Clean sweep means Irish eyes are left smiling after an almost perfect day
Munster and Leinster win ugly and have much room to improve
Leinster’s man of the match Jimmy Gopperth goes past Antonie Claassen of Castres during the game in the RDS. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Heineken don’t do Saturdays, but the Cup provided a four-from-four return last Saturday. As the quartet of Irish provinces won within a seven-hour period, there wasn’t an English or French winner in sight, and the latter despite having four teams in action. You gotta love it.
All four Irish sides have won on the same European weekend before, namely on the final round of pool games last January, albeit those victories were scattered over three days. Not that Saturday’s foursome were all perfect performances, as Connacht, Leinster and Munster in that order confirmed favouritism with varying degrees of discomfiture, whereas Ulster were probably producing the result of the weekend and maybe the tournament so far by becoming the first side to down the Top 14 joint leaders Montpellier in their own city this season, and in three Heineken Cup pool campaigns.
Munster and Leinster, by contrast, each steadily built up 9-0 home leads before allowing Gloucester and Castres into the game with seven-pointers before eventually pulling through without either making a convincing case, as yet, that they are the prime contenders of recent vintage.
“Sometimes you have to win a bit ugly,” said Rob Penney after giving credit to Gloucester as a defensively well organised and proud Premiershp side. “That’s the nature of the competition. If we hadn’t have won tonight, this room would be asking very different questions. I’m just proud the boys managed to work their way through some challenges tonight. A very challenging week last week and to come through with a result was a great reward for them.”
Yesterday’s results in their respective pools went to form, with Perpignan recovering from a 7-3 half-time deficit at home to Edinburgh with four second-half tries for a bonus point win, and Northampton coming up one try short in a 27-16 home win at home to the Ospreys.
This leaves each team in Pool Six with a home win apiece, and Perpignan ahead of Munster by two bonus points to one. In other words, the group is wide open, prior to Munster hosting Perpignan at brunchtime on Sunday December 8th in the first of their back-to-back engagements with the Catalans.
The anxiousness in Munster’s display once Gloucester came back to within a score was palpable. “The reason they were anxious is because the expectations are so high. This team is riding on the shoulders of previous teams that have had experience and done great things and this team is trying to emulate that. Sometimes if we have a performance like last week they’re just so desperate to try and rectify that, that the mind starts drifting into areas which can be not conducive to allowing them to play.”
“Hopefully this result will just give them that much more confidence and resolve to say ‘yeah, we’re a good side, we can compete now and let’s press on’. It’s a new team. It’s a new campaign. Even though last year’s team did a great job, this is not the same team.”
Back-to-Back bruisers in the Heineken Cup inevitably leave their physical imprint, and both Donnacha Ryan and Denis Hurley both hobbled off, the former with a knee injury which will require 48 hours to full assess, the latter with a knee medial ligament strain that looks like keeping him out for a week or two.
Leinster top Pool One by three points from Northampton after another workmanlike win which again highlighted the importance of Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in both the immediate and long term. Matt O’Connor admitted there was plenty of scope to improve.
“Definitely. We wouldn’t be completely happy with that performance. There’s growth in our game, especially with the ball. But we’ll tick those boxes as we come to them and keep working hard in training. Hopefully it doesn’t rain next week,” he said in reference to hosting Connacht next Saturday, after Dan Park’s 23-point haul helped them to a 33-6 win away to Zebre in which Robbie Henshaw excelled in all he did.
Northampton host Leinster at tea-time on Saturday, December 7th in the first of their consecutive rumbles and in a reprise of the sides’ memorable 2011 final, with Castres now a bigger threat in a three-way battle for qualification from a group liable to only provide one qualifier.
“It’s going to be very tight,” ventured O’Connor. “The margins are tiny, especially in this group. We have to make sure we get maximum points, or as many as we can and make sure the opposition get as few as possible.”
Back-to-back wins over Treviso in December would leave Ulster still leading Pool 5, with Montpellier and Leicester slugging it out over the same weekends, before Mark Anscombe’s team entertain Montpellier in the penultimate round, which will maintain huge pressure on Leicester to keep pace. If the Tigers do, however, then the pool might yet come down to a Welford Road shoot-out, with the possibility of two sides going through.
“We were competing with a French team that is right at the top of the Top 14 and our pack were magnificent. Our half backs controlled the game and I have to give special mention to Paddy Jackson,” said Ulster Director of Rugby David Humphreys, who captained Ulster’s victorious 1999 European Cup winners.
“He came in for a bit of criticism at the start of the season, some of it unwarranted, and people forget he is still only 21. But against two of the best teams in Europe over the last two weekends he has shown he is an outstanding international out-half.
“No more ‘potential’, he is at that level. He directed the whole game for us– he is the controller out there and he made sure we were playing in the right parts of the pitch. It was a huge performance and a huge result for us.”
“Someone quoted a stat before the game that of our first 25 games away games in the Heineken Cup we lost 24. Of the last 11 we have won eight,” added Humphreys. “More than anything else that sums up the difference in the squad of players we have, the belief they have and the quality they have.
“We very much believed that if we came out and imposed ourselves up front we could win. Going into the back to back games against Treviso we are in a good position. Played two and won two – you can’t do better than that.”