Sport: Oval Digest – Two Through As Leinster Crash Out
Despite doing all they could, Joe Schmidt’s Leinster were dumped out of Europe’s premier club rugby tournament over the weekend, into the relatively ignominy of the second rate Amlin Cup competition. The league now provides the main concern for two Irish teams, while both Munster and Ulster aim to progress further.
It was a weekend that produced less spills than usual, with Glasgow’s win over Northampton providing one of the only real shocks of the weekend. For the three Irish teams in contention, it was the French that stood in the way.
ULSTER kicked off Saturday knowing that a win in France against a stick Castres side might just give them enough for a lucrative home QF. Despite flattering to deceive for the second week in a row, and quite obviously missing game breakers like Williams, Bowe, Ferris and others, Ulster scraped to their first win on French soil in Europe ever. This might not have been a classic, and it may not, in the end, have resulted in a home tie for the Northerners, but come later in the season it may be pointed to as a crucial result for team morale and momentum. A nice cameo from the benched Jackson and solid scrummaging provided the main source of inspiration, while Craig Gilroy also showed up well in the unfamiliar 15 jersey.
CONNACHT had begun the weekend with a lacklustre win against Italian minnows Zebre, and indeed made hard work of it. A poor overall performance from Dan Parks seems to signal a poor team performance for Connacht this season, and less than inspiring back play will worry new coach Pat Lam, in situ now alongside the departing Eric Elwood until May. The return of Fionn Carr from Leinster, as announced yesterday, will provide some solace, though there’s a lot to be done out West if Connacht are to really compete at this level.
And so on to the other two. LEINSTER were hoping that two notoriously flaky French sides would do them a favour away from home. For their part, Leinster did enough to keep in with a shout. On a bitter night in Devon, Schmidt’s men put in a sometimes scintillating, sometimes weak 80 minutes. Every Irish fan’s favourite referee Romain Poite did his best to allow the home side do what they wanted at ruck time, but four tries and some rampant performances from Healy, Cullen, Heaslip and O’Brien in particular would have been enough pending other results. Just like last week though, Leinster were left to rue missed chances and long fallow periods in a game.
The French mentality is a strange thing. Challenge them at home and you’ll likely get a bloody nose, but put it up to a French team away, particularly when they’ve little to play for, and you’ll likely be met with the textbook Gallic shrug. Firstly, the ‘mighty’ Toulon capitulating away to a pumped up Montpellier on Saturday was of no help to either Irish team, while a Racing Metro ‘B’ side were no match for the men of MUNSTER who clicked well with Keatley at 10.
A contentious early sending off didn’t help Racing, and once Munster got going, there was no stopping them. Zebo, Kilcoyne and the backrow in particular put in huge performances, and a wry rendition of ‘Molly Malone’ as Munster ran in the tries will be remembered when next Leinster come to town.
Elsewhere, Clermont, Sarries and Quins all did the business, leaving us with some mouthwatering ties. Munster will be disappointed to have gotten a tough draw, meaning they’ll need to beat both Quins and Clermont away to reach the final, though a win for Ulster at Sarries would result in a nice run to the final, featuring two Aviva dates if they were to get there.
Leinster meanwhile, will lick their wounds, hope to set up a home Amlin Cup Final, and attempt to capture the league title that has so eluded them for the last few years. Questions will now be asked about the ‘dynasty’, but with one season left for Joe Schmidt, a big representation for Lions duty, and such quality coming through, it can’t all end like that. Can it?