Impressive wins for the three provinces although Connacht lost out to Wasps
By Phil Rice
There’s a buzz about Irish rugby at present after such an impressive Autumn international series, confidence is high and the provinces reinforced that feeling over the weekend.
Leinster set the ball rolling with a big win over old adversaries Northampton, 37-10. Five tries to one demonstrated the gulf between the two sides. To add to the Saints troubles their hooker and England captain Dylan Hartley was red carded and with his history of misdemeanours he will probably suffer a lengthy ban.
He could be ruled out for some, if not all of the Six Nations.
England’s Coach, Eddie Jones who watched from the stands, looked dismayed at his captain’s stiff arm tackle on Sean O’Brien. Hartley had been tipped as a possible Lions captain next summer but that seems unlikely in the light of this behaviour.
Rory Best is looking the strongest candidate at this stage prior to the Six Nations. Northampton ended the game with 13 players as George Pisi went to the bin. They will need a big improvement if they are to trouble a very slick looking Leinster team.
Leinster will be hoping that Johnny Sexton recovers from his hamstring strain for this week as Joey Carbery had to be helped from the field with a twisted ankle. Despite Ross Byrne playing steadily at 10, Leo Cullen will be relieved to see one of his leading fly halves available.
The prognosis on Carbery is not good and Joe Schmidt has intimated that Sexton needs a break before the Six Nations.
While Byrne may be able to fill the gap, there is no other specialist flyhalf available in the Leinster squad for back-up.
Ulster took on one of the favourites for this years competition in Clermont Auvergne at the Kingspan. This turned out to be the best game of the weekend, with Ulster eventually holding out for a 39-32 victory.
Clermont clawed their way back from a 36-18 deficit halfway through the second half and Ulster were hanging on for grim life at the close. Ulster struggled when both of their props were substituted. Not for the first time Rodney Ah You, found problems scrummaging at this level. Ulster have real problems covering the front row with several of their first choices injured.
Iain Henderson was deservedly made man of the match with another excellent all round performance. He has certainly recovered his mojo after a quiet start to his season.
Paddy Jackson had one of his best games in an Ulster shirt, his halfback partnership with Ruan Pienaar is crucial to Ulster’s chances of making it to the knockout stages. They will have to step up their performance even further this week when they travel to Clermont, who have an exceptional home record in the European Cup.
Their French international centre Fofana was superb on Saturday and will need to be closely marked by the Ulster midfield to prevent him from carving the openings for his speedy wingers and Spedding from fullback.
Munster duly completed their seventh win on the trot with a comprehensive 38-0 victory over a toothless Leicester. The Munster pack completely dominated Leicester up front. Even in front of their vocal fans at Welford Road this week, it is hard to imagine they can turn the tables on the rampant Munstermen.
CJ Stander was like a man possessed on Saturday and with Perer O’Mahony back to his best and Tommy O’Donnell in fine form, the Munster backrow is as good as any in Europe at the moment.
Unsurprisingly Conor Murray was in his element behind such a dominant pack and he teased the Leicester defence relentlessly with his accurate kicking and sniping breaks.
Tyler Bleyendaal landed seven out of nine kicks and is looking very accomplished at flyhalf, he quietly goes about his business in a very efficient manner. Keith Earls has rediscovered his best form and will surely start the Six Nations on the wing for Ireland.
Sadly Connacht were unable to complete a full-house for the provinces. They had the difficult task of taking on Wasps at the Ricoh in Coventry. The final scoreline of 32-17 probably doesn’t reflect the closeness of the contest.
There was nothing to choose between the teams in the first half and a Jimmy Gopperth penalty just before the interval gave Wasps a 13-10 lead.
The Wasps scrum was under pressure for most of the game with Dennis Buckley giving Marty Moore an uncomfortable afternoon. Recent acquisition from Australia, Curtley Beale was outstanding for Wasps, scoring their first try and key in two others.
But there was enough quality play from Connacht to suggest that they will have a good chance of reversing things when they take Wasps back to Galway this weekend. They are still very much in with a chance of qualifying for the next stage but a win this weekend is essential.
These back-to-back matches have a habit of throwing up some amazing reversals in the return fixtures, so nobody will be taking anything for granted regardless of how one-sided the first match may have been.