Connacht and Ulster fought a pulsating match but Leinster and Munster served up a drab affair at the weekend.
By Phil Rice
A crowd of over 40,000 turned up at the Aviva last Saturday hoping for another closely fought exciting contest between great rivals but Leinster dominated a disappointing game and Munster never really threatened.
After some excellent recent results under new coach Rassie Erasmus much was expected from the men in red. In the end it was a familiar story with Leinster’s Johnny Sexton controlling proceedings and winning man of the match for his efforts. It must have been a close run thing with his half –back partner Luke McGrath who out-played his more illustrious opponent Conor Murray.
McGrath must have impressed Irish Coach Joe Schmidt who watched proceedings alongside new defence coach Andy Farrell. With Eoin Reddin now retired his replacement at Leinster made a strong case to be Murray’s deputy for the upcoming Autumn internationals.
Another talented player, Garry Ringrose must have also caught the eye of the Irish Coach. His partnership with Robbie Henshaw was one of the highlights of this drab affair. As they develop an understanding with their club they must surely have a future together at international level.
In just four weeks Ireland face the might of the all-conquering All Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago. New Zealand completed a championship blackwash at the weekend by demolishing South Africa by a record score 57-15. They completed this year’s Rugby Championship with maximum bonus points, 30 points out of a possible 30. In truth no other team could live with them.
So much for a transitional period in the light of McCaw and Carter’s departure! While the Irish production line has encouragingly produced some talented players such as McGrath, Ringrose, Van der Flier and Dillane. It is scary to think what affect a thrashing by the All Blacks might have on some of these fledglings if they are thrown to the lions in four weeks time.
Before that challenge the provinces have some serious European business to deal with starting this weekend. Last year was a disaster for our representatives in Europe and there is a real determination to reestablish Ireland’s honour at Europe’s top table.
Ulster are still setting the standard at the top of the Pro12 table despite their reversal against Connacht at the weekend. With their key talisman Ruan Pienaar returning to control matters they will be hoping to start with a win at Ian Madigan’s new club Bordeaux. Pienaar’s shrewd leadership was badly missed in Galway at the weekend.
He certainly brings out the best in halfback partner Paddy Jackson when the two link up. The confrontation between Jackson and Madigan will be fascinating as they fight for the deputy position behind Johnny Sexton in the national team. Connacht rediscovered their mojo at the weekend with centre Bundie Aki to the fore.
They have a first encounter with Toulouse at home this week and will have to be at their very best to withstand the three-time winners of the trophy.
If Connacht are to have any hope of progressing this is a must win match as they have the prospect of facing probably the form team in Europe at the moment, Wasps, on the horizon. The loss of AJ McGinty, Robbie Henshaw and Aly Muldowney at the end of last season has had an effect on the province and progress in this years competition may be beyond them.
Leinster were devastated at their failure in Europe last year and will be looking to get a bonus point win in their first match against old European rivals Castres at the RDS. Northampton and Montpellier make up their group and it promises to be closely fought. Bonus points will be hard to come by and Leinster must strive for a five pointer this week-end.
There was a predictable irony that Munster would face up to Ronan O’Gara’s Racing 92 at some stage. They are the reigning French Champions and although currently in midtable at this early stage of the season, they will pose a massive threat to Munster, particularly in front of their fanatical home fans.
Munster needed a confidence boost with a good performance against Leinster last Saturday but their timid defeat can have done nothing for their morale. They will have to draw on all their resources to get anything from this match. Leinster and Ulster will approach this weekend with the highest hopes of success, but the other two provinces certainly won’t submit without a fight.