Given the trauma of the past week and the likelihood the Heineken Cup will not feature the best clubs the European game has to offer going forward, there is a premium on winning the tournament this season.
Irish teams have left an indelible mark on the competition over the years, contributing so much more than the six triumphs shared by Leinster, Munster and Ulster. The Millennium Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for both Munster and Leinster and with the last Heineken Cup final (as we know it) scheduled for Cardiff next May, what chances a fairytale ending for the Irish in the Welsh capital?
With Leinster and Ulster registering an astonishing 88 points and 13 tries between them, conceding just seven points in their respective wins over Northampton and Treviso on Saturday, the pressure was on Munster to deliver against Perpignan yesterday.
Leinster’s display in overwhelming Northampton, despite a stuttering lineout, must rank as one of the finest team performances delivered away from home by any side in the history of the tournament.
Yet it wasn’t even good enough for the result of the weekend. For that, Connacht take centre stage with one of the greatest shocks in the tournament’s history, beating the mighty Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon. They were absolutely magnificent on a memorable weekend for Irish rugby and fully deserving of their victory.
Their two-point winning margin could even have been greater after a sublime try from Robbie Henshaw was overturned by the TMO for a questionable knock-on. Such a blow would have derailed a less committed side but Connacht, despite their horrible season to date, never took a backward step.
The victory also showcased the skill set of Henshaw and underlined just why Joe Schmidt sees him as the potential long term replacement for Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre. One magic offload in the build up to Kieran Marmion’s second-half try was sensational.
Marmion was also magnificent at scrum-half and is definitely one for the future. In fact Connacht have a growing stable of quality young Irish backs with Dave McSharry, Eoin Griffin and Matt Healy also starring against a Toulouse back line overloaded with French international stars — and All Black Hosea Gear. This historic achievement must now act as a springboard to greater things.
With Connacht enjoying just two wins — both against Zebre — out of 12 competitive outings this season, to compete and outplay Toulouse in the manner they did will hopefully give them the lift to achieve better things this season, starting with welcoming Toulouse back to Galway next Saturday evening. What a night that promises to be.
Given Perpignan’s appalling record on the road this season — one win from seven competitive outings — you never got the impression in the build up to yesterday’s visit to Thomond Park that this was a game they were targeting to win. With some French teams it doesn’t take long to work out how committed they are. In this contest it took all of three minutes. The ease with which Sean Dougall scored Munster’s opening try suggested Perpignan would be easy pickings and that is exactly what transpired.
Despite this bonus-point win, Munster looked less than convincing and are sure to face a far sterner test at the Stade Aime Giral next Saturday. Gloucester’s win over Edinburgh in Scotland just served to underline how horrible Munster’s opening round defeat was at Murrayfield and has left them little room for error in a tight pool they now lead by two points.
Perhaps we were still a little bit dazzled by the excellence of Leinster’s attacking prowess at Franklin’s Gardens but, in comparison, Munster looked stodgy and laboured in possession. Far too many passes were delivered behind the supporting player which took the momentum out of the attack and made it a little bit easier for a Perpignan defence that looked disjointed and non committal in the opening quarter.
Yet when it came to exploiting that defensive vulnerability, Munster struggled and were forced to revert to the traditional pick and drive close to the line to close out the game. It took 30 minutes to put the bonus point fourth try to bed and even then it required the intervention of referee Greg Garner, who had no choice but to award a penalty try and a yellow card against Kisi Pulu for collapsing the maul.
Perpignan will roll out an even bigger pack next weekend, with the likelihood that Georgia prop Giorgi Jgenti and the 140kg second row Romain Taofifenua will be reintroduced. In this respect the Munster lineout needs a lot of fine tuning, with too many turnovers conceded out of touch.
On the plus side, Munster were the better scrummaging unit and will take much from James Coughlan’s push-over try at the death. Perpignan will be stung by that and will seek retribution.
The one area where Munster excelled and held a vital edge was at the breakdown, where the honest endeavour of the committed back row trio of Coughlan, Dougall and Peter O’Mahony set up numerous counter attacking opportunities. One O’Mahony turnover led directly to a breakaway try for the excellent Keith Earls, while Dougall is growing in stature as a genuine open side with every outing.
Despite this 28-point win, Munster have a number of concerns before repeating the dose in France in six days’ time. Foremost is the injury to Conor Murray, who looked sharp in everything he did before being forced off with a knee injury after only 17 minutes. The injuries are mounting and Munster’s resources are being stretched to the full.
Already with Mike Sherry forced out for the rest of the season, Duncan Casey was called on to make his European debut yesterday while another comparative rookie, scrum-half Cathal Sheridan, acquitted himself well when filling the void left by Murray. When you travel to the south of France, however, you need experience and Perpignan will pose an entirely different type of challenge on home soil.
Ian Keatley is clearly still hampered by the groin injury that has curtailed his training of late, which is a pity as his game management is improving with every outing. Munster badly need a bit more variety in attack and a few more strike runners in the absence of Simon Zebo. Earls looked very dangerous in possession but needs support.
The suggestion that Casey Laulala is moving to France next season is also a worry and Munster must start targeting a replacement with a quality international midfield back an immediate priority not only to cover that hole but to make a statement of intent.
On the basis of this performance, Munster are still playing catch up to Leinster and Ulster who, on the basis of their respective showings over the weekend, will be serious contenders for ultimate honours next May. Both sit pretty on the top of their respective pools on 13 points apiece and look odds-on for a home quarter-final even at this early stage.
Munster are still very much in control of their own destiny on the back of their latest bonus-point win and are capable of travelling to Perpignan and emulating the magnificent win they enjoyed on their last visit to the Aime Giral back in 2009.
There is much fine tuning required in training, however, over the next few days to turn that prospect into a reality.
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