Recent action proves the Heineken Cup ain’t broke so no need to tamper excessively
Among the Irish contingent, Ulster are looking like the the strongest contenders
Fresh from their inpressive pool game victory against Montpeller at Stade Yves-du-Manoir at the weekend Ulster have looked the form side among the Irish contenders in this year’s Heineken Cup. Photograph: Matt Mackey/Presseye/Inpho
On a significant weekend for the Irish in Europe, one underlining impression remained intact. If all four are fully locked and loaded then, with their retinue of high-class foreign imports and as fine a crop of indigenous talent as they’ve produced in the professional age, then of the quartet, Ulster are probably the strongest contenders to win the Heineken Cup.
Of course, such are the vagaries of the tournament – played in three rounds of two over four months in ever-changing conditions, not to mention the inequities of the draw and a little dollop of luck, not least with injuries – that there are no guarantees.
After all, both Leinster and Ulster would probably have been considered stronger challengers for much of last season than Munster– as was borne out to some degree by their respective finishing positions in the league.
Yet Leinster were hit hard by injuries at the start of the campaign to key players and had the misfortune to run into Clermont Auvergne at their most focused and vengeful after the semi-final defeat a season before, which thereafter left them with too much ground to make up.
Welter of injuries
For their part, Ulster were hit by a welter of injuries mid-season to a host of key players and were far from match fit for a quarter-final against Saracens.
Mindful of becoming too carried away with themselves, last season’s experience should also be a salient reminder that hitting form in October and in the third round of games come December, it is no guarantee of anything, and that one slip-up – as happened at home to Northampton – can have serious implications.
Rob Penney may have a point when stating that Munster’s pool campaign did not receive quite the plaudits it deserved last season but there’s little doubt they benefited from the fixture scheduling which gave them a home game on the Sunday of the final weekend of pool matches and thus they knew exactly what they needed to achieve to oust Leinster.
In any event, to their credit, they grasped that opportunity and upped their game with the return of Paul O’Connell in the knock-out stages.
The jury is still very much out on them after the opening defeat to Edinburgh, which perhaps filtered through to Saturday’s laboured win at home to Gloucester.
Perhaps this even extends to their supporters who, allowing for the dire effects of the recession in Limerick especially and the costs incurred already in the replayed All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Clare, failed to fill out Thomond Park for a Saturday evening set-to with English opposition which harked back to some of Munster’s finest hours.
However it’s worth noting the attendance of 23,510 was still the second highest over the course of last weekend, bettered only by the 61,248 which attended the Wembley game between Saracens and Toulouse.