By Phil Rice
Three victories and one draw for the Irish provinces in their first batch of European matches can be considered a very satisfactory opening weekend.
Munster, Leinster and Ulster, all competing in tough pools in the Champions Cup, can be particularly satisfied with their performances.
Ulster and Leinster with home advantage desperately needed to win their matches and both did so in some style.
Munster went to the intimidating home of Castres Olympique and came away with a hard-fought draw and two points.
Ulster set this season’s competition in motion on Friday evening against Wasps at the Kingspan. After a ferocious battle the Northern Irishmen came away with a hard-earned 19-9 victory.
Man of the match Jacob Stockdale added to his growing reputation scoring a crucial try after good work from Charles Piutau.
Christian Lealiifano kicked a late penalty to deny Wasps a losing bonus point. Stockdale must have a great chance to feature in the autumn internationals after a series of impressive performances.
His physical strength added to his pace make him a real handful and a great prospect for Joe Schmidt’s team.
The other teams in Ulster’s pool, Harlequins and La Rochelle, fought out a thrilling battle at the Stoop with the French team coming out on top by 34-27.
They were mighty impressive in their first ever Champions Cup match and Ulster will have their hands full when they take them on in France this Sunday afternoon.
Leinster took on the expensively assembled French team, Montpellier, at the RDS last Saturday.
Their task wasn’t helped by the late withdrawals of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.
However a superb performance from the Leinster pack, with the back row of Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan particularly to the fore, helped the home side into a seventeen point lead with 20 minutes left.
A late rally from the French team underlined how difficult a proposition they will be when Leinster visit them later in the competition.
A late penalty by ex-Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar earned Montpellier a losing bonus point, but Leinster lead the pool with their valuable try bonus point.
This is a very competitive pool and it would be no surprise if only one team emerges from it to the knock out stages.
Leinster have the difficult task of playing away to Glasgow Warriors this Saturday with a lunch time kick-off.
They will be hoping to restore some of their key players, Johnny Sexton in particular will be needed against the only undefeated team in the Pro14 league.
Glasgow narrowly lost out away to Exeter, the English champions at the weekend, and they will be anxious to register a home win to keep their hopes alive.
Munster needed all their European experience to hold off a late challenge from Castres on Sunday.
There were some controversial refereeing decisions the French crowd felt went against them during the final pulsating minutes, but Munster remained calm and earned two crucial away points.
This Saturday evening will be a particularly poignant occasion for the Red army when they re-visit Racing 92, the scene of the harrowing death of Axel Foley last season.
In the build up to the corresponding fixture last season the news broke only a matter of hours before kick-off, that the hugely popular and influential figure of the Munster Head Coach had passed away.
The stunned supporters openly wept at the entrance to the stadium as the news filtered through to them. Naturally the game was postponed, followed by a huge out-pouring of emotion and support from the rugby community throughout the world.
The Munster players will need no further inspiration this week than the memory of such a key figure in their rugby history and the emotional days that followed in the aftermath of his untimely death.
Munster have always played rugby from the heart and such an occasion will create a very special atmosphere, not to be missed by all rugby fans.
Connacht enjoyed a facile 43-15 away victory against French Top14 strugglers Oyonnax in their first Challenge Cup encounter.
Two tries from flying winger Cian Kelleher set them up for a bonus point win. This Saturday they entertain Premiership strugglers Worcester in Galway and will be hopeful of opening a substantial lead in their pool.
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