Flawed bonus point system only issue on opening weekend

Tries galore in timely advert for the Heineken Cup

Greig Laidlaw (9) of Edinburgh celebrates with Tim Visser (left), Wicus Blaauw and Jack Cuthbert after that surprising defeat of Munster at Murrayfield on Saturday. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Greig Laidlaw (9) of Edinburgh celebrates with Tim Visser (left), Wicus Blaauw and Jack Cuthbert after that surprising defeat of Munster at Murrayfield on Saturday. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 12:00

The ERC, under siege from all quarters, must have heaved a huge, collective sigh of relief. At last some rugby, and the Heineken Cup needed to do its talking where it is at its most erudite, on pitches across a dozen venues and half a dozen countries as reminder of the tournament’s value.

The first round of this season’s competition had a little something for pretty much everybody.

On a weekend which matched last season’s opening round tally of 52 tries, at an average of over four per game, and saw 552 points scored, just eight shy of the first round total 12 months ago, it could almost have been made to order.

Although it was threatening to be a bad weekend for the Premiership clubs, providing plenty of schadenfreude for the Celts and Italians, ultimately Gloucester’s late rally at home to Perpignan and Exeter’s first-half dissection of Cardiff ensured they had a 50 per cent winning return.

So too did the Welsh, Scots and Irish, with France having four wins from five, as well as Racing’s success over Clermont.

Wagged its tail
Although only four of its 11 sides were victorious, the Rabo Pro12 wagged its tail too, with bottom club Edinburgh upsetting Munster, 11th-placed Connacht taking 16-point favourites Saracens to the wire in Galway, and the Scarlets possibly producing the performance of the weekend with their stunning 33-26 win away to Harlequins.

The one caveat was a couple of the bonus points, which could be critical in deciding home advantage and/or the final place or two in the last eight.

Frankly, there’s something not quite right about teams who fall 36-3 and 34-0 behind by half-time, and indeed 41-3 and 41-7 soon after, subsequently being rewarded with a bonus point for scoring four second-half tries when the outcome has long since been decided.

Were the French system applied, namely that a team only earns a bonus point if they score three tries more than the opposition, both Exeter and Toulon would have punished for leaking four tries apiece.

Instead of all four sides in Pool 2 earning bonus points, none would have earned any.

Not for the first time in their history, Munster find themselves in a hole of their own making after a sloppy defeat in Edinburgh. Instead of taking a grip on their group, they find themselves fighting for their European lives in October.

Saturday’s loss in Murrayfield was the fourth time in the last five years they’ve lost their opening match. They also, of course, lost their opening matches in their victorious campaigns of 2005-06 and ’07-08, albeit away to Sale and Wasps.

Last season Munster could even afford to lose a second game on the road, to Saracens in round four, and still squeeze through as one of the best runners-up.

It’s still not the toughest of groups, their next two games at home are winnable and it will now be in their interest that Edinburgh stay competitive.

Bonus points in round one also have a funny habit of becoming all the more relevant when round six is completed, and that feeling is re-enforced by Greig Laidlaw having hit the cross bar with a late penalty.

Controversial try
Just a thought or two on Tim Visser’s decisive and controversial try. For sure, JJ Hanrahan’s chip just outside his 22 with a four-point lead away from home with 10 minutes remaining was ill-advise. But JP Doyle’s wording to the TMO as to whether Matt Scott was already in the air when he made contact with Hanrahan didn’t help before the pernickety Irish-born English-qualified referee pre-empted the TMO by coming to his own conclusion that Scott was already airborne?

So what if Scott was already in the air; if he leaves his left arm/elbow in Hanrahan’s way? That’s obstruction. End of.

Mind you, their sense of grievance must be nothing compared to Connacht’s in light of Pascal Gauzere’s performance in the Sportsground and those of his assistants. The big calls all went to the big name team.

It took Ulster a while to re-acquaint themselves with the tempo and intensity of the Heineken Cup against English opponents whose main men were more match-hardened. However, they grew into the game impressively, and there should also be less inaccuracies in their ambitious handling and offloading game.

They particularly looked the part when Ruan Pienaar joined the fray and continued his remarkable ability to keep relocating between the hemispheres and seasons.

What’s more, he will presumably start next Saturday in an intriguing trek to the group dark horses Montpellier.

The pity is this fixture clashes with the Leinster-Castres game, and indeed that all four Irish sides are engaged on the same day.

Whether such a fine weekend’s advertisement for the competition carries the weight it did when the Cup was taken to the brink before the 2007 Accord is a moot point, but in the midst of it all it was wonderful to hear the comments from Sam Warburton last week.

Stay with his region
Rather than the usual non-committal stuff about having to consider all his options and that a playing career is a short one, the Welsh and Lions skipper said he would prefer to stay with his region, believing the Blues can build something special and that even if the Heineken Cup folds, the opportunity exists to make the Pro12 a stronger and better competition. He really is a very impressive individual.
gthornley@irishtimes.com

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