Sport: Oval Digest – Get The Calculators Out
Ah Heineken Cup, you are a saucy old mistress. Nothing ever seems to go exactly to script in Europe’s premier club competition, and the unlikely became, well, a little bit less unlikely on an entertaining and nail-biting rugby weekend. We’ll go through the easy ones first.
In London, a big CONNACHT contingent, buoyed by the announcement that Pat Lamb will complete the set of Southern Hemisphere coaches in the provinces next season, watched Quins take their side apart. The loss of pack and back leaders in Naoupu and Parks proved crucial to Connacht’s chances, as they petered out after a spirited first half.
At one stage, the Westerners were down to 12 men, and found it tough going against a free flowing Quins team, who took them apart in reality. Connacht will face Zebre at home next week hoping to bookend their European season, and will watch intently for the rest of the year, hoping another Irish team can do them a favour and win the bloomin’ thing. Meanwhile, Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins side looks a dark horse, if a little underpowered.
Up north on Friday, political tensions across the city were put aside as ULSTER scraped past Glasgow. A strong opening quarter yielded to a more one paced subsequent period for the home side, who stared down an embarrassing defeat at one stage in the second half. Shorn of Ferris and Muller, Ulster clung on and turned the tide of momentum though, pulling away comfortably in the last ten.
Best, Cave and Payne were pick of the bunch for the home side, with the inhumanly powerful Nick Williams again playing the part of human battering ram. Ulster travel to Castres next weekend looking for a big win to secure the relative comfort of a home QF.
So, on to the unlikely lads. LEINSTER came into the weekend praying for a miracle and ready to accept their fate. Results needed to fall very right for the holders to have any say in where the cup goes next and it wasn’t looking good as they kicked off in the RDS on Saturday evening.
Luke Fitzgerald roared back into form with a typically mouthwatering attacking performance against a weak Scarlets side. Leinster looked to use their forwards to rumble in the first half, and this tactic paid dividends with three tries, and some excellent running from Heaslip, Healy and Cronin. 15 second half substitutions saw a more timid display and only two tries added (a stat which might prove crucial) though overall Schmidt will be happy with a bonus win. Leinster look forward a very tricky trip to Sandy Park next weekend to face Exeter, when the returning O’Driscoll, McLaughlin, O’Brien and Strauss will certainly be needed.
MUNSTER offered perhaps the poorest performance of the weekend. Murrayfield on a wet, snowy Sunday morning is reminiscent of a morgue, and Munster never got going, scoring only two tries when they were perhaps expected to win more with at least four.
Conditions didn’t prove too conducive to Rob Penney’s new style, and another very mixed performance from O’Gara set the tone for a frustrating afternoon. Indeed, a weak Edinburgh side could have been in with a shout in the final quarter, were it not for a debatable penalty try.
O’Gara also looks set to miss out next weekend after a petulant kick out on an Edinburgh forward, though Ian Keatley is perhaps a better option in a packed Thomond anyway.
After all of that, the calculating can begin in earnest. Truthfully, it looks a lot rosier for Leinster now than it did at 5pm on Friday, while Munster still hold their destiny somewhat in their own hands.
Permutations are very far ranging, but the biggest help for the Irish sides would be Toulon beating Montpellier away, and Toulouse not getting two losing bonus points against Leicester. In these scenarios, if both provinces got 5 points each, both would advance.
The spanner in the works though is that this Toulon team, while sparkling with world rugby stars, may not send a full team to face their French rivals, having already secured a passage to the quarters. Then again, they do have two very good 15s available, and crucially, will want to secure a home tie in the next round. A Montpellier win, however, would pit the Irish teams against one another.
Munster will face what’s likely to be a second string Racing Metro team at home on Sunday, knowing generally what they need to do. They’re currently level on points with Leinster, albeit with one more try scored, the next criteria for qualification if teams are level on points.
There’s plenty to play for in the tournament that keeps on giving, and both sides will be happy just to be still alive.
The question now is: can old warriors come back for another go, and stay in the hunt at least until April?