Not for the first time, Europe has proved the perfect antidote for pining Irish players looking for solace after the woes of an underwhelming World Cup campaign.
Ulster, Leinster and Munster got off to winning starts in their respective Champions Cup pools on Saturday with all three provincial captains, Iain Henderson, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, producing quality displays in a timely reminder to new national coach Andy Farrell of their capabilities.
For Connacht coach Andy Friend, the incessant injury crisis that hit his squad as he attempts to balance the demands of competing at the top level of European rugby while remaining competitive in the Guinness Pro14, put them at a huge disadvantage against a massively physical Montpellier outfit.
With three additional players in wingers Matt Healy and Niyi Adeoloken, along with captain Jarrad Butler, forced out of the team on the morning of the game, Connacht really had their backs against the wall in this one.
In the circumstances, the unrelenting commitment and never say die attitude they showed to beat the big spending French outfit 23-20 ranks as the best win of an impressive clean sweep by the four Irish provinces over the weekend. While next Saturday’s trip to reigning French champions Toulouse is bound to be even more challenging, doing so with four points in the bag will serve to ease their anxiety.
With Racing 92 and back-to-back games against an under pressure but galvanised Saracens squad on their immediate European horizon, it was imperative that Munster got off to a positive start in their Champions Cup opener against Ospreys on Saturday.
These are challenging times for several coaches across Europe as they contend with the reintegration of their international contingent, returning with varying emotions and differing experiences at the World Cup. For the likes of O’Mahony and CJ Stander, by their own admission, their return to Munster colours couldn’t come quickly enough.
The dichotomy in performance between the Welsh national side and its regions was graphically illustrated once again in this fixture. Ospreys were short 17 players due to a combination of injuries and the necessity to rest their high-profile internationals who only finished World Cup duty two weeks ago.
Meanwhile Munster, with ten players who saw game time at the global event in their matchday squad, were able to focus all their energies on the province’s long-held obsession with chasing European glory. By the time the likes of Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, George North, Adam Beard and Owen Watkin return to club action, Ospreys’ European adventure will be over for another season.
Opening your European campaign away from home is always tricky but, in effect, Munster were offered a freebie at the Liberty Stadium and with so many key Ospreys players on the missing list it was imperative they took advantage of it.
Johann van Graan was acutely aware of this when stating during the week “what you do in round one really matters.” Opening round draws, albeit on the road against Castres and Exeter Chiefs in the last two seasons, immediately reduced the wriggle room available to Munster. Recognising this, the coach was adamant that in a pool as competitive as this, Munster had to take full advantage of Ospreys’ selection vulnerability.
In the circumstances the hosts did well to restrict Munster to a single try in the opening half and hold them to a seven-point lead at the break. Munster’s highly attritional, multi-phase carrying game was very much geared towards wearing the Ospreys’ resistance down. Forcing them into making 126 tackles in that opening half alone — Munster only had to make 33 — was a good investment for a productive second half.
The arrival of Stephen Larkham as attack coach has been warmly received by the Munster players but with five of Saturday’s backline only returning from World Cup duty, he’s had very little time to tweak their attacking approach just yet.
That said, there were promising signs, with full-back Mike Haley presenting himself as a second pivot and playmaker from broken play while there was also evidence of a far greater willingness to offload out of or before the tackle.
Those green shoots paid dividends within 12 minutes of the restart with both returning Irish wingers, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, delivering quality finishes out wide with plenty time left to deliver the all-important four-try bonus point.
The fact that it was four minutes into injury-time before Munster eventually found a way to secure the full five-point haul on offer says as much about the appetite Ospreys brought to the fight as it did about Munster’s determination to finish the job properly. The Welsh side went up a gear when three of their World Cup contingent, Nicky Smith, Bradley Davies and try scorer Aled Davies, were introduced off the bench in the second half.
The fact that the bonus was secured courtesy of a traditional strength — a quality line-out maul — highlighted that there is plenty room for Larkham’s more expansive plan to co-exist with the forward virtues that have served Munster so well for decades.
Banking that try bonus point at the death will have proved even more satisfying than if it had come earlier in the game. It sets the mood perfectly for training this week with the realisation that the visit of Racing 92 to Thomond Park next weekend presents a far more searching examination.
With reports emerging that Saracens are set to abandon their right to appeal against the massive fine and 35-point penalty imposed in the Gallagher Premiership, it seems clear now that avoiding relegation in their domestic league has become the clear priority for Mark McCall.
Fielding only six players who started in their last Champions Cup outing — the final against Leinster last May — Saracens were always going to struggle against Racing 92 in yesterday’s game at the impressive La Defense Arena in Paris.
Van Graan will hope that McCall sticks with that selection preference throughout December when those key back to back Champions Cup fixtures, that so often shape the outcome of the pool stage, are set to unravel.
Racing, with Donnacha Ryan as menacing as ever out of touch, took full advantage of Saracens’ inexperienced line-up with a five-point return from their 30-10 win. The pressure will now be on Munster to replicate that haul when Saracens arrive in Limerick next month. Before that, they must first dampen Racing’s enthusiasm to go one better than their two final appearances in 2016 and 2018 with a win in Thomond Park next Saturday.
Against Benetton, Leo Cullen’s challenge, in contrast to that faced by Allen Clarke at the Ospreys, was how to leave out some of the younger brigade who contributed to a 100% return of six from six in the Guinness PRO14 while the senior internationals were otherwise engaged in Japan.
In the end Cullen included nine of Joe Schmidt’s squad in his starting line up and had secured a four-try bonus point by the 44th minute. A 19-point winning margin didn’t quite reflect the effort Benetton put in, even if Leinster never looked in any danger of securing anything less than a win.
Cullen will be pleased with the five-point return but next weekend’s trip to current French Top14 leaders Lyon, who despite a disappointing start to their campaign with a 25-14 defeat to Northampton Saints at Franklins Garden, will prove a greater test of their credentials to add that much coveted, record breaking, fifth star to the famous blue shirt.