The Pro 12 rises: Resurgent sides put English and French to the sword
Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Glasgow all dazzled during Champions Cup victories
Conor Murray and Simon Zebo helped Munster to a resounding win over Leicester at Thomond Park. Photograph: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
So let’s just examine the old scoreboard. Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Glasgow played Northampton, Leicester, Clermont Auvergne and Racing Métro in the European Rugby Champions Cup last weekend and the supposed English and French heavyweights, as they say on television sports news bulletins, may want to look away now. Adding the four results together makes for distinctly one-sided reading.
So here are those stats in full: Pro12 4 Premiership/Top14 0. Tries scored 16, tries conceded 7. Points for 137, points against 56. A star-studded Wasps did beat Connacht at home on Sunday but even that was less than straightforward. How different it feels to a year ago when Ireland’s proud provinces could barely win a game in Europe and failed to have a team in the last eight for the first time since 1997-98.
There are a range of contributory factors, some of them originating closer to the English east midlands than Dublin, Limerick, Belfast or Glasgow. There is also a round of reverse fixtures to negotiate before drawing too many concrete conclusions. But what you can say, without any fear of contradiction, is that all four winning sides played outstanding rugby, with the performances every bit as eye-catching as the results.
Take Glasgow. Those of us present at Scotstoun to watch them savage Leicester on the tournament’s opening night were already aware of their potential at home but to beat the French champions in Paris – they led 23-7 with eight minutes to play – was perhaps the finest hour in the club’s history. Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Alex Dunbar … when good, homegrown players thrive at the top level for the side that has long nurtured them it is doubly satisfying for all concerned.
Ulster, too, were on a different plane, fuelled by their own local boys made good. Paddy Jackson, like Russell, is maturing into a top-class stand-off and even though Charles Piutau and Ruan Pienaar bring a dash of world-class quality, there was an equal amount to admire in the workrate of Iain Henderson and the aerial skills of Tommy Bowe. Scoring five tries against Clermont – even if the hosts did concede four – does not happen every day.
Munster and Leinster made even shorter work of the Tigers and the Saints, to the point where reputations are now on the line in the East Midlands. Leicester did rebound from their Glasgow shellacking to defeat Racing at home the following week but there has been no holding Munster since the tragic death of Anthony Foley. CJ Stander has been a man inspired and Conor Murray, as the All Blacks can testify, grows ever more influential.
The frequent cry last year was that while their first XVs were strong, the Irish provinces did not possess the same depth as their English and French counterparts. If that is true it did not seem so at Northampton as the home team were ruthlessly unpicked late on by the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne. Earlier Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose had looked a class above their opposite numbers, making the absence of Jonathan Sexton almost irrelevant.
Ireland even now have multiple prop stars; if Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy do not all make the Lions tour next summer, they really will be blessed in that area. Behind Murray at scrum-half, both Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion are looking sharp. As a long-time admirer of Rob Kearney’s full-back work, it was also good to see the 30-year-old Lion somewhere back close to his commanding former self.
But why now? Why the sudden upsurge? Is it coincidental this is a Lions year? Probably not. Is there a collective desire to right the wrongs of last season? Definitely. Only last week the Pro12 organisers produced figures showing there had been more tries – 316 in 58 games – scored at this stage than in any previous season. The autumn weather has mostly been benign, which always helps, but there does appear to have been a distinct shift in mindset.
The national team’s win over New Zealand has clearly made a difference to their collective self-belief. So did Connacht’s Pro12 title, which has undoubtedly stirred the neighbours. The question now is whether it can be sustained. Saracens, Wasps and Clermont still head three of the five pools at the halfway stage, and nothing is yet nailed down. But if Edinburgh can defeat Stade Français and Cardiff Blues topple Bath twice in consecutive Challenge Cup weekends, a trend really will start to emerge. Maybe England’s December Test outside the international window has had some effect but if so, it will only be temporary. The good news for the tournament, regardless, is that the Celts are right back in business.