On a week when the focus on Ireland’s faltering World Cup campaign was re-ignited after the IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora sat down with a select contingent of Irish media to discuss the key elements of the union’s internal review of the tournament, the Irish players added another layer to their rehabilitation with another excellent return from European action.
Joe Schmidt appears to be the sacrificial lamb, thrown under the bus not only by Nucifora but later in the day by his captain Rory Best. Long live the king. I’ll come back to that on another day but, right now, Europe and the reboot its offering Irish rugby after the disappointments of Japan take precedence. I’ve had enough of the World Cup for a while yet.
With Ireland’s opening Six Nations game against Scotland in Dublin only seven weekends away, the Champions Cup continues to offer hope for the future.
In every province, young players are emerging and looking more than comfortable among the elite of European competition while others, who might have been scarred by their World Cup experience, have clearly put the disappointment behind them.
One of the standout performers for Leinster in their highly impressive win over Northampton last weekend was Jordan Larmour. Any lingering doubts about his ability to cover the basics at full-back in terms of his positional sense and capacity to deal with an aerial bombardment was, once again, firmly put to bed.
With more scope to operate, it’s his counter-attacking ability and awareness in broken play that sets him apart. The try he made early in the game for James Lowe off a turnover generated deep in his own half by Garry Ringrose was straight out of the New Zealand playbook.
How many times have we seen the All Blacks absorb enormous pressure, just like Leinster had to do on the back of a series of quality attacking plays from the Saints, only to turn a mistake by the opposition into a try-scoring opportunity?
That’s exactly what Larmour did on Saturday. If Andy Farrell wants to launch a new era in Irish rugby during the Six Nations, handing Larmour the No. 15 jersey wouldn’t be a bad starting point.
What Leinster have achieved in the last two rounds of the Champions Cup is quite remarkable. Having consecutive games on the road in Europe is challenging enough at the best of times. Being tasked with travelling to the home of the current French Top 14 leaders in advance of a similar trip to the leaders of the Gallagher Premiership would be a step too far for most teams.
In advance of last weekend’s action, I listened to a rugby podcast on BBC Five. Ugo Monye, an excellent pundit and commentator, Danny Care and BBC’s rugby correspondent Chris Jones made up their panel. They were waxing lyrical about Northampton, the quality of total rugby they play, the excellent job former Hurricanes Super Rugby winning coach Chris Boyd is doing, going so far as to discuss whether the Saints had any weaknesses.
I was thinking Leinster could be in trouble here but when I studied the two sides after they were announced, I could only see one winner and it wasn’t the hosts.
A big factor in formulating that opinion was the absence through injury of England second row Courtney Lawes and the Saints new signing at tight head prop, double World Cup-winning All Black Owen Franks.
For Leinster to not only win but score seven tries in the process tells you everything about the job Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are doing.
Apart altogether from very encouraging displays from all their World Cup contingent, former Ireland U20 hooker Ronan Kelleher once again showed why he is attracting rave reviews of late.
As a hooker it is so vital to master the primary aspects of your job specification when it comes to scrummaging and delivering consistent accuracy with your lineout throwing. Kelleher does all that but is also a very effective carrier, technically proficient at cleaning out or poaching at the breakdown, and solid in his defensive duties.
The other member of the new brigade to make his mark was No. 8 Caelin Doris who looked totally at ease at this level.
Such has been in impact made by Doris and another outstanding talent in Max Deegan, both locked in a head-to-head battle for that jersey at present, Ireland No. 8 Jack Conan has been barely missed.
Honourable mention too for Ross Byrne. Fighting for the third out-half slot behind Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery in Ireland’s World Cup squad, he was handed the poisoned chalice slot when selected to start against England in that horrendous warm-up game in Twickenham last August.
He was the biggest casualty from that 57-15 drubbing but has bounced back admirably. With Sexton likely to be sidelined for the foreseeable future and Carbery still out with his troublesome ankle, a positive showing over the festive period and Byrne will find himself back in contention for international honours under Farrell.
In many ways Munster faced a no-win situation against Saracens last Saturday, given the team Mark McCall sent to Limerick. To the majority of Munster supporters a lot of the names on the Saracens team sheet meant nothing.
Names such as Gallagher, Segun, Lewington, Pifeleti, Ibuanokpe, Kpoku, and Reffell didn’t register with most Munster fans. They weren’t alone on that front, as you can be sure they meant little to the vast majority of the Munster players either.
In the circumstances, this was a game Munster were always going to win, even if they had to fight hard to protect their half-time lead. But the losing bonus point Saracens took home guarantees next Saturday’s return fixture will prove even more demanding.
Munster negotiated the easy part, albeit hampered by atrocious conditions that impacted on their ability to stick to their more expansive game plan. Despite registering only one try in the opening half, when the conditions were more conducive to passing, Munster played some quality rugby.
Their passing under pressure looks to have gone up a notch but in their eagerness to run good dummy lines, too many players got their timing wrong.
While I would question their decision-making at times — there’s no point in sticking slavishly to a pattern if other opportunities present themselves — Munster need to be brave and keep evolving.
Having been down this road before under Rob Penney only to blink when the pressure of knockout rugby arrived, Munster must continue to broaden their horizons. That doesn’t mean you abandon your maul opportunities from close in, however. It was great to see Munster attack with ball off the top of the lineout but they need to find a workable balance.
The lineout proved a productive platform with Saracens reduced to a 69% success rate on their ball. Picking Tadhg Beirne, Billy Holland, Jean Kleyn, and Peter O’Mahony in the starting pack was always going to challenge the visitors.
After the game, O’Mahony highlighted Holland’s lineout smarts from an organisational sense. Calling the lineout has become an art form and Holland, having learned the trade from two of the best in the business in Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan over the years, is superb at it.
Once the visitors decided to leave their chief lineout coordinator George Kruis at home, Munster were always likely to challenge a traditional area of strength of Saracens. No doubt that is an area they will address this week with Kruis, more than likely, back to direct operations.
Right now, the only team that looks capable of beating Leinster in Europe is a full-strength Saracens but, with two defeats from three outings to date, the holders have their work cut out to make the quarter-finals. A win over Munster next Saturday and that picture changes dramatically for everyone.