Irish rugby’s 19-year run of having at least one team in the knockout stages of one or other of the two European competitions is hanging by a thread.
Only once before in the 20-year history of the two tournaments has there been no Irish representation beyond the pool stages, in the 1996-97 season. But the weekend's results saw the two teams out of contention, Munster and Leinster, both win, while the two still in contention, Ulster and Connacht, each suffered potentially grievous defeats.
Ulster's 33-17 defeat to Saracens has left them the worst ranked of the five second-placed sides across the quintet of pools. "They teach you a lesson each time you play them; this game and the last game," said director of rugby Les Kiss. "It is not good enough to sit back and let the things happen that did in the second half. We have just got to get better."
Even Northampton’s last-ditch 19-15 win at home to Glasgow last night did Ulster no favours. Hence, they need to beat Oyonnax at the Kingspan Stadium next Saturday and hope for favours elsewhere to qualify as one of the three best runners-up. They are disadvantage by being the first pool to kick-off.
Looking to next weekend, Kiss said: “The truth is now we have to get five points and we also have to sit and wait for a couple of results. We do not control our destiny completely. It is not the ideal position to be in. But it is a weird competition, every year it does something different. We will see what happens.”
The good news for
in advance of announcing his 35/36-man squad for Ireland’s opening Six Nations games against Wales and France next Wednesday or Thursday is that in his first game since the World Cup Jared Payne’s deft kick set up Luke Marshall’s third try of their Euro campaign.
and Stuart McCloskey, prospective captain and uncapped inclusion, also came through unscathed.
Another likely uncapped member of the squad, CJ Stander, led from the front in winning yet another man-of-the-match gong as Munster at least partially redeemed themselves with a 26-13 home win over Stade Francais. Asked if he’d have any reservations about throwing Stander straight into the Six Nations, head coach Anthony Foley said: “None whatsoever.”
“He’s been banging on for weeks,” said Foley. “If we get more people like that, people follow that, and I think the supporters are starting to connect with him now and they’re starting to see what he’s about, and it’s the grit and the hard work. It’s not just the big carries. He’s good out on the pitch.
“Him being captain this year obviously wasn’t something that we foresaw. It wasn’t a plan until Peter’s knee went, so we needed to figure out who was the man to lead this because this group would be used to big leaders, big physical, demanding men that lead but also make sense in what they’re trying to get out of it, and I think CJ is getting there, and he’s going to be a great leader going forward.”
That Munster finally showed up was a relief, albeit tinged with regrets that they hadn’t done so sooner. “We didn’t pick up anything out of three games in our group,” said Foley in reference to the back-to-back defeats against Leicester and last week’s loss in Paris. “So that’s bitterly disappointing and obviously the one that we lost at home, it’s the kind of stuff we don’t want to have happen. So it was good today but in the broad picture of things it’s very bittersweet.”
Leinster also had a redemptory first win of their campaign when beating Bath 25-11 at the RDS with six starting debutants. The key? “I suppose the level of intensity that we brought,” said
. “Even though there were things that weren’t perfect out there. We got ourselves in good position a few times but we’re not quite nailing some of the opportunities we create. In defence we made a few poor reads on numerous occasions, but the scramble, the effort, and the will to work for your team-mates was what won us the game.”
It echoed Foley’s sentiments
The latest in a cruel run of narrow defeats for Connacht, by 21-18 to Brive on Saturday night, came courtesy of Thomas Laranjeiro’s seventh penalty of the night in the third minute of overtime. It leaves Pat Lam’s team relying on Newcastle to beat Brive while they take five points off Russian side Enisei-STM to win their group.
Otherwise, as the fifth ranked runner-up going into the final weekend, like Ulster, Connacht will need favours to advance to the last eight as one of the three best-runners-up.