Champions Cup: Talking points from the weekend
John O’Sullivan looks at what we learned from the penultimate round of fixtures
In what was a largely excellent weekend for the Irish provinces, Leinster, Munster and Ulster in the Champions Cup with the prospect that the other provinces joining Leo Cullen’s squad in the knockout stages.
Munster’s cutting edge
Felix Jones has done a superb job with Munster’s attacking shape and it’s no surprise that former coach Rassie Erasmus tried unsuccessfully to persuade the former Irish fullback to fulfil a coaching role in the Springboks set-up.
Munster’s patterns in attack are clever and nicely varied, maximising the qualities of the players at his disposal. While Keith Earls and Simon Zebo were accomplished players prior to Jones joining the coaching set-up, he deserves huge credit for the development and current form of players like Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam, Alex Wootton, Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold, that has had and may also have future Ireland connotations.
Ian Keatley’s performances have never been better; his mazy running carrying the ball-in-two hands attracts defenders and creates space for others, while Chris Farrell has so many more qualities than just a physical presence. The development in that side of Munster’s game is appreciable.
Ulster dig deep
The circumstances in which Les Kiss and his Ulster team found themselves going into the game against La Rochelle didn’t augur well, an extensive injury list and a lack of form.
In addition the French club dominated the opening quarter of the match, something Ulster would have aspired to do themselves in generating a hostile atmosphere. The home side were slightly fortunate to be just six points behind on the balance of possession, territory and opportunity in the first quarter but in spite of these handicaps they demonstrated tremendous grit and resolve to win the match.
Rory Best and Iain Henderson were outstanding, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale provided key moments, Charles Piutau was energised but Louis Ludik and replacement Darren Cave - on after 26-minutes for the unfortunate Craig Gilroy - deserve huge kudos for the manner in which they organised the team in defence, making some great reads and big hits that reversed the flow of pressure.
The key now is to back up the performance against Wasps in Coventry, potentially with no reinforcements from the treatment room.
Jordi Murphy and Fergus McFadden excel
Leo Cullen’s Leinster qualified as Pool 3 winners and in doing so guaranteed a home quarter-final on foot of a freewheeling demolition of an under strength Glasgow Warriors at the RDS. The visitors posed one or two problems initially but once Leinster committed to resourcing rucks, carrying straight and hard before going wide, they cut the Scottish side to shreds.
Cullen and Leinster scrumhalf Luke McGrath, who had an excellent match, both referenced the fact that the home side lost a little shape in the second half and were prone to the odd 40/60 offload that will be punished by better teams in tighter matches. There were also one or two issues in defence where an individual’s impetuousness overrode trust in the system and structure.
It shouldn’t deflect from or tarnish a fine performance in which all 23 players contributed handsomely and also vindicated Cullen’s selection, specifically in the accomplished displays of flanker Jordi Murphy and right wing Fergus McFadden.
Murphy was superb on both sides of the ball, his try an illustration of his football acumen but there were so many other areas in which he excelled. The yellow card owed more to a ludicrous law - allowing a quick tap penalty within 12 metres of the try line and expecting the defending team to retreat 10 of those is ridiculously punitive - than any indiscipline on his part; Murphy took one for the team.
McFadden’s form of late has been outstanding and this was another high calibre performance in which he added considerable value to the team.
Fitness still an issue for French
It was interesting to note that La Rochelle, Montpellier and to a lesser extent Racing 92 struggled to cope defensively, noticeably losing shape when opponents managed to go through multiple phases and use the full expanse of the pitch.
Those circumstances would stretch any team but in general terms the French clubs prefer to play in bursts, a rugby Foxtrot so to speak, slow, slow, quick, quick, slow but having to defend when ball-in-play time is elongated, the structure in defence crumbles significantly.
La Rochelle’s offloading game is hugely effective and great to watch when they control the tempo but becomes vulnerable to aggressive line speed - no progress, no idea or Plan B - as both Wasps and Ulster demonstrated in recent matches; passes forced and balls spilled was common to both defeats.
Montpellier’s defence disintegrated when the Exeter Chiefs put pace and width on the game to the point where the English club bullied them in the final quarter. No one will want to get the Chiefs if they make the knockout stages.
All three French sides have tremendous size but if opponents can survive the collisions and remain disciplined then the Pro14 and Premiership sides appear to have superior fitness.
One of the performances of the weekend belonged to Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets who returned to the form and quality of rugby that was redolent of the Pro14 victory last season when thumping Bath at the Rec. Tadgh Beirne’s try, complete with nifty sidestep, showcased just what a brilliant attacking side the Welsh side are at their best and why if they can replicate that against Toulon at Parc y Scarlets next weekend, they will emerge as pool winners despite losing their first two matches.