Great weekend for the Irish provinces might be down to elite European Cup standard dropping
Body language of some French and English clubs makes you wonder how competitive it is
The Connacht team before last weekend’s stunning 16-14 victory away to Toulouse. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
With all four Irish provinces winning on the weekend, it would be easy to get carried away. Connacht’s win was incredible, Leinster were as ruthless as we’ve ever seen them, Munster and Ulster were very professional in putting Perpignan and Treviso away. Everything looks rosy in the garden.
But when you give it a bit of thought, you have to ask yourself: “Are we really that good?” Before this season, a clean sweep for all four Irish provinces in the one weekend had only happened once. And even then, it was the final round of group games in last year’s competition when they were mostly playing teams that were out of the running for a quarter-final place.
Now it has happened twice in one season. In fact, it has happened twice in two rounds. And these are the early rounds when really important points are up for grabs and everything should be on the line. Away wins against Toulouse, Montpellier, Northampton and Zebre, home wins against Castres, Gloucester, Perpignan and Treviso. On the face of it, that’s a seriously impressive line-up.
But you have to wonder whether it’s a bit of a false dawn. How competitive is this year’s competition, really? Looking around at some of the teams involved this year, you just don’t see the same will to win that was there in other seasons. I think it’s fair to say that the Heineken Cup seems to flick a switch in the Irish teams that isn’t always the case elsewhere. That seems to be what’s happening this year anyway.
Connacht’s win in Toulouse was the result of the season, maybe the result of the decade. But it shouldn’t happen. Not when you consider the talent available to the two teams, the money, everything. And a team like Northampton should never be 0-26 down at home at half-time no matter how good the opposition are. Some teams just haven’t been going out with the right attitude.
Not just in the games involving Irish teams. One game that really stood out for me over the weekend was Harlequins against Racing Metro. The body language of some of the Racing players was atrocious at times. Some of them just didn’t look bothered. You look at someone like Juan Martin Hernandez, such a hugely talented player on his day, and yet he hardly seemed interested on Saturday.
He wasn’t the only one. Racing players were dropping the ball, not pushing themselves to get back and cover, falling off tackles, all the tell-tale signs. It was a great result for Harlequins but they beat a team who just didn’t put it in against them.
You had to wonder if they cared. There was no intensity and they were disjointed throughout the game. Some of them looked like they didn’t want to be there. It comes down to individual attitude. There’s a lot of players there on huge salaries and this looked like they had no great interest in getting out of their comfort zone.
It was great to see that the club directors’ response to losing 8-32 was to pull their team out of the Stade de France for the Christmas fixture against Toulon. They were supposed to play a big Top 14 game there on December 29th but they announced on Monday morning that they were going to play the game in their own ground now instead. “In light of the result against Harlequins on Saturday this has forced us to accept we are not a part of the great teams of the moment,” they said. “The Stade de France is reserved for such teams and we do not belong there.”