European Champions Cup: Irish goose could be cooked before Christmas as heat comes on

Leinster, Munster and Ulster can scarcely afford to be beaten again

 Clermont Auvergne players, including Fritz Lee (centre), celebrate after the final whistle at Thomond Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Clermont Auvergne players, including Fritz Lee (centre), celebrate after the final whistle at Thomond Park. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

It’s not unusual for Leinster, Munster and Ulster to have lost a match each by the half-way point in the pool stages of Europe’s premier rugby competition. It happened four seasons ago and Leinster and Ulster still progressed to the quarter-finals, and neither did it stop Leinster and Munster advancing five seasons ago. Yet somehow the threat of no Irish team in the knock-out stages for the first time in 17 seasons seems more real than ever.

For starters, both Munster – of all teams – and Ulster have suffered home defeats to the heavyweight French duo of Clermont and Toulon. There is no shame in that, but it has left both seriously imperilled, and were Leinster to lose at home to Harlequins on Saturday night at the Aviva, then the Irish goose could look a little cooked before Christmas.

Three seasons ago, Clermont lost to a vintage Leinster team featuring Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa, and coached by Joe Schmidt, in a Bordeaux semi-final that came down to Gordon D’Arcy’s tackle knocking the ball from Wesley Fofana’s grasp over the line.

Since then, Clermont have beaten Leinster home and away, and now Munster home and away. In the last two seasons, Toulon have beaten Leinster and Munster at home, and Ulster in Ravenhill. In all but two of those seven successive defeats to the French big two, the Irish sides finished within a score yet, there is undeniably a trend here.

Far from looking energised after the autumn tests and the ensuing weekend off, the province’s leading lights looked tired, and the performances had nothing like the post-November feel-good factor of recent seasons. Maybe it further highlights the magnitude of Ireland’s November achievements under Schmidt.

Neither Munster nor Leinster looked like they could muster a try-scoring chance, much less a try, and both conceded two. Each managed to lose by seven points or less and so earn a losing bonus point. Each had set-piece malfunctions – Munster more so in the lineout, Leinster in the scrum – and those malfunctions had a profound effect.

Opposing number eights

Fritz LeeNick Easter

The benchmarks for qualification may yet come down, but not only has no team ever progressed after losing their opening two matches, but no team has ever reached the quarter-final stages after losing the back-to-back matches. While Munster face the most daunting task in Clermont on Sunday, Leinster had better get their act together.

Other results didn’t go the way of Munster or Leinster either, given Saracens won in Sale and Wasps had a bonus-point win away to a disinterested Castres.

The same could be said for Ulster, with Leicester beating Toulon to leave Neil Doak’s men third in pool three. Ulster have to win in Llanelli next Sunday to stay alive, but could be down a few more players after the carnage of last Saturday night, and even then will most probably have to repeat the trick away to Toulon.

Ulster look to have more try-scoring creativity, but less power up front. Munster and Leinster have more power but have been struggling to get over the whitewash. Leinster have a lot of room for improvement, starting with their scrum and lineout, and with thinnish resources Quins have doubts about Joe Marler and Nick Evans. Leinster have their injury woes too but they still had 11 of Ireland’s 23 that beat Australia. They have better players than Harlequins.

Munster have never had the backline firepower that Leinster or latterly Ulster have possessed, and with no marquee back from New Zealand, such as Doug Howlett, Christian Cullen, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi or Casey Laulala, that remains so.

Point of attack

Opting for a close-range lineout approaching half-time was very brave, but had Munster made it 16-9 at the interval that would have been some result. Instead, they spent the entire third quarter getting there, when that might have been a kick to make it 16-12 on the hour, thus creating the option of going for the posts in the 76th minute.

The other key difference is that Clermont are as potent and hungry as ever. The arrival of Jonno Gibbes has refreshed their coaching set-up, while Camille Lopez seems to have resolved their outhalf issue.

There were signs that Clermont’s long winning run at Stade Marcel Michelin was beginning to weigh them down last season before Castres ended that 77-match-winning streak in ‘le barrage’, and Montpellier won there in September. But even so, in Clermont’s last 85 matches at the Stade Michelin, they have won 83 and lost two.

Of course, we know Munster will up their intensity even further. It’s classic Stand Up and Fight territory. And who knows, a bonus point could yet afford them a route into the last eight, albeit by having to beat Saracens in the all-weather Allianz Park. Next Sunday will be like a 15-round heavyweight fight. And Munster start on the ropes. gthornley@irishtimes.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.