By Phil Rice
The Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup kicked off last weekend and the Irish provincial sides all avoided defeat. In fact, only Munster failed to win when they produced an excellent performance to draw away to Exeter at their fortress Sandy Lane.
Undefeated at the ground since Leinster beat them in last year’s Champions Cup, Exeter’s approach is to grind their opponents into the ground and score their points on the back of their forward dominance, but Munster didn’t take a backward step.
It might not have been a great spectacle for the casual spectator but for the real enthusiast it was a compelling battle.
Conditions mitigated against expansive rugby and both teams realised it would be a full-on battle up front and so it proved.
A weaker team might have wilted under the immense pressure Exeter put on the Munster line in the final minutes but Johann van Graan’s men showed terrific resolve and held them out and took a significant step forward in a very tough group.
This week Munster take on David Humphries’ Gloucester team at Thomond Park in a repeat fixture of one of Munster’s greatest ever European triumphs.
Still referred to as the ‘miracle match’ Munster needed to score four tries and at least 27 points to qualify for the knock-out stages, against one of England’s strongest teams.
O’Gara’s 80th minute conversion took them over 27 points and into the next stage. Just another chapter in Munster’s legendary history.
Gloucester beat current Top14 leaders Castres at the weekend and will prove very tough opponents for Munster. With new recruits Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery making significant impacts for Munster since their arrival, Gloucester will travel with some trepidation.
Leinster displayed all the qualities of a side committed to retaining their title last Friday evening. Wasps, who are currently third in the Premiership, were humiliated 52-3 by the reigning European Champions.
This was a performance to frighten any teams who may have thought they were in with a chance of wresting the crown from Leinster.
Man of the match James Lowe gave an outstanding display of attacking rugby. He has replaced Isa Nacewa as the darling of the RDS crowd. His strength, pace and possibly most importantly his attitude, have endeared him to the Leinster faithful.
With the game still in the balance at 14-3 to Leinster at the start of the second half, he took an inside pass from Henshaw on the half-way line and ran through the Wasps defence as if it didn’t exist to score by the posts.
It was a defining moment in the match and Wasps seemed to accept their fate after that brilliance.
This week Leinster face the only other team to have won the Heineken Cup on four occasions. Toulouse at home may not instil the same fear into opponents as they once did but Leinster would be well advised to take them very seriously. No doubt they will.
The French side took advantage of some glaring errors by Bath last weekend to win 22-20 at The Rec. They will be even stronger playing at home and Leinster will see them as a serious threat.
Victory for the Irish team would be a major step towards taking them through to the next stage of the competition.
Ulster faced Leicester last weekend and were trailing 3-0 at half time. A serious motivational talk from coach Dan McFarland had the desired effect as the Northerners took control of the match early in the second half and ran out 24-10 winners.
Ulster have an extremely strong group this year and travel to Paris this week to face last season’s runners-up, Racing 92. The French side narrowly beat Scarlets in Wales last weekend and will fancy their chances against Ulster this week.
Connacht pulled off a significant victory in the Challenge Cup last weekend against French Top14 side Bordeaux-Begles.
The Westerners have made an impressive start to this season and will travel to Sale this weekend with some confidence. Victory this week would put them in a strong position in their group.
Irish rugby is enjoying one of its strongest and most impressive periods in its history. The continued success of the provinces allied to the international team’s successes, bodes well as everyone looks forward to next year’s World Cup.