We feel like Gerry when discussing the Ireland side – is there ever a dull weekend in the HEC? This weekend’s action was unmissable from first to last – from the new Willie John McBride, Iain Henderson, to the two Sunday games in la sud de France, it never stopped. What do we think?
McCafferty Gets it Wrong
Quelle surprise, one might say. McCafferty’s argument that the uncompetitive nature of the Pro12 allows the Celts to target the HEC games,which (naturally) disadvantages the English was hilariously undermined by his own clients. Saracens absolutely thrashed last years semi-finalists Embra on their own turf, while the Saints came back from what looked like the dead to beat Glasgow, also with a bonus point. Quins overcame the loss of Nuck Ivans to get their own 5-pointer against boring bosh-merchants Biarritz, putting them firmly in control of their pool (and it’s only Round One!). Even Sale, winless domestically, managed to win a game. But the Premiership performance of the weekend was arguably Exeter Chiefs, who went to the RDS and did everything but beat double champions Leinster – they were desperately unlucky to come away empty-handed.
Over Before It Begins?
This weekend saw the flattest pair of Leinster and Munster displays in Europe in a very long time. And now both are up against the wall, facing must-win games next week. If Leinster lose to the Scarlets and get a bonus point, they will have 5 points. With the maximum realistic achievable points tally against Clermont another 5, that would leave them needing 10 from their last two games to give themselves a shot at qualification – a tall order even if they are back at their best. But that assumes Clermont will win in Exeter, and that won’t be easy. We said it already; Round Two in this pool is going to be defining.
In Munster’s case, not only did they let Racing back into the game – twice – but Saracens full tally in Embra means Munster simply cannot lose when the Scots come to town.
Leinster badly need some oomph, a bit of wallop. They’re not an especially big team and nor are they especially quick. They don’t have a Nick Williams type figure that they can repeatedly go to for big carries. Nor do they have a Timbo Visser they can work the ball to in wide channels to wreak havoc. They’re all about accuracy – both at the breakdown and in their passing. When they get it right, they reach a pace and skill level that no team can live with, but when they’re off their game they don’t have much else to fall back on. They just have to keep trying. On this occasion, their performance was reminiscent of the last season under Cheika, and eerily similar to the defeat to London Irish, and almost had a similar outcome.
Allez Les Big French Trois
Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont. Les grandes French teams cest up and running. Clermont and Toulon got themselves le bonus point wins at home, while Toulouse, without being particularly brilliant, ground Leicester into the dirt in manky conditions. They lack the flair of past vintages, but they remain a credible force. And they’ve an 18 year old kiddo (Gael Fickou) at centre who announced himself emphatically with a memorable try. All three are going to be big threats. As pour le reste, Castres et Montpellier offered up their usual resistance, but Racing Metro somehow sneaked a win. We’ve always suspected Olly Barkley was a better player than he’s given credit for, and he was the coolest man in the ground, and the matchwinner, if not quite playing in the style to which he has become known.
Ulster on the march… just about
They did their best not to deliver a bonus point, but ultimately, Castres let Ulster have one with one of the silliest pieces of play we’ve ever seen. Those who can remember back as far as the 2007/08 season might recall a fairly frazzled Leinster doing precisely the same thing against Toulouse. All that said, it wasn’t a bad effort considering they had a stitched together back row, with only Chris Henry close to being a first team regular. The match was notable for a couple of performances. Paul Marshall is an absolute livewire. Can they leave him out? And Iain Henderson had a Heineken Cup debut to remember. Big carries, big hits, bags of pace and all while out of position and at just 20 years old. We don’t want to overhype him, but… dude is going to be some player.
Last year Clermont were the only credible challengers to Leinster. Too many others were out of sorts, bedevilled by injury or in a ‘transitional period’. Not this season. For a start, Leinster look a notch below last season’s level, but there are plenty of sides who could go on to win it. We’ll know a bit more next week, but right now Harlequins, Saracens, Ulster, Northampton, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont and perhaps Ospreys all look capable of going the distance. Leicester and Munster won’t rule themselves out despite poor starts. It could be the best Heineken Cup in years.