Ireland’s so-called ‘green sweep’ on the opening weekend of the Heineken Champions Cup was always unlikely to be replicated in Round 2 given the quality of the French opposition for the Irish quartet.
Ulster set a positive note on Friday night in Belfast with an excellent win over Clermont Auvergne while, once again, an understrength Connacht side defied the odds to produce a brilliant, if ultimately unsuccessful, performance in defeat away to Toulouse.
For years Munster saw the visit of the well-heeled French and English clubs to Thomond Park as an opportunity to rub their noses in the mud. That chip in the shoulder mentality which fuelled many a passion-filled edgy performance helped build the mystique around visits to Limerick. With the ability to court recent World Cup winners in Springbok pair Damian De Allende and RG Snyman, Munster can’t play the poor mouth anymore.
When the visitors on Saturday were sprinkled with crucial rugby intelligence provided by Mike Prendergast, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo on the inner workings of Munster rugby, the opportunity for a surprise win for Racing 92 was a real possibility.
Forewarned is forearmed and, as this was Racing’s third visit to Limerick in four seasons, they have become increasingly comfortable in their surroundings. As with each of their previous visits, they selected a very strong side, primed and ready to play.
A losing margin of 12 in 2017 was reduced to seven the following season before they became the first-ever side to draw a Heineken/Champions Cup game in Thomond Park on Saturday.
The fact that Munster needed a magnificent touchline conversion from JJ Hanrahan to level a captivating contest with just minutes left and then missed a straight forward drop goal opportunity in front of the posts to win the game left the No 10, who otherwise had an excellent game, with very mixed feelings.
In reality, Munster were more than fortunate to take two points from this as Racing, with three brilliant tries to their credit, could so easily have left with a maximum five-point haul. The fact that they didn’t was reflective of Munster’s never-say-die attitude and a big bench impact in the final quarter from the reserve front row of James Cronin, Kevin O’Byrne and Stephen Archer along with Billy Holland and Fineen Wycherley.
Maxime Machenaud became the latest player to fall foul of a demanding pre-match warm-up routine when he was withdrawn from the Racing line up with a damaged calf. When things start badly for French visitors to Limerick, they usually tend to go downhill very quickly. This Racing side have a bit more backbone than most, however, not least due to the highly influential presence of former Munster favourite Ryan.
Ironically we had a bit of a role reversal for much of the opening half with Racing’s replacement scrum-half Teddy Iribaren content to play territory, with frequent use of the boot while Munster played more of a running game with Mike Haley a constant threat in a counter-attack mode. When Munster are offloading more and kicking less frequently than Racing, you know there are changes in the air. Two superb line breaks from Chris Farrell and Hanrahan should have yielded more but the Munster support runners were far too slow to react and promising opportunities went abegging.
The fact that Keith Earls produced yet another sensational finish in the corner in the final minute of the half to reduce Racing’s lead from eight to three points, left the visitors feeling somewhat cheated after a very impressive showing in negating all of Munster’s traditional strengths playing at home.
Once again in this fixture, Donnacha Ryan’s presence seemed to spook Munster every time they set up for a line out. On three occasions in the opening half alone, Racing managed to turn over Munster possession. A paltry 57% opening half line out return left Munster in trouble.
With their scrum also under big pressure, Munster’s new forward coach Graham Rowntree was forced to troubleshoot at the break and find solutions to Munster’s problems. Improvements were slow in arriving with Racing completely dominating the third quarter to such a degree that Munster couldn’t get their hands on the ball and, when they did, were forced to play from deep.
There has been much talk about the progress and adjustments being introduced to Munster’s attack, courtesy of Stephen Larkham’s arrival. Evidence of a greater willingness to offload along with more variety at first receiver with Tyler Bleyendaal, Rory Scannell and Mike Haley all interchanging is adding to Munster’s attacking efficiency.
How typical that at a time when Munster have decided to add greater width to their game and expand their attacking options, the forwards struggled to deliver quality set-piece possession and quick ball at the breakdown.
When those issues were finally addressed in the closing quarter, Munster finished on the front foot, not only retrieving what appeared a desperate situation but, incredibly, putting themselves in a position to win the game.
On that basis alone, they will feel disappointed. In the cold light of day and given the difficulties they faced for long periods, the draw salvaged in the end keeps them very much alive in a pool that is destined to go right to the death.
Dropping points at home, however, has made their task of securing that all-important home quarter final all the more difficult, not to mention even qualifying for the knockout phase.
The outcome of those crucial, back-to-back, games against Saracens next month will now dictate Munster’s fate.
If Saracens impressive 44-3 thrashing of the Ospreys earlier Saturday served to reinforce my gut feeling that they won’t be surrendering their crown without a fight, despite the punitive challenges on the domestic front, that draw in Limerick will have come as an unexpected bonus as Mark McCall’s men are now only two points behind their two main rivals in Pool 4.
Leinster’s belligerent resistance at the home of current French Top 14 leaders Lyon also laid down a reminder to everyone of just how difficult they are going to be to beat this season. Last season’s disappointing defeat to Saracens in a punishing final in Newcastle hurt Leinster badly and they have carried that hurt into this season’s Champions Cup.
Leinster performed well short of their best but still found a way to grind out a win on the road in France. Most impressive of all was their remarkable defence, seen to best effect when down to 14 men after Jordan Larmour was shown a yellow card before the break. Lyon sensed their moment and went for blood.
The manner in which Leinster dealt with a succession of attacking line out mauls from the Lyon pack, metres from their line, hurt the hosts badly. For Leinster to survive the period of Larmour’s censure, without conceding a point, to retain a 10-point lead at the break was a huge lift.
Despite their lofty position at the summit of the Top 14, Lyon possess nothing like the quality Leinster had on show. Eleven of their starting team - six of the back line and five forwards - saw game time at the World Cup. Lyon had none and their lack of game breakers in attack shone through.
Of the four Leinster starters who weren’t in Japan, two of the younger generation in Max Deegan and Ronan Kelleher negotiated their first - ever Champions Cup start on French soil with flying colours while James Lowe and Scott Fardy were their usual influential selves.
Leinster will play much better than this when their internationals have had more time to bed in but the manner with which they fought for each over, especially in those defensive sets before half time, augurs well for the rest of the tournament.