Ulster now the only realistic contenders for last eight
Irish rugby hasn’t known such a demoralising weekend in a long time. For the first time in almost six years, all four provinces lost, after Munster went down in another full-on bruiser with Saracens at Vicarage Road, where the Red Army provided an estimated third of the 15,288 crowd in Watford. The net effect is to leave only Ulster still standing atop their pool, and also looking the only realistic contenders for a place in the quarter-finals come April.
The last time all four Irish provinces were beaten on the same weekend was in the final round of pool games in 2006-07. That was the weekend when Munster lost their long unbeaten European record at Thomond Park to Leicester after Leinster had lost to Gloucester the preceding Friday night, thereby condemning both to away quarter-finals, which they lost – the only year in the last seven seasons when no Irish side reached the last four.
That weekend, Ulster suffered a fourth pool defeat away to Toulouse, while Connacht lost a fifth pool game in the Challenge Cup away to Harlequins.
Both Leinster’s and Munster’s pools are unlikely to yield a qualifying spot for the two best runners-up, not least with Sale (beaten 62-0 by Toulon yesterday) and Cardiff having their bellies tickled in Pool Six, although the Ospreys beating Toulouse and remaining competitive in Pool Two brightens that glimmer of hope.
One always felt the aberrations of their opening defeat to Racing would come back to haunt Munster, who have now slipped to third in Pool One and have a maximum 21 points to aim for, pending a visit to Edinburgh and hosting Racing in Limerick next month.
But they possibly have a better chance of qualifying as group winners than Leinster, given Racing Metro also remain in a three-way mix, whereas Clermont are effectively out of Leinster’s reach.
Were they to finish level, Munster and Saracens have the same head-to-head record over the course of the two matches – five match points, a try and 28 points apiece – which shows you how little there has been between the sides over the two matches. In that scenario, it would come down to tries scored in the pool and Saracens currently have two more (nine) than Munster (seven).
“Don’t know,” smiled Rob Penney when asked if qualification would now be difficult. “We’ve still got the ability to get 10 points. Who knows what will happen in the next two games? There’s a lot of rugby to be played. I’d be very optimistic that the group of boys that we’ve got will put themselves in the best possible place to be able to qualify.”
Munster lost David Kilcoyne to a stomach bug before the game, and their scrum struggled tellingly, and neither were they helped by losing Felix Jones to a dead leg in the 20th minute.
“I’m really proud of the boys’ performance and effort and energy they put into it,” said Penney, “and in those really tight fixtures, this one was always going to be like that, there’s just critical moments that happen in a game and they capitalised on those critical moments and credit to them. They’ve come away with a victory at home. So it’s a bit of a double-edged feeling to it. I can’t commend the lads highly enough on their endeavour, but disappointing not to come away with a result.”
The atmosphere was for the most part cracking, with a huge invasion by the vociferous Red Army, with repeated renditions of The Fields in contest with the repetitive “Stand Up for the Saracens” ditty (literally at every break in play, even as O’Gara was placing penalties on the tee) being tediously played over the tannoy. Tacky.
“I think any team will do what they can to try and enhance their own prospects at home,” said Penney. “I am just so amazed and blown away by the Munster supporters and how passionate they are. It’s really, really humbling for me to be in this seat thinking that there’s such a wealth of support for the boys.
“It just makes everything that you do, not that you’re not conscious of everything that you do and it’s got to be done to the nth degree, but when you know how many people are really supporting you and wanting you to do well . . . it’s humbling, but it also makes you that little bit more determined to try to eke it out for them.”
As a downcast Joe Schmidt admitted, even if Leinster were to reach 20 points with bonus point bins at home to the Scarlets and away to Exeter, it’s doubtful that will get them through, not least as they have only scored three tries to date.
“Twenty has given you a sniff in the past but I can’t see Exeter, or Scarlets, coming along to us and saying: ‘hey look, you guys deserve five’. I think anything you get from either of those teams you’re gong to have to grab and you’re going to have to be very good to do it. I’d hope that we might have a little more depth back at that stage but it’s very difficult.”
Schmidt was unhappy with another of Wayne Barnes’ utterly befuddling performances, notably in his varying interpretation of the breakdown, refusal to apply the offside line, and allowing repeated indiscretions by Clermont close to their line and illegalities at scrum time. “Unfortunately you’ve just got to take the rub of the green there,” Schmidt said, adding he had “nothing but respect” for how Clermont played.
Neither Ulster nor Leinster, especially, will exactly be relishing next Friday’s Rabo Pro 12 set-to in Ravenhill. After two scarring battles with Clermont, when asked for his thoughts on facing Ulster away Schmidt admitted candidly: “Depressed”.
“We’ve lost another couple of guys. There’s some very, very tired boys in there at the moment. That’s a massive challenge for us to pick ourselves up from where we are, both mentally and physically, particularly having to go up to Ravenhill against one of the form teams in Europe at the moment.”
“Ulster would have to be contenders,” ventured Schmidt, and as leaders of their pool as well as the league, that’s at least true of them, if not so much the rest of their Irish brethren.
Major blows: Bowe and Strauss badly injured
What was already a sobering weekend for Irish rugby became a slightly harrowing one yesterday with the news that Tommy Bowe sustained “significant lateral ligament damage to his right knee” in the latter stages of Ulster’s 10-9 defeat at home to Northampton at Ravenhill on Saturday.
He will undergo surgery later this week and according to an Ulster statement “at this stage it is not possible to put a timescale on how long his recovery period will be. A further update on this will be issued following the surgery, when the full extent of the injury will be known.”
But he could be sidelined for up to 12 weeks.
In addition to Bowe, Ulster have concerns about Dan Tuohy (calf) and Paddy Jackson “dead leg”.
With Leinster already a little “skeletal” as Joe Schmidt put it, a cloud also hangs over the rest of the season for Richardt Strauss. The extent of his anterior cruciate ligament injury will be known today but Schmidt conceded: “that doesn’t look too good.”
In addition Isa Nacewa (arm) and Shane Jennings (shoulder) shipped knocks.