Gerry Thornley: Promising signs that Irish rugby’s healing process has begun

Those on Japanese expedition will feel they have a lot to prove as Champions Cup begins

Munster’s Conor Murray in action during their win over Ulster at Thomond Park. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster’s Conor Murray in action during their win over Ulster at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

In the 76th minute of Munster’s 22-16 win over Ulster on Saturday night, Conor Murray latched over the ball to stymie an Ulster attack from deep. Immovable in earning his side a penalty, there would have been few more encouraging sights for the Munster faithful. Nothing wrong with his neck there.

As we know from the last three World Cup seasons, this upcoming European campaign can go one of two extreme ways. Four years ago, no Irish team reached the knockout stages for the first time since 1997-98, with Leinster winning only one of six pool games. Yet in the fallout of the 2007 World Cup, Munster went on to reclaim the Heineken Cup, as Leinster did in the 2011-12 season.

These are early days in Irish rugby’s redemption story, and Murray’s turnover penalty was only a small cameo in the greater scheme of things, but maybe it also typified promising signs that the healing process has begun.

Although losing six from six in their first foray last season, Lyon are again pacesetters in the Top 14

One of the more encouraging aspects of Ireland’s World Cup campaign was that whatever about their mental state or their accuracy in execution, physically they looked in good nick. They really did. Whether carrying a heavy load in Japan, such as Murray or the indefatigable CJ Stander, or frustrated with their lack of game time, ie Andrew Conway and Rhys Ruddock, plenty of those on the Japanese expedition as well as those overlooked will feel they have something to prove and should be in the condition to do so.

Disjointed affairs

No less than the old days when they kick-started the season at the end of August, or coming in the wake of a World Cup, with new or revived combinations, last weekend’s interpros were typically disjointed affairs.

The exception was Leinster. To produce such accuracy in the Sportsground despite wholesale changes was testimony to their skill levels and coaching. Benetton, up first at the RDS on Saturday, have become tricky customers for them in recent times, but Leinster are an altogether different animal from four years ago, and nothing galvanises a province quite like the emergence of players such as Ronan Kelleher and their array of young backrowers.

Admittedly, Pool 1 may be tougher than it looks. Although losing six from six in their first foray last season, Lyon are again pacesetters in the Top 14. They responded to their first loss of the season away to Clermont two weeks ago by thrashing La Rochelle 45-18 at home last Sunday. Northampton had won their first three Premiership games, including a victory away to Saracens, before losing at Bath last Saturday.

Allowing for Tyler Bleyendaal’s need to stay fit given their outhalf injury problems, Munster’s Pool 4 may be a little less daunting if, as Mark McCall has stated, Saracens prioritises Premiership survival in light of their 35-point penalty although, of course, they will be a serious threat again if they progress to the quarters. Furthermore, while their English World Cup contingent might be rested for the opening two rounds, they should be there for the pivotal back-to-back meetings with Munster in December.

By then, Munster will need to have beaten the Ospreys next Saturday and Racing 92 – Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan et al – at Thomond Park on Saturday week. Racing recorded just two wins in their first eight games before last weekend. Zebo, the Top 14’s third-highest try scorer last season with 11, has yet to register one this season.

But they had six of France’s World Cup squad, and in welcoming back four of them plus Finn Russell for last Sunday’s Parisian derby away to Stade Francais, had a 25-9 bonus point win thanks to a Teddy Thomas hat-trick.

Similarly, Toulouse (where Connacht pitch up on Saturday week) supplied eight players to France’s World Cup, plus Cheslin Kolbe, and lost five of their first eight games. But a quintet of backs returned for last Saturday’s 34-8 win over Clermont, a repeat of last June’s final, with Maxime Medard, Romain Ntamack and Sofiane Guitoune among their try scorers, and that was without Antoine Dupont and Kolbe.

Injury crisis

The consequences of Connacht’s secondrow injury crisis were laid bare by the profoundly influential performance of Scott Fardy in Galway. With Handre Pollard joining and Frans Steyn to return, Montpellier, in Galway on Sunday, are still entitled to the moniker “les langueboks”, and their heavy South African presence includes the locks Nico Janse van Rensburg and Paul Willemse.

Montpellier also welcomed back Guilhem Guirado, Yacouba Camara and Louis Picamoles from World Cup duty, as well as Aaron Cruden, for last Saturday’s creditable 19-all draw at Toulon and, financially, there will be no greater David v Goliath clash on the opening weekend.

A la the World Cup, pedigree counts, and since Leinster’s breakthrough triumph in 2009, there have only been two new names on the trophy, Toulon in 2013 for the first of three in a row and Saracens’ win in 2016 followed two semi-final defeats and one final, over three seasons.

After next Saturday’s opener away to Bath, Ulster host Clermont in a must-win game at the Kingspan on Friday week

Last year’s four semi-finalists – Saracens, Leinster, Toulouse and Munster – have now won 13 of the 24 Heineken Champions Cups between them and it would be no surprise if that figure becomes 14 out of 25 this season.

There are three other former champions in the mix, namely Bath, Northampton and Ulster, and if there is to be a new winner then three-time finalists Clermont look the likeliest candidates.

They won the Challenge Cup last season after suffering the almost mandatory champions’ hangover after lifting their second Bouclier de Brennus the season before.

After next Saturday’s opener away to Bath, Ulster host Clermont in a must-win game at the Kingspan on Friday week. Clermont supplies seven of France’s World Cup squad and keeping back Rabah Slimani, Arthur Iturria, Wesley Fofana and Damian Penaud for European duty looks like a statement of intent.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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