WAKE-UP CALL PERFECTLY TIMED FOR LEINSTER
Leinster’s close shave at the RDS could be the wake up call the reigning Heineken champions need as they go in search of a historic three in a row.
There’s no doubt that Leinster took Exeter Chiefs for granted, and while they very nearly came unstuck, the most significant statistic at the end of an instantly forgettable 80 minutes is that they didn’t.
They may have missed out on a bonus point, but there is no need to delve any further in search of deeper rooted issues. Leinster were not at the races and got out of jail, and it’s unlikely they’ll make the same mistake again this campaign.
It was a moral victory for the English side, who’ve been defying the odds since winning the Championship in 2010, but they’d much rather have sneaked a draw at the death. But they didn’t and Leinster are free to continue on the way. Ultimately it’s likely that their course through Pool 5 to the last eight will be altered very little, but if they miss out on a home quarter-final by the odd point they’ll rue Saturday’s no-show at the RDS.
If they go onto the final, Saturday’s events will be explained away as a blip and the launch pad the champions needed, and so it should be.
Joe Schmidt’s side now head to the Scarlets next weekend, with the Welsh side already drinking at the last chance saloon, having ended up on the end of a 49-16 hiding at the hands of Clermont Auvergne. Leinster can ill afford a repeat performance of Saturday.
The Scarlets will have nothing to lose and will no doubt go at the champions, hoping to take advantage of any chinks in Leinster’s seemingly impenetrable armour that the Chiefs may have exposed.
Schimidt, like the rest of us, will be looking to see how Leinster respond. Like champions their director of rugby and their supporters will be hoping.
In light of the English and French leagues’ grievance that the lack of relegation in the Pro12 allows the Irish, Scot and Welsh an unfair advantage, it will not have been lost that Schmidt hinted that the IRFU’s control over its star names may have played a part in his side’s lack of cohesion.
Saturday’s close shave should have got that out of the system, however, before what promises to be a tough trip to the Parc y Scarlets. Leinster lost 45-20 there on the opening day of the season, but the hosts will be hard pushed to rack up half that number of points on Saturday. They should expect a Leinster backlash, but the champions will know that their rivals, not least Clermont Auvergne, will be watching on with interest for any further cracks.
Although any losing bonus point in France is not to be scoffed at, Munster will be less than satisfied with their weekend’s work – away to Racing Metro 92 having outscored the hosts two tries to one – the performance of Saracens in brushing aside last year’s semi-finalists Edinburgh, 45-0 at Murrayfield, means that the two-time Heineken Cup winners are in a battle royal to qualify from Pool 1.
Arguably Munster should have returned with more than just a bonus point from their French mission. They had the chance to leave Racing behind the eight ball, but having got themselves into a winning position they fluffed their lines in a very unlike Munster way.
Simon Zebo’s try should have been the catalyst for Munster to close the game out, and perhaps the Munster of old would have, but Conor Murray’s late error proved costly.
Perhaps this new breed would have as well, but for the loss of Ronan O’Gara in the first half. How they could have done with him to steer them through those final minutes. They’ll sweat on his hamstring injury ahead of Saturday.
Munster can add to Edinburgh’s woes at Thomond Park and if they are to have realistic hopes of topping what promises to be a desperately tight pool, only a bonus point win will do from what will be Munster’s first Heineken Cup run out at Thomond since their quarter-final defeat to Ulster there. Edinburgh and Michael Bradley can expect another tough day at the office.
Ulster got their Heineken Cup final defeat out of their system with a comfortable 42-17 win over Castres back in the safe haven that is fortress Ravenhill. The bonus point win puts them top of Pool 4 with a trip to Glasgow to come on Friday night.
Pool favourites Northampton Saints were given a rough ride by the Glasgow, though, before prevailing 24-15, with a bonus point, so Ulster can’t say they haven’t been warned if they come unstuck. With back-to-back games against Saints to come in December, they can ill afford anything less than a win and must also have designs on a bonus point.
Connacht did what was expected of them against Zebre, securing their second Heineken Cup win ever, and now sit proudly behind Harlequins in the Pool 3 table. Round 2 offers the chance to lock horns, once again, with Conor O’Shea’s English champions who worryingly for Connacht returned to form with a 40-11 win over Biarritz.
The Sportsground is never an easy place to go, but this Harlequins team have far too much quality to be overwhelmed by the crowd and the wind and the rain.