Gerry Thornley: French clubs loom large for the provinces

France’s international contingent set to ensure tough test for Irish provinces in Europe

France’s   Fijian centre Virimi Vakatawa,  who was almost unplayable,  celebrates scoring  a try for Racing92 against Saracens. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

France’s Fijian centre Virimi Vakatawa, who was almost unplayable, celebrates scoring a try for Racing92 against Saracens. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

 

One of these days we might go a whole 24 hours without mentioning the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s quarter-final exit. But not just yet.

Here’s a new twist though, namely a silver lining from that ultimately cloud-covered expedition.

Having the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup within a fortnight of the World Cup’s final weekend was always likely to have repercussions for some of the contestants and, not surprisingly, it’s punished the European teams that were more successful in Japan.

Saracens are the most obvious case in point. Eight of their squad played for England in the World Cup final, as well as the Springboks’ prop Vincent Koch, and of them only Ben Spencer (who made his World Cup debut when playing the last five minutes against South Africa) featured against Racing 92 in Paris last Sunday, as well as Koch off the bench.

Without the heartbeat of both their own team and England’s, as well as nine other injured players, they were beaten 30-10.

There are other issues afloat, and having backed down on their stated course of action to appeal a 35-point deduction in the Premiership whether or not they will prioritise avoiding relegation over their defence of their European crown remains to be seen.

Saracens should still beat the Ospreys, who also suffered for Wales’ progress to the last weekend, at home this Saturday, and we’ll have a clearer idea at lunchtime on Friday December 7th when they announce their side to play Munster at Thomond Park as to whether they have become Eurosceptics.

But either way, it was a sensible rugby decision by Mark McCall to afford his World Cup finalists a respite after the biggest disappointment of those eight players’ careers.

By contrast, Exeter and Northampton played their smaller contingents, and with Henry Slade and Dan Biggar the match-winners, they were the only two Premiership winners out of seven clubs.

Meanwhile, of course, Ireland having exited two weeks earlier in Japan, the provinces delivered another of their memorable four-timers which have decorated this competition.

Pick of the bunch was undoubtedly Connacht’s win over Montpellier. This must have been all the more satisfying for Andy Friend, forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, backs coach Nigel Carolan, defence coach Peter Wilkins and the whole squad given the absence of 13 injured players was compounded by the loss of three more named in the side and lock Cillian Gallagher within seven minutes of kick-off, at which point they already trailed 7-0.

Notable triumph

It was as notable a triumph for the Connacht collective, crowd et al, as they’ve ever had at the Sportsground.

Reflecting their comparative financial clout, whereas Montpellier atoned for the absence of World Cup-winning outhalf Handre Pollard by delaying the return of Aaron Cruden, capped 50 times by the All Blacks, to New Zealand, Friend was rewarded for entrusting the endgame to the talented Conor Fitzgerald, a 22-year-old former Limerick minor hurler who was released by the Munster academy at the end of the season before last.

On a weekend when strength in depth and fighting to the last play were recurring themes, Jacob Stockdale, known for his reads going forward, produced his best yet in retreat to deny Bath, while Munster (ever the Drama Kings) again kept us entertained until deep into overtime for their bonus point try. In Europe, they just don’t do dull.

Garry Ringrose’s first-ever career hat-trick in tandem with the performances of Johnny Sexton and Josh van der Flier (all making their seasonal debuts post-World Cup) stole the show at the RDS.

The almost angry outpourings of Ringrose after his third try and Sexton after his, akin to CJ Stander in Swansea, demonstrated the depth of motivation within Ireland’s returning World Cup players. They’re also super fit, refreshed and relatively light on game time.

But herein lies a note of caution.

The same applies to the French, and due to the cancellation of their final pool game against England they only played four matches in Japan. The provinces come up against four French sides this weekend, including the three probable contenders for the trophy in four-time winners Toulouse, Racing 92 and Clermont Auvergne.

Six of Toulouse’s eight-strong contingent in the French World Cup squad were in their line-up for Friday night’s comeback win away to Gloucester, while both Antoine Dupont and Cheslin Kolbe could come back into the mix against Connacht on Saturday or soon after. Injury-ravaged Connacht also have a shorter turnaround by two days.

Only three of Clermont’s seven members of the French squad were part of the half-century they racked up against Harlequins, with Sebastien Vahaamahina, Arthur Ituria, Damien Penaud and Wesley Fofana still to come into the mix.

But they’ll still pose an altogether different set of attacking problems for Ulster in the Kingspan Stadium next Friday than Bath did, not least in their powerful Fijian duo of flanker Peceli Yato and winger Aliverati Rako. Each looked unstoppable in scoring an eye-catching brace of tries and, what’s more, Rako played only one match for France in Japan.

Prized scalp

Similarly, France’s Fijian centre Virini Vakatawa was almost unplayable against Saracens on Sunday. He was also one of six returning World Cup players who lit up Racing’s bonus-point win before visiting Thomond Park on Saturday and such is the form of their back three that Simon Zebo (who’s wife Elvira gave birth to their third child, Noah Anthony yesterday) may again be confined to a place on the bench.

Leinster play the French side with the lowest profile in this competition, but Lyon are a hard-working team without stars who take pride in their defence.

They were very disappointed with their loss in Northampton, and their head coach Pierre Mignoni – something of a petit Bernard Laporte – is expected to have the Top 14 pacesetters fired up for the visit of Leinster, who remain one of the competition’s most prized scalps.

To further put last weekend’s four-timer into perspective, the odds on that accumulator – with Connacht and Ulster marginal underdogs and Leinster and Munster hot favourites – were just over 4/1 with Paddy Powers.

A repeat this weekend, when the odds will be swelled by Connacht’s task in Toulouse, will be over 40/1.

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