Ahead of this weekend, we were feeling pretty good about the Irish provinces re the Heineken Cup (RIP). Ulster and Munster had home draws, which is such a huge factor in the competition, and Leinster, while facing a seriously daunting trip to Toulon, had won the Six Nations the week before. So Rob Penney said anyway.
But now, we aren’t feeling so hot. Maybe it’s natural caution now that the quarter-finals are basically on top of us, maybe it’s the freak dust storm that dumped what looked like Rodney Parade on Egg’s car, or maybe it was the performances of the three major provinces on Saturday night. Before the games, we would have said Ulster are very likely to win (vs Globo Gym), Munster will probably win (vs boring bosh merchants Toulouse) and Leinster will be competitive (vs giants Toulon, who surely should walk out to this). It’s hard to ever be too confident of winning away from home in the knockout matches.
Starting with Ulster (and why not, given I’m from Ulster, wearing an Ulster shirt and having recurring dreams about Fez driving Chris Ashton ten foot under Ravers), there is simply no excuse for losing to Cardiff. Sure, Matthew Rees was back, and, sure, they had a point to prove. But they were placed lower than all sides but Treviso and the Zebras, and are so rubbish, they aren’t going to get into Europe next season. Conceding 22 unanswered points in 30 minutes with virtually your first choice pack is just unforgivable. Now, we don’t doubt Ulster are going to turn up on Saturday – with the new Ravers being launched and with Saracens as your opponents, you will never lack for motivation – but playing so poorly and losing to such a poor team a week out is sloppy at best. Confidence dented.
Next to Munster. Back after the group stages, we thought Munster would be able for Toulouse, but now we aren’t so sure. There isn’t much doubt they will up the ante for the HEC, but nearly three months of strolls in the park for this team seem to have knocked their base intensity levels. With just two of Saturday’s team involved for Ireland (and based on Saturday, none of those left out can have many complaints – Killer incurred Elaine’s ire, Tommy O’Donnell was comprehensively outplayed by Shane Jennings and Simon Zebo, while threatening going forward, wasn’t exactly Donncha O’Callaghan at ruck time or Jonny Wilkinson in defence), the collective couldn’t cope when Leinster pushed on in the third quarter.
Toulouse, playing in the Top14, won’t lack for high-level preparation, and, if their domestic away form is woeful, they had a big away win against Globo Gym in the pool stages. However, the biggest concern is how Munster are going to score tries. For all their technical excellence, they won’t be mauling Louis Picamoles and co all over the Debt Star; BJ Botha will find Gurthro Steenkamp slightly less accomodating than Michael Bent; and a 10-12 of Keatley and Hurley just isn’t going to get anything going (and if it isn’t going to be Hurley at 12, why play him there a week before?). Watching the clunky attempts to get the ball to Zebo and Keith Earls, we wish Munster would just take a punt on JJ Hanrahan – he really can’t do any worse at either position than the incumbents. Munster are crying out for a centre who can pass the ball more than a few metres. They have lethally dangerous runners out wide, but their best opportunities to run were given too them by Leinster’s kicking game gave rather than the Munster centres. Perhaps Toulouse won’t be so generous.
As for Leinster, they have the benefit of so many of them being involved with Ireland – the teamwork didn’t look as clunky as it usually does coming out of international windows, and the confidence levels were high. Still, if they kick as poorly as they did to Munster when their opponents will include in their number Drew Mitchell, Felon Armitage and Matt Giteau, they can forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. And if DJ Church isn’t fit, well, forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. Toulon’s squad is just so talented and deep, Leinster’s best hope is to play the kind of heads-up, accurate, opportunistic rugger that Joe Schmidt espouses, then hope the stars align elsewhere (i.e. Toulon players remember they hate each other) – they’ll need to be hyper-accurate. And three of the linchpins of their recent hyper-accuracy are either sitting with their feet up in BNZ, tending the farm in Carlow, or crying themselves to sleep in Paris. Leinster will need to be a whole lot better than they were on Saturday to derail the Toulon Express.
So, to be blunt, we are worried. Very worried. Worry, worry, worry.
[Please note that Egg Chaser is an Ulsterman, and therefore always worries, no matter how positive the picture.]