Provinces show there’s plenty of life in Irish rugby yet
Connacht victory the highlight of a morale-boosting provincial clean sweep
Connacht prop Denis Buckley, centre, and his team-mates celebrate a late first-half try during the victory over Montpellier at the Sportsground. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty
Well now, the system cannot be broken.
Irish rugby, seemingly battered and bruised after being so badly exposed at the World Cup in Japan, returns to European fields to instantly show what the players are capable of doing in the cold of winter.
A provincial clean sweep is rare enough, but how on earth Connacht managed to edge Montpellier when shorn 10 frontliners amidst a full-blown injury crisis will be examined by archaeologists centuries from now.
That’s not all.
Jacob Stockdale, shelving his poor defensive form, returned to hero status with his last-second intercept denying Semesa Rokoduguni a certain match-winning try.
“We dogged that out and nearly tried to beat ourselves at the end but we dogged it out,” said McFarland following the 17-16 result, offering praise and criticism in equal measure, perhaps on the premise that the next challenge for Ulster is one of the most daunting of them all.
“If we give Clermont that much ball next week they will torture us.”
Johann van Graan’s team produced a typical Houdini act at the Liberty Stadium with the try bonus point claimed by James Cronin, but belonging to the entire Munster pack, in the very last play.
“It doesn’t matter when you score your tries as long as you get four,” said Van Graan following the 32-13 victory over an Ospreys side devoid of towering Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric.
“This is such an amazing competition,” the South African continued and nobody disagreed. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five rounds. You have to do what you can, control what you can.
“From the outside there was a lot of noise about the Ospreys and how we were going run away with the score. Rugby doesn’t work like that.”
What is apparent now more than ever is rugby remains a sport that demands a deep well of motivation. The provinces still have this in abundance as Munster, Ulster and, remarkably, Connacht found a way to win while Leinster clicked into gear to defeat Benetton 33-19 thanks to serious performances from returning Irish players Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier.
“They are trying to get it [the World Cup] off their chest,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen. “You can see it in them. You can see it in the players, that sense that they just want to get out and play well.
“It was a bit frustrating watching that game as the players’ timing is a bit off. Hopefully they will be better for the game with a difficult challenge away to France [next up].”
Caution was the overriding message from each provincial coach, which is understandable as what comes next – four Franco-Irish fixtures – will show how Irish rugby is truly set for the arduous months ahead.
“Guys have had a break, they have had a bit of time away, and they will get some time away over Christmas as well,” said Cullen. “That’s important. It is a long season. Everyone wants to fire in Australia next summer. We will chop and change. The depth of the squad is important for us.”
The other provinces do not boast Leinster’s resources but, no matter, after this November weekend everyone is smiling again. Particularly Garry Ringrose who scored his first hat trick of tries as a professional.
“It feels like it has just run as one,” Ringrose said of overlapping campaigns. “The season finished last year and it was into the World Cup straight away really and back into this now. It’s what you want, it’s what I love, it’s what most guys love doing, getting out and playing.”
The show goes on, with Leinster travelling to Lyon, Connacht fearlessly entering the Toulouse cauldron, Ulster hosting Clermont this Friday before Munster welcome Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and Racing 92 to Thomond Park.
Elsewhere, Champions Cup holders Saracens, who lost to Racing in Paris on Sunday, are set to drop their planned appeal against a €6.3 million fine and a 35-point penalty for a breach of the English Premiership salary cap.