If indeed the Heineken Cup is to be recast as a tin-pot version next season, we’ll miss weekends like this one. An absolute bonanza for Irish rugby, topped off by the most remarkable result in Connacht’s history. Leinster were entitled to think the Monday headlines would be given over to them, but they were upstaged. It goes down as arguably the biggest shock in Heineken Cup history. While Toulouse are not the force of yore, they’re still pretty good. They beat Saracens away in the previous round and are second in the Top Quatorze. Connacht had been in the midst of a horrendous streak and are below Zebre in the Pro12 log. Where the hell did they pull this from? Connacht-watchers might have expected them to use the away game as a mission in damage control, before dialling up the intensity in the Sportsground. But Connacht cleary had other ideas. They’ve taken everyone, perhaps even themselves, by surprise.
To put some context in that result, its only about two generations of Irish rugby since celebrity Munster fan Mick Galwey stood under the posts in Toulouse imploring the lads to keep it to 50. Back then, at the dawn of professionalism (and the HEC), Munster were about as good as it got in Ireland, and they couldn’t keep the score below 50. Now, Ireland’s weakest province (please don’t be offended) can go there and win. That is incredible.
The question – as always – is whether they can back this up. Asking them to beat Toulouse a second time in a row might be a bit much to ask, but it should at least give them the belief to get some wins in the Pro12 and work their way off the basement place in the league. Their star turn appears to be scrum half Kieran Marmion, their busy scrum-half who was unlucky to miss out on a debut cap this autumn. He could come into consideration in the Six Nations but those who watched Leinster on saturday will have noted that Eoin Reddan looked like a sort of rugby genius.
Which brings us to Leinster, who were superb. It’s worth rewinding to October, when we put up a couple of posts expressing concerns over the direction in which Matt O’Connor was bringing Leinster. Thankfully, we left room for an optimistic scenario:
“The optimistic scenario is that Leinster are still operating with a patched-up backline and once O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald – who looked very threatening when he came on – are fully restored to the team that there will be more emphasis on attack and putting the ball through the hands. In the meantime, O’Connor has tightened up a defence that was more than a little creaky last season, and that focus will begin to shift to attacking and Leinster’s fabled gainline-passing. One hopes Ian Madigan will be trusted to do some of the playmaking – after all, he’s awfully good at it when given the chance.”
Well, thank heavens for small mercies, because it looks to have come to pass. The rugby played by Leinster against Northampton looked suspiciously like Schmidt-ball, with an emphasis on gainline passing, varied attacking patterns with inside-ball and wide passing mixed to devastating effect, as well as an almost feral approach to clear-out with those arriving at the ruck driving beyond the ball. Throw in exemplary ball presentation and it was a near-perfect performance. It all combined to serve up Eoin Reddan with silver-platter-ball, with which the flaws in his game vanish into the ether and he appears world class. His speed of thought and deed were too much for the bewildered Saints. Mind you, we’ve said before that these Saints are no-one’s barometer of manliness – this is the third successive occasion at the Gardens where an Irish province has left with 5 points.
What’s remarkable is how in the space of a couple of weeks all half-empty glasses are suddenly brimming over. After the Australia game all was miserable in the heart of Irish rugby. Now, options appear everywhere. Rhys Ruddock looks like yet another – another! – option in the backrow, playing as if to the manor born. Rob Kearney is looking like his old self. Gordon D’arcy has gone from a bust to a boom. Luke Fitzgerald is back! Keith Earls is back among the tries. Some excitable fans were even calling for Sean Cronin to start ahead of Rory Best.
Up in Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks like a proper outhalf – his development since his harrowing Ireland experiences in March has been excellent, and he now takes on more of the game management from Ruan Pienaar. And, speaking of Ulster, when a 7-try romp over a team that has given Ulster problems in the past becomes a footnote, something must be going right, even allowing for the relegation of Ulster in Irish rugby minds (should we call this the “Cave Factor” going forward?).
PS. While getting annoyed about celebrity Globo Gym fan Stephen Jones is about as futile as it gets, we must take issue with his latest. We won’t even go into the laughably uncharitable tone of his Northampton-Leinster write up, but his assertion that refereeing outside England is ‘terrifyingly bad’, with reference to Nigel Owens, who refereed this game, was so far wide of the mark as to be abhorrent. For a start, the example he cited was just plain wrong. He claimed Owens didn’t see the miles-forward pass by Cronin, but Owens could clearly be heard saying ‘we’ll go back and check it’ as Luke Fitzgerald was jogging over the line. And as if it needs saying, Nigel Owens is widely, and rightly, regarded as the best official in world rugby (not best-looking mind, there are some things Steve Walsh just won’t lose). Still, though, perhaps it’s reassuring: with Jones no longer able to claim a natural superiority for the English clubs over the Irish provinces, he has now turned trained his wobbly aim on the Pro12 referees. Deary me, what an unedifying sight it is.