Adrian O’Farrell takes a look back at the opening weekend of European action and previews the possible selectorial decisions facing the coaches for this weekend in another exclsuive for the Supporters Club.
Fresh from his “warm-up” gig at the Supporters Club “Meet The Coaches” evening, Adrian O’Farrell takes a look at the first weekend of European action:
Previewing the season ahead at the Irish Supporter’s Club gig last Tuesday, I said that I didn’t think any Irish team had ever entered the Heineken Cup in such fine fettle as Munster did this one.
Which, naturally, meant only one thing. Munster suddenly went into a tailspin that they only managed to come out of at the last second courtesy of Ronan O’Gara’s late penalty.
The unheralded Montauban did their bit to make Munster sweat, but in truth, Munster were their own worst enemies in trying to do too much on the ball. It was most unMunster-like as they know better than anybody the need to earn the right to go wide in the first place.
It would be overstating the case to suggest that had Munster lost, they would have been out of the tournament. No team knows how to extricate themselves from difficult Pool situations quite like Munster, but there had been in the build-up much talk of not putting themselves in the position of requiring ‘miracle matches’ from now on.
Montauban do not have many household names in their ranks. However, in contrast to some French teams on their Heineken travels, they pitched up to play and compete. They have done very well to qualify through the French Top 14 and any team that does so has to be respected. It will be interesting to see how much damage they can inflict over the remainder of the group on Sale and Clermont Auvergne.
However, Munster will need to produce rather more when they travel to play Sale next weekend. Tony McGahan is going to have to earn his selectorial stripes for this one. His first and most crucial decision is whether or not he feels that Montauban was a one-off and that if he selects the same team (injury allowing) they will redeem themselves with a performance.
If not, then there are big calls to be made between Stringer and O’Leary; whether or not to bring in Paul Warwick for Earls at full-back; if he does, then does Earls make it on the wing; Quinlan or Ryan; in the possible absence of Tipoki – Murphy or Earls?
Much to consider, especially in light of Sale’s remarkable bonus point win at Clermont Auvergne. The centre selection, in particular, in the likely absence of Tipoki will be huge, given that Luke McAllister seems to be on fire at the moment.
McGahan will be anxiously awaiting news on Tipoki in the hope that a settled midfield defence doesn’t need to be reworked.
Meantime, Leinster will be quietly chuffed at negotiating their bogey side with such ease and a bonus point, even if the performance didn’t have the ring of authority around it. For the most part they were happy to just kick long down the middle and keep a tight defence.
But when things broke their way, they snaffled their scores in style. There was evidence of CJ Van Der Linde and Rocky Elsom settling in well, the latter in particular.
However, the most exciting element was the sight of Brian O’Driscoll looking more sprightly than he has for some considerable time. It’s hard to credit that he scored his first Leinster try in 21 months.
Other bonuses came in the shape of first tries of the season for both Shane Horgan and Felipe Contepomi, which will boost the confidence of all three ahead of the match against Wasps.
With Castres struggling under Jeremy Davidson and Mark McCall, this match looks likely to be pivotal in determining the pool winners.
Memories of last year’s ultimately rather supine defeat at Adams Park in the quarter-final should stir Leinster to produce a better performance, based on matching Wasps famous physicality and preying on their visitors’ relative lack of confidence.
However, the latter may not be such a factor with the return of Cipriani and a win wrapped up inside the first quarter.This one should be a rollicking good rollercoaster ride. If Leinster’s lineout can be corrected, they’ll feel with home advantage they can nick this one.
Ulster cannot have gone into their home match against Stade Francais with any great confidence of upsetting one of the tournament favourites.
And so it proved, though at this stage of the season their objectives are surely less grand than Heineken Cup qualification. With their confidence as fragile as a Wall Street recovery, the critical thing was not to take a shoeing that would set their budding Magners recovery on life support.
On that basis, despite the loss it wasn’t a disaster. More game time together for a team struggling to gel comes next week away to Harlequins and with it an outside chance of a win, though ‘Quins are proving an improved side this season and Ulster’s are historically poor on the Heineken road.
Williams will know, however, that the Heineken Cup isn’t a priority this season as his first objective has to be to make Ulster competitive in the Magners this season. He’ll really be targeting the Munster Magners match on October 25 and using these next two weeks to develop patterns and defensive solidity.
For Connacht, it just gets better. A superb 30-12 away win against Dax, a team currently ahead of Montauban in the Top 14 in France, on top of their tremendous win over Leinster sees their season gain what Obama and McCain are seeking – Big Mo’.
The visit of London Irish on Friday will be central to the group outcome. The development of Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr this season is highly encouraging and Johnny O’Connor seems to be getting back to his best.
London Irish will appreciate what they’re in for on Friday more than most English clubs and had a facile win over Rovigo on Saturday, but Connacht will be licking their lips over this one and may just pull it off.
Elsewhere, of those most likely, Stade Francais had the best weekend of it. Toulouse were blessed to get out of jail in the way they did – a stray Bath boot in a ruck with just eight seconds remaining on the clock giving them the turnover that they exploited brilliantly to earn a last-gasp penalty. Even that looked to have been hooked before wind and Providence lent a hand.
While it was a good weekend for the English in general and an outstanding one for Sale, their perennial standard bearers Leicester looked no more than solid.
Next weekend is the rugby equivalent of golf’s ‘moving day’ and any who have designs on qualifying will have their credentials sternly examined as they seek to position themselves for the run-in. In the words of the IRFU’s positioning statement – ‘It’s all to play for’.