Gerry Thornley: Irish provinces will be aware of slip-up history
Ulster have demonstrated there is quality in their ranks and a palpable spirit
Ulster’s Will Addison scoring their third try against Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets, Wales. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Half way there in the pool stages, and for all four Irish provinces halfway towards completing back-to-back wins that could go a long way toward propelling them into the knock-out stages. But, of course, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.
That applies to all the pools, although there are some interesting trends taking place. Aside from the Irish provinces all showing up prominently, so too are the Scots, with Edinburgh first and Glasgow second in their respective pools, and well in contention to provide two Scottish quarter-finalists of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time ever.
Against that, the Welsh are showing up poorly, and nowhere was this more evident than at a poorly attended Parc Y Scarlets. Regarded as the heartbeat of Welsh regional rugby, in their hour of need a mere 7,421 attended, and Ulster were full value for their 25-24 win.
Cardiff’s hopes already look equally forlorn, and about the only bright spot is the Ospreys atop their pool in the Challenge Cup, a competition in which Benetton lead their pool and Zebre are second in theirs.
A pre-tournament feeling that this was an unexceptional French contingent has been reinforced so far, although Castres and Toulon or Montpellier might still supplement the unbeaten pair of Toulouse and Racing.
But for the powerful form of Saracens, the Premiership clubs are again coming up short, with Exeter and Wasps especially disappointing.
As for the Irish following on from the feel-good factor generated by the November window, it was a good weekend for the provinces in Europe again, beginning with the pick of the results – that bonus point 25-24 win for Ulster.
It may have said as much about the Scarlets’ decline this season, but even so it was the first big statement win of the Dan McFarland era, and demonstrated there is some quality in their ranks as well as palpable spirit after last season’s annus horribilis.
The Irish carryover was very evident too. Rory Best reaffirmed his continuing value and in a tight five that stood up to be counted, Iain Henderson has rarely played better, also reminding us how uber competitive the Irish secondrow has become. And Jacob Stockdale did his thing, as he does, from Will Addison’s break.
Some break too. That was the Lions resident “13” Jonathan Davies that Addison beat on the outside for Stockdale’s try, not to mention his line as first receiver for his own try.
Aside from his elusive running, smooth distribution and kicking game, Addison again seemed to create time for himself on the ball, and, after losing the spark of Charles Piatau, is also the tournament’s joint leading offloader alongside Toulouse’s Joe Tekori on nine.
Some were quick to dismiss Addison as an average club/provincial player, but Joe Schmidt’s judgment again looks pretty sound – not exactly a first. Already the gnashing of teeth as to how he was allowed leave England can be heard across the water.
Ulster’s celebrations on the full-time whistle have to be taken in the context of everything they have gone through in recent times. This was their biggest win since the corresponding win away to Harlequins a year ago. But it will only count if they back it up, as they did against ‘Quins.
The same applies to Leinster. Bath’s selection next Friday will tell us much, but following on from Toulouse’s inspired performance in round two, last Saturday at the Rec was another reminder that Leinster are this season’s most prized target in Europe. Accordingly, opponents have been inspired to produce their most focused and intense displays of the season, and that will continue to be the case.
They missed Robbie Henshaw as a focal point for their attack in the gluey, cramped pitch at the Rec, and the will feel his absence until some point during the Six Nations more than Ireland. But to win when not firing will stand to them, and they’re liable to respond clinically this week.
Munster look to face the toughest task of all away to Castres, and the pity is that the tournament organisers have signed off on simultaneous kick-offs for the Leinster-Bath and Castres-Munster games. A little bizarre and unprecedented.
The Irish provinces will be as aware as anyone that huge turnarounds within a week are far from uncommon.
When the Lions lost the first Test in Auckland by 30-15 to the All Blacks, Warren Gatland raised a few eyebrows by immediately declaring that a 15-point defeat could readily be turned around in a week. Sure enough, they won the second Test by 24-21, and the Lions were playing all their matches away from home on consecutive weekends against the back to back world champions.
Most famously Ulster thrashed Leicester by 33-0 in Belfast in 2003-04 and a week later lost 49-7 to the same opponents in Welford Road. Two seasons later Leinster beat Bourgoin 53-7 at the RDS, and a week later lost 28-30, and three seasons on they followed up a 33-3 home win over Castres by losing 18-15 a week later.
The most salient example is perhaps the corresponding third round five seasons ago. All four provinces won in the European Champions Cup; Leinster by 40-7 away to Northampton, Munster by 36-8 at home to Perpignan, Connacht by 16-14 away to Toulouse, and Ulster by 48-0 at home to Benetton.
A week later, while Ulster, not surprisingly, backed that up with a 35-3 away win in Treviso, Munster needed a last-minute moment of magic by JJ Hanrahan to escape with an 18-17 win in Stade Aime Giral, while Connacht and Leinster were beaten at home by 37-9 and 18-9.
In other words in three of those games the turnarounds within a week were 27, 30 and 42 points respectively!
And, of course, those who ignore the lessons of history are apt to repeat them.