Gerry Thornley: Tight margins until the tightest of finales

Irish sides did better than expected in Champions Cup pool stage with Munster the happiest

Jack Carty has yet to score a drop-goal for Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

Jack Carty has yet to score a drop-goal for Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

 

Now that the dust has settled on a typically eventful final weekend to the pool stages, the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup certainly has a more pan-European feel to it than last season’s Anglo-French carve-up, as well as a seriously heavyweight feel to it as well.

All told, six of the last eight clubs have a total of 15 European Cups between them (Toulouse four, Leinster Rugby three, RC Toulon three, Wasps two, Munster Rugby two and Saracens one).

The exceptions are Clermont Auvergne, who will be seeking revenge for the final losses to Toulon in 2013 and ’15, who again look the best team in the competition but who, again, may find a way to lose it.

That said, they could have a home country semi-final as well as a home quarter-final if they beat Toulon and Leinster beat Wasps, while the last eight also has some welcome novelty value to it with the presence of Glasgow for the first time ever.  

Coupled with the Ospreys’ accruing a maximum 30 points from their Challenge Cup pool, as well as leading the Pro12, it’s clear that the bulk suppliers to the respective Celts in the World Cup took a heavy toll last season. In any event, it’s a welcome revival.

Certainly Irish rugby would have taken two home quarter-finals at this point last year or at the outset of the competition. Recall, after all, that Leinster (5 to 2), Ulster (7 to 2) and Connacht (25 to 1) began the tournament as third favourites in their pools, while Munster were the Pool One outsiders at 7 to 1.

Munster should be the most satisfied. They were the prime beneficiaries of Leinster’s draw in Castres by earning a second-placed ranking with their sleeves-rolled-up strangulation of a determined Racing and with it not only a home quarter-final, but a semi-final in the Aviva should they and Saracens progress.

Symbiotic relationship

They have developed a mightily effective way of both attacking and defending, seem very assured in what they are doing and have their symbiotic relationship with their 16th man, Thomond Park, back in place.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that, in contrary to stereotypes, the French kept going until the end, even in what were dead rubbers for them. As well as Racing, and of course Bordeaux, who won at the Kingspan thanks to plundering two tries off Ulster’s depowered scrum and defending heroically, Castres, with little hope of advancing, gave Leinster a searching test. Go figure the French.

While Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse all qualified, Montpellier also kept up the chase until the end with their bonus point win over Northampton. By contrast, Exeter were 34-0 down at half-time against Clermont, before redeeming some pride with four second-half tries, while Leicester suffered a record 43-0 defeat at home to Glasgow.

The debate rages as to whether Leinster should then have tried to go the length of the pitch with 14 men in an effort to procure the win which would have yielded the second-placed ranking that Munster now have. But the draw had at least ensured a lucrative and helpful home quarter-final, and in the heat of battle their conservatism was understandable, although even if they’d lost the game they’d still ultimately have had a home quarter-final.

In truth the damage was done beforehand in their failure not to convert abundant chances – they scored only three tries despite making 10 line breaks – into scores. Heretofore, unlike last season, Leinster had been very clinical this season.   

They possibly scale greater heights than Munster, witness the 37-10 and 60-13 wins over Northampton, and the 57-3 destruction of Montpellier. But they looked a little drained after that “high” against Montpellier, witness Garry Ringrose untypically falling off a tackle after going in too high, with the net result being that their base-level performance can perhaps be lower than that of Munster.

Like most sides, Leinster have their key leaders and performers, and they also looked a little rudderless without Johnny Sexton, especially, and Isa Nacewa. Because of this, their cup-winning credentials appeared less compelling on Friday night, and the consequences of the draw – namely a semi-final away to Clermont or Toulon also blocking their path to the final – have seen them drift in the betting to 7 to 1, now fractionally behind Munster at 11 to 2.

No safeguard

But if they are left to contemplate what might have been, it is as nothing compared to Connacht. For sure, as John Muldoon has stated, a drop-goal with nine minutes to go was no safeguard against Toulouse coming back down the pitch and responding with a score of their own, any kind of score, to thereby secure the same, decisive, nine-point winning margin.

A Connacht try would also obliged Toulouse to respond in kind, as only a try by the French team could then have prevented Connacht reaching the last eight.

Nevertheless, given the coaches and team leaders had discussed such a scenario unfolding in the endgame it’s still a surprise that they didn’t at least play with a bit more patience.

Going for a try was, of course, true to type for this gung-ho Connacht team, yet with a European Champions Cup quarter-final on the line, they surely need to have a “three-point” strategy in their arsenal.

Interestingly, neither Jack Carty nor Craig Ronaldson have ever kicked a drop-goal for Connacht.

The other lament was the absence of Bundee Aki, who would have given them go-forward ball like only he does and not left Connacht looking so lateral and thus exposed to Toulouse’s array of heavy poachers over the ball and Wayne Barnes’s somewhat one-sided interpretation at the breakdown.

Those in the jackal position did not always seem to be supporting their own body weight.

Aside from being the decision-making hub of their midfield, Aki gives Connacht’s running game its main source of penetration and X factor. He was the match-winner in their win over Toulouse at the Sportsground in round one, when had Connacht converted either of two late attacking lineouts into a try, they’d have qualified before kick-off on Sunday.

So many tight margins. What a shame.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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