force that refused to offer any safe route to the try line. Leinster’s defence on Sunday was impregnable and in the end the frustration on the Clermont players’ faces and their incredible supporters said everything you needed to know about the holders’ desire to record an unprecedented hat-trick of Heineken Cups. If they fail in that mission it will not be for want of effort.

When Morgan Parra kicked the ball dead on the final play amid confusion over whether there was sufficient time for one last play, you could see they had no more to give. They met their match in a stadium that offers so many advantages over their opponents yet could well have been beaten. At the very least, a draw would not have flattered Leinster’s efforts.

The Stade Marcel Michelin provides the best atmosphere of any venue in France and the Clermont fans are knowledgeable, respectful and totally committed. They also appreciate the quality of the opposition. Their respect for the Irish sides in this tournament is now almost reverential. While they are totally committed to their rhythmic clapping when one of their own is taking a kick at goal, it was impressive how they, by and large, they sought to follow the Irish tradition of silence when Jonny Sexton lined up a shot for Leinster.

They have become accustomed to the resilience of the Irish when they arrive in town, which is in direct contrast to what they experience from those much closer to home.

Many of Clermont’s opponents in the French championship concede defeat before they arrive and often reflect as much in their selection, resting key players.

Contrast that with the attitude of the Irish when they come calling.

Over the past five years, Munster and Leinster have stood firm on four occasions and while failing to register a win, have secured a crucial losing bonus point each time.

Taking their cue from their Irish colleagues, Ulster travelled last season in the final game of their pool, safe in the knowledge that they had already secured passage to the quarter-final by dint of results elsewhere over that weekend. Yet they too refused to accept a preordained fate and also fought tooth and nail for a losing bonus point in a 19-15 defeat.

That performance convinced them they were ready to challenge for ultimate honours and subsequently made it all the way to the final. Surely an Irish win in this iconic venue is on the cards soon. Munster could be presented with that task far sooner than you think as there is every possibility that one of them could be back there for a quarter-final next April as one of the two best runners up.

Ulster, even at this stage and without their excellent captain Johann Muller for the remaining three games in their pool, look the best placed of the Irish sides and odds-on for a home quarter-final. That could end up being against either Munster or Leinster and unless renovations to increase the capacity of Ravenhill to 15,000 are completed in time, that quarter-final could be hosted at the Aviva Stadium.

There is a quiet revolution going on in Connacht at the moment and I hope last Friday’s brilliant win — and the manner in which a whole host of homegrown young talent stood up to the Biarritz forward machine — prompts a rethink from Eric Elwood in relation to his decision to step down at the end of the season.

While Irish rugby continues to punch above its weight in the Heineken Cup, the failure of the Scottish, Italian and even more worryingly the Welsh regions to make any impact whatsoever is of grave concern. We have just reached the halfway point in the pool stages yet the seven sides representing those three countries, with the possible exception of the Ospreys, are out of the running for a quarter-final slot.

From a combined total of 21 games, they have delivered a solitary win — the Ospreys over Benetton Treviso. That is not good for the Heineken Cup and, in the context of the push from the French and English clubs to reduce the tournament to 20 teams from season 2014/15, could not be worse timed.

Their demise has even wider implications for the RaboDirect Pro12. If that competition becomes an annual shoot-out between Munster, Leinster and Ulster, then nobody gains.

The Ospreys, to their credit, have single-handedly prevented that from happening in recent times and should they fall from grace then the league could descend into the farce that SPL soccer in Scotland has become over the last decade. To be fair, the Ospreys have been severely compromised by injury this season and it hasn’t helped that they are in the pool of death along with Leicester Tigers, Toulouse and Treviso. Treviso are improving all the time, as evidenced by their excellent performance in a 33-25 defeat at Welford Road on Sunday.

Unfortunately, the Heineken Cup has become the preserve of the big three once again. Last season Edinburgh threatened a Scottish revival but that proved a mere blip and despite a historic test win Down Under against Australia last June, Scottish rugby, in the wake of Andy Robinson’s resignation, is now at its lowest ebb. Unless the Welsh regions get their act together quickly, they could soon be following suit.


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