HEINEKEN CUP POOL ONE:
Leinster v Northampton
When Romanian referee Marius Mitrea brought Toulouse’s desperate final assault on the Connacht defensive line to an end at the Stade Ernest Wallon last Sunday it sparked jubilation in more than just the away ranks.
The victory for Pat Lam’s side ensured that, for the second time in succession, Irish clubs completed a Heineken Cup weekend with four wins from four but the week since has been proof that one man’s meat can be another’s poison.
The background noise to this year’s competition has never been far away, like enemy guns rumbling on a distant front, but the political war for power and money has now infiltrated the narrative of this season’s fare on the pitch.
Observers on both sides of the Irish Sea have bemoaned a perceived dip in the overall standard of the competition — Ireland aside — while the uncertain future of English and even French participation further down the road has been forwarded as reason for the struggles of some of the Aviva and Top 14 sides.
Like that is something new.
England has been below par for half-a-dozen years now and the French approach to Europe has always been a bit ‘comme ci, comme ça’, so the suggestion that the four provinces were profiting in an area whose net worth has shrank was met with a predictably dismissive attitude this week by Leinster coach Matt O’Connor.
“You know what they say about opinions,” said the Australian with a wry half-grin.
“It’s one of those things that you can look at in hindsight. We look at each game in the Heineken Cup as a very big occasion. I can’t talk about the mentality of anyone else but for us as a team it is a huge part of our season.”
O’Connor’s side made headlines even before that standout defeat of the Saints when the province named a starting XV replete with Irishmen although the interest that created bypassed the Leinster coach, who professed ignorance of that fact or its significance until informed later.
There is no doubt that such uniformity has had its plusses. Between them, Leinster and the other three provinces fielded 75 Irish-qualified players with another handful of the 92 utilised due to become eligible for the national side in the short-to-mid-term too.
For Leinster in particular such homogeneity has its uses given the three-time Heineken Cup winners provided such a plethora of players to the Irish squad which came so close to overcoming the All Blacks late last month and O’Connor admits his side has probably benefited from the jet stream that momentum created.
“Yeah, to have 15, 16, 17 of your guys playing rugby at that intensity, it’s huge,” he agreed. “That’s the pinnacle of the game so for those guys to be involved in that on a regular basis, we would certainly like that to be a spin-off and I think we saw the benefits of that on Saturday.”
The net effect of this past week has been to propel the current PRO12 holders back to the forefront of the favourites’ queue and, though their form and history makes them eminently entitled to such status, there are limitations in parading such definitive views in December.
There is just over a month to go before the pool stages are done and dusted but the three rounds still to be negotiated offer more than sufficient scope for a radical altering of the landscape and Mike Ross is among those ignoring the hoopla surrounding them right now.
“You’d be conscious of a bit of background noise, I suppose,” says the tighthead prop. “It’s hard not to [be aware of it] when you pick up a newspaper or read anything. At the same time, we know we weren’t perfect ourselves.
“We’d be our own harshest critics and we’ve dissected our performance Monday or Tuesday. We know there’s elements we can improve on. We know that this weekend is probably not going to happen the same way again.”
This weekend will tell us considerably more about the tournament in general with sides such as Perpignan, Racing Metro and Northampton facing into duties on the back of performances that ranged from lacklustre to lamentable and it will be fascinating to see how each respond.
Northampton’s race looks run in terms of qualification but they showed last year in overturning a similarly stinging defeat at home to Ulster, and the year before in reversing a hefty defeat in Castres, that they are capable of a response in extremes and O’Connor for one doesn’t expect a meek surrender.
“I doubt it,” said the man who faced them time and again during his days in Leicester. “They’re a really proud club and they’ve a long tradition at being very good. Irrespective of the result they’ll come with a very steely mentality to try to get something out of it, if nothing more than a lot better team performance.
“They spoke themselves about being embarrassed. And they’re going to put everything into a really massive performance. The margins are pretty small. I mean, we were pretty good in the first 20 minutes last week. But you sit down and look at it and there are bits that can go either way. We’re not silly enough, we know a bounce of a ball, a refereeing decision or inaccuracy from us can make it a different scoreline, a different result.”
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