By Phil Rice
Munster, Leinster and Connacht took major strides forward in their quests for European glory at the weekend.
Leinster were particularly impressive in their away victory against the dangerous Glasgow Warriors.
The 34-18 victory reflected the difference in class between the two teams as Leinster showed the form that could yet take them into the rarefied stratosphere of four-time Champions of Europe.
Despite missing the influential figures of Sean O’Brien, Garry Ringrose and long-term casualty Jamie Heaslip, Leinster are beginning to look like a side that is on a mission. After two difficult matches in the Champions Cup they have gained maximum points and have put themselves in a strong position to qualify from the toughest pool of the five.
Johnny Sexton has responded to being given the captaincy with an authority that demands a level of performance from his teammates. He is a perfectionist himself and makes it clear that only the highest standard of performance is acceptable from his charges.
Cian Healy was given a rare start ahead of Jack Mc-Grath and he certainly repaid the gesture in spades. Apart from giving a dominant performance in both the tight and the loose he scored two tries with all the force of a wrecking-ball.
At his best he is still at the very top of the pile of loose-head props. After the neck surgery last year, that took him time to recover from, he has now re-discovered the form that made him such a revered player at the highest level.
Joe Schmidt is blessed with some outstanding front-row forwards, something we never thought we would say about an Irish Coach.
Healy is certain to add to his cap tally during the upcoming Autumn series. Man of the match, Rhys Ruddock, has responded to a sustained period in the team and has probably been the stand out player in Leinster’s two Champions Cup games to date.
His tackle count is huge while his support play is outstanding. Despite the wealth of talented Lions back-row forwards at Schmidt’s disposal, it is likely that Ruddock will find his way into the team for at least one of the upcoming test matches.
Munster managed to hold off the challenge of French heavyweights Racing 92. Two tries from Andrew Conway and the brilliant Conor Murray saw them win a low-scoring, bruising encounter with their expensively assembled French visitors, 14-7.
Ian Keatley is showing the form that might bring him back into international reckoning, especially in the absence of Paddy Jackson and the decision of Leinster to keep playing Joey Carbery at fullback.
Keatley’s confidence has been brittle in the past but he is playing with greater assurance and has got the Munster backline playing some quality attacking rugby. He takes the ball on the gainline and asks questions of defences, and with the support of his superb back row and his centres Rory Scannell and the bruising Chris Farrell, the Munster midfield is looking potent.
Ulster came up against the under-rated but highly efficient La Rochelle, who had dismissed Harlequins at the Stoop the previous week. With an outstanding home record the French side were always favourites to win but Ulster only trailed 10-7 at half time. A series of basic errors as Ulster over stretched themselves led to La Rochelle running away with the tie in the second half and leaves the Northern Irishmen with a difficult task to qualify.
They will need at least an away win against Harlequins or Wasps and maybe both to make it to the knock out stages. It can be done but they will need to reduce the self-inflicted damage to which they are prone. The continued absence of Paddy Jackson is hurting them as Christian Lealiifano is more of a centre than a fly-half, and there is a lack of leadership and direction in the back division.
Connacht recorded a 15-8 victory over Premiership strugglers Worcester in the Challenge Cup at the Sportsground. After the game Coach Kieran Keane called for major improvements from his team before Munster arrive in Galway this Friday.
“I wouldn’t call it a good performance, we got a good win,” he said, “I thought we were a bit average compared to what we have been in the last couple of weeks.”
It’s back to Pro14 action this weekend and two more domestic derbies. Munster visit Connacht on Friday evening and Leinster travel to the Kingspan to take on Ulster on Saturday afternoon.
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Three victories and one draw for the Irish provinces in their first batch of European matches can be considered a very satisfactory opening weekend.