Ozer McMahon discusses themain talking points from a whirlwind weekend in the Heineken Cup.
And then there was one. After all the hope and expectation at the start of the weekend when there were three Irish provinces among the last eight in this year’s Heineken Cup, we woke up on Monday to the sobering fact that only one remain. The old reliables, good oul Munster. The lights may be dimming on the future of the Heineken Cup, as confusion still reigns as to what guise it will take on next year, but the southern province just won’t give it up. The love affair continues. The chances of three Irish victories was always slim but there was a fair degree of confidence swirling around the spring air that two home wins were certainly achievable. Alas, it was not to be. Munster will now plough the lone furrow as they head to the south of France for an 11th semi-final appearance, and quite possibly the most daunting one they have ever had to prepare for.
After a hectic weekend that started with hope, provided both joy and indignation on Saturday and ended in deflated acceptance on Sunday, here are the main talking points from an Irish perspective.
5. Are Irish Management Eyes Smiling?
This is supposed to be a time when Joe Schmidt can relax and bask in the glory of having won the Six Nations trophy with Ireland last month. No chance, he will have been kept busy over the past two weekends casting his eye over a clutch of players he will be hoping that can add serious depth to his squad. Between the Leinster v Munster derby and the Heineken Cup quarters the Kiwi has plenty of food for thought. Simon Zebo continues to show his class for Munster and Keith Earls scored for a second time in three since his return from injury, while Tommy Bowe was incredible in doing the job of two men for Ulster after their early red card.
Paddy Jackson dealt reasonably well (scoring 2 from 3) when thrust into the placekicking spotlight against Saracens while Steven Ferris’ continued reintegration is a boost, especially as Peter O’Mahony looks like he will be out long term with a shoulder injury. Rhys Ruddock was another back row player who will look to make the most of O’Mahony’s absence as he put in one of his best performances in a blue jersey.
Dave Kilcoyne showed that while he may be third choice for Ireland currently, he has potential to mix it with the best, while Dave Foley looks increasingly likely that he could be another famed product of the Munster second row conveyor belt. The positives will tempered somewhat by injuries to O’Mahony, Rory Best and Fergus McFadden and the collapse of the Leinster lineout will have Schmidt concerned. Furthermore the non-selection of Ian Madigan and Luke Fitzgerald will worry Schmidt as will Jamie Heaslip’s underwhelming outing.
4. Out-Stander-ing Display
The tension was palpable in Thomond Park on Saturday afternoon when Peter O’Mahony trudged off the field, with his arm cradled in his jersey which was being used as a makeshift sling. The Munster captain came into the fixture with huge doubts surrounding the condition of his hamstring, to see him departing with a suspected dislocated shoulder was like a hammer blow to the Munster physce. There was no doubting the team wobbled after his removal and Toulouse found their feet after a decidedly ropey start.
CJ Stander had filled in for O’Mahony in Dublin last weekend and was sprung from the bench much earlier than anyone would have expected this weekend. Stander is an excellent ball player and there is a constant sense of bewilderment as to how little game time he has chalked up in his time in Munster. The suspicion is Rob Penney is sceptical about the former Springbok U-20 captains workrate and often overlooks him. Stander isn’t the same breakdown hound that O’Mahony is but his array of talents were clear for all to see on Saturday. He tackled and carried his heart out and fully endeared himself to all the Munster faithful. In true Munster style he delivered his best on the biggest day.
Borders mean nothing to Munster supporters so long as you play for the badge with heart and soul. Stander is a ‘special project player’ and nearly two years through his residency here so it may not be long until he is an Irish international. More days like Saturday and he will join the likes of Jim Williams, Doug Howlett and Leifemi Mafi in a more exclusive club. Honorary Munstermen.
3. Deplorable Dismissal
The TMO system was brought into rugby to make life easier for the on field officials. To help decide whether or not a try was scored in a situation not clear at real time, to the naked eye. More and more calls are now being diverted to the man upstairs during games and while that is not necessarily a bad development, frustration grows with every game in which the additional official makes a blatant error.
There has been a litany of forward passes ignored of late, while the dismissal of Ulster’s Jared Payne on Saturday evening ranks high on the list of recent dubious calls. Payne was chasing a high kick and was fully within his rights to contest Saracens Alex Goode for the high ball, Goode got there split seconds before Payne and the Kiwi fullback had no way of physically preventing the collision. Payne’s eyes were never off the ball and the fact he immediately outstretched his arms showed he had no intention of taking out the airborne English international. Goode landed heavily from a height and was ultimately concussed, of course nobody likes to see such injuries but there was no intention to harm him on the Ulsterman’s behalf.
It was in no way comparable to the late shoulder charge by Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations last month and the only way the situation could be avoided was if players were not permitted to contest for a high ball, which is of course folly. Playing with a man light is probably more difficult in rugby than any other sport and having to do so for 75 minutes is virtually impossible. That Ulster only lost by only two points without their most creative back is testament to the character of the side, but that will be of no solace to them this morning.
2. End of an Era
For the past decade, at varying times the Irish provinces have run amuck in Europe. Two triumphs for Munster in ‘06 and ‘08 followed by Leinster’s three crowns in ‘09, ’11 and ’12. Munster claimed their trophies after years of heartbreak, just as their core players were collectively peaking. Despite continuously reaching the knock out phases they have failed to regain that sense of dominance in the intervening years. Leinster are now at the same crossroads.
For all that is positive about Irish rugby, its teams, be it provincial or international, have a habit of growing old together. Change is sometimes feared rather than embraced. Munster have struggled to handle the transition, while Leinster could now find themselves facing a similar problem. With key leaders like Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen set to retire and a spate of 30 something’s in key positions across the team they could find reclaiming a European trophy quite the tough task.
They have a core of top quality internationals ready to take on the leadership baton in the likes of Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy but they could be found wanting in the centres and second row where they have been so well served over the past decade. Matt O’Connor denied the golden era of Leinster rugby is coming to an end, but it is hard to believe him. The times they are a-changin’.
1. Money or Soul
There is no doubting from looking as the final four teams left in this season’s Heineken Cup that Munster are incredible outsiders to claim a third crown. In almost every department Munster are severely dwarfed by the other three financial powerhouses. In terms of squad depth, wage budget and international caps Munster are in a different league to Toulon, Clermont and Saracens. The one department Munster hold a clear advantage is in the heart stakes. The Heineken Cup flows through the veins of every player who dons the famous red jersey.
To say all the players at the other three clubs are rugby mercenaries would be unfair but when the chips are down and you need that extra few percent there is no doubting Munster can delve deeper into the well than any of the others. It may take more heart and soul than they have ever to call upon before to win the semi-final in Marseilles against a frighteningly strong Toulon side, but if anyone can it will be Munster. You can buy all the players you want, and Toulon have most certainly tried, but you can’t buy desire.
There has been no other side in the history of the European Cup that has found a couple of levels above themselves to go to as regularly as Munster, and to make another final in the comfortable surroundings of the Millennium Stadium (where they won the tournament in ’06 and ’08), they will have to go further than ever before. But you know what they say it’s about the size of fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.
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