Since 2007, when Leicester lost to Wasps in an all-English Heineken Cup final, the Irish have lorded it over the arrogant English © Gervais de Thornleille – four tournament victories to none, five finalists to three and ten semi-finalists to six … all from approximately half the tournament representation. The perceived advantage in qualification enjoyed by the three major Irish provinces was one of the drivers of the ERCC setup (even though it’s bollocks – under any qualification rules, the three would have cruised through in most seasons).
This weekend, all three provinces played English opponents – and they struggled mightily. The combined half-time score was 62-21 to the Premiership – an average of 21-7, although it should be noted that it was a very blustery weekend and in each case the English teams had the wind at their backs in the first half. In the second halves, all three Irish teams came out and fought for their lives in the tournament and began to show something like the quality we all think they have – Leinster and Munster eked out wins over Wasps and Sale, and Ulster got close enough to earn a bonus point and leave Leicester somewhat worried and mildly panicky. Combined, the score was 71-70 to les Anglais. Two of the three games were played in England, but still, this wasn’t by any means the cream of this year’s Boshiership season – the English teams stand 5th, 8th and 10th. Or in other words, the same berths occupied by Connacht, Embra and Cardiff in the Pro12 – none of whom are gracing this years HEC.
This was hardly an outstanding weekend from the provinces, and it really felt like muscle memory keeping them in it at times – BT Sport might be over-anxious to sell this as a brand-new tournament, but the provinces’ collective history and experience certainly told at times when there was a prospect of wipeout.
A quick word on each. Munster were able to use the wind to good effect in the second half and Sale just couldn’t get out of their own half. Any platform they did get, they found Peter O’Mahony and Dave Foley all over their lineout ball. And in CJ Stander they have found a wrecking ball. This was a performance for the ages, he just could not be contained. At times he looked to be going into contact too upright, but is just so strong he could keep going. Remarkable! They still have a problem at centre though. Hurley’s up-and-down season hit a trough here, and JJ Hanrahan’s nicely angled kick to the corner late in the match showed his contrasting style in a good light. Also, Simon Zebo seems a little out of sorts?
Three yers ago, Ulster lost in Welford Road and showed no cutting edge whatsoever, and got beaten. Those days are certainly gone, and Ulster now boast a backline capable of the sort of try that Tommy Bowe dotted down on Saturday night. With such potency behind the pack, they’ll be annoyed they gave Leicester a three try start in the match. Coupled with Jackson’s conversion blooper, it felt like an Ulster performance that only got to 90% intensity; never enough to win in a ground like Welford Road. Still, they’re alive in the pool, but must beat Toulon this weekend.
As for Leinster, they were the only one of the three at home, but this was another bounty of handling errors and tear-your-hair-out stuff from them. It’s becoming the default. Injuries are a mitigating factor and once the team was announced sans Messrs. Kearney and Ross, this had the potential to be a banana skin. Again, they dug themselves out of a corner, and used the wind to decent effect in the second half. Amid the injury crisis, Dom Ryan and Darragh ‘Fanj’ Fanning have stepped up admirably this season, and continued that streak here.
There is no doubt the delight we take in beating English teams, and we find it hard to really rate them – perhaps they are better than we think… and perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are. Next week, things get dialled up a notch as Munster face Saracens. The last installment of this rivalry was a damp squib, but a repeat is unlikely. We’ll have a fair idea of where everyone stands afterwards.