By Phil Rice
Leinster remain the only unbeaten side in the European Champions Cup after an eight-try demolition of Glasgow Warriors at the weekend. This was Leinster at their finest, albeit against a Glasgow side missing a few of their best players.
Leading 34-7 at half time they made several early replacements in the second half and still managed to win 55-19. The standard of their handling and support play in the first half had the Leinster faithful roaring in appreciation. It must have been intimidating for the remainder of Europe’s best sides to see how clinically efficient the home side were.
With this result Leinster have already qualified for a home quarter-final place with one more pool match still to play.
It is hard to remember a better performance from the home team, even during their three Heineken Cup wins.
Luke McGrath was named man of the match and with his recent performances for Leinster he must surely have moved ahead of Kieran Marmion in the pecking order behind Conor Murray for Ireland. His eye for a gap and the acceleration he possesses, to take advantage of the slightest opportunity, make him an excellent replacement for Murray for the final 10-15 minutes of a match.
It was interesting to see Leo Cullen give Jordan Larmour the 15 jersey ahead of Rob Kearney for this fixture. He is such an exciting counter attacking player with pace to burn.
He must have caught Joe Schmidt’s eye with his recent performances, but the Irish coach is loyal to a fault with his selection policy and it would be a surprise if Kearney doesn’t start Ireland’s Six Nations opener with France. But what a prospect the young St. Andrew’s College product is.
Another established Ireland player whose absence was barely missed at the weekend was Sean O’Brien, who seems unlikely to recover in time from a hip injury to take his place against France. Josh van der Flier has been in superb form recently and is likely to wear the seven shirt in Paris. Not many teams can afford to lose such a world class player as O’Brien and have no obvious dip in performance.
All of Ireland’s leading players in the Leinster team were replaced early in the second half. Sexton, Henshaw, McGrath, Furlong and Toner all played little more than 50 minutes as Cullen rested them for this week’s away game with Montpellier.
The French side were trounced by Exeter last Saturday and only have an outside chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
Leinster will try to finish as the only team with a 100 percent winning record after the pool phase, guaranteeing them first seeding for the next stage.
Cullen was delighted with his players performance and after the game.
He said: “The performance in the first-half was crucial for us today, Glasgow are a dangerous side but we were very clinical when we got scoring opportunities.”
Ulster gained a precious home victory over La Rochelle last Saturday and in so doing moved to the top of their pool. With an away match against Wasps this weekend Ulster may still need to win in order to guarantee a place in the quarter-finals.
Harlequins did Ulster a big favour by unexpectedly beating Wasps at the weekend. Jacob Stockdale demonstrated what a useful addition he will be for Ireland in the Six Nations this year, scoring a crucial try with great strength and pace.
Rory Best has played very little rugby this season, so it was reassuring to see him playing so well for 65 minutes. He will lead Ireland into the Six Nations and on Saturday he showed his exceptional ability to create turnover ball, which is so useful at the highest level.
Munster had a hugely competitive game in Paris against Racing 92. Conor Murray kicked a 55-metre penalty to give them a two-point lead with five minutes to go, but two late penalties from French scrum half Maxime Machenaud gave the home team a 34-30 victory.
Ex-Munsterman Donnacha Ryan showed what a loss he is to both Munster and Ireland by putting in an outstanding performance for Racing.
Simon Zebo will also be joining the French outfit next season. He didn’t have such a happy afternoon making several handling errors and was substituted during the second half.
With a losing bonus-point Munster retained their lead at the top of their pool and victory at home against Castres this weekend will earn them a home quarter-final.
CJ Stander commented after the game: “We needed a bonus-point today and that gives us the impetus to take back home and we will need to play with the same intensity as we did today, against Castres next week.”
Connacht earned a 24-24 draw away to Worcester to qualify for a quarter-final place in the Challenge Cup. Trailing 12-0 after as many minutes, Connacht had to fight their way back into the match.
A double sin-binning just before half-time didn’t help their cause, but a brilliant try from Tiernan O’Halloran, converted by Craig Ronaldson, gave the Westerners a hard-earned draw.