By Phil Rice
Last weekend was a crucial stage of the European Cup competitions. Munster and Leinster needed victory to maintain their position at the head of their groups and they duly obliged with excellent wins over Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs respectively.
Elsewhere, Ulster scored an away win at Harlequins in wintry conditions (right) to stay in contention for the knock out stages, while Connacht maintained their 100 per cent record with a fine win away at Brive in the Challenge Cup.
Munster comprehensively beat Leicester, scoring four tries in an impressive 33-10 victory. Their forwards dominated in every phase giving Conor Murray and Ian Keatley the opportunity to control the game from half-back.
Keatley has grown in confidence over the past two months in the absence of Tyler Bleyendaal and he gave a master class in kicking, both from hand and from the kicking tee.
Last season Munster destroyed Leicester 38-0 in the corresponding match, only to inexplicably lose at Welford Road the following week.
They will hopefully have learnt from that experience as Leicester are a very different proposition when they play at home.
However, Munster dominated every area of last Saturday’s game and it is difficult to imagine that they will allow the Midlanders to repeat last season’s home win.
Leinster went to Sandy Park, the home of Premiership leaders Exeter. Undefeated at home for almost a year, Exeter are a formidable side with a powerful pack of forwards.
But they more than met their match in Leinster, for whom their Lions stars stood out in particular.
Man of the match Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton played with real authority and their 18-8 victory gave them a six-point lead in a very competitive group.
They crossed the line early in the game for two controversially disallowed tries, but kept the pressure on until Sexton scored in the corner.
They never lost the lead after that despite immense pressure from the English champions. Leinster scored a crucial try with ten minutes to go when the impressive Jack Conan crashed over after an unbelievable 43 phases of pressure on the Exeter line.
Leinster are showing signs of self-belief which they demonstrated when they last won the competition six years ago.
There is a harder edge to their approach which has been missing for the past few years and it is no surprise the bookmakers have installed them as second favourites for this season’s trophy after holders Saracens.
Fergus McFadden, who was deputising for the injured Adam Byrne, showed he still has much to offer with an excellent performance both in defence and attack.
Rob Kearney will have pleased Joe Schmidt with a vintage performance showing he is raring to go for the Six Nations.
Luke McGrath has developed into an international class scrum half and must surely have done enough to have earned the position of deputy to Conor Murray in the National squad.
Nothing to lose
Garry Ringrose is getting back to full fitness and his partnership with Robbie Henshaw in the centre has rich promise.
It will be interesting to see who is the unfortunate one to miss out in the centre for Ireland, with Bundee Aki having impressed in the autumn series.
Exeter visit the RDS this Saturday afternoon and won’t be relishing another bruising encounter, but it would be foolish of Leinster to underestimate this extremely well-drilled team.
The Devon based side will be aware that a defeat could well end their hopes of reaching the knockout stages, so they will have nothing to lose and Leinster can expect another full-on battle.
Ulster visited Harlequins at the weekend and Les Kiss’s men adapted better to the conditions and won an attritional battle 17-5.
Jacob Stockdale impressed again scoring Ulster’s try and making a number of incisive breaks. John Cooney had an excellent game at scrum-half and kicked four excellent pressure penalties.
Harlequins have no chance of qualifying after this result and Ulster should enhance their chances of making the next stage with a repeat win at the Kingspan Stadium this Friday evening.
Connacht have put themselves in a commanding position with their third win away to French Top 14 side Brive in the Challenge Cup.
It was a high scoring match with the Westerners coming out victorious 31-38. Jack Carty had a fine game scoring 23 points including a fine try.
The two sides meet again at the Sportsground this Saturday afternoon and victory for Connacht will almost guarantee them a place in the knock-out stages.