European Rugby Champions Cup – Irish Perspective

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The last European Cup round games have concluded for this calendar year. It was a weekend where Munster’s unbeaten streak was dramatically halted at Welford Road, even more dramatic was Connacht’s late try and conversion to push the Westerners into the quarter final positions, Leinster brushing aside an embarrassing Northampton Saints outfit at the Aviva Stadium while Ulster were blown away by a dominant Clermont side. Hawkeye Sidekick assigns grades for each province in the competition so far.

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Leinster – Grade A

This has being an excellent salvo in the competition. Montpellier’s loss to Castres today has created a five point gap at the top of the pool. Leinster are in pole position to secure a home quarter final after two emphatic bonus point try wins over a hapless Northampton Saints outfit who let us be frank brought the competition into disrepute last night with a shambolic team lineup whose defensive display was at best hapless. Leinster have Montpellier’s South African contingent arriving to Dublin in the New Year but quite frankly, qualification will be secured before then. Leinster are playing with purpose this season. The pack has improved with the form of Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath setting up a solid foundation at the set piece and with ball in hand. Furlong’s form has being the standout; the Wexford native is unstoppable with ball in hand from close range. Great news for the national team. The only issue that Leinster will have to contend with is the lack of options at ten. With Carbery out for eight weeks, Sexton’s return to be determined, it is being left to Eric Byrne to steer the side. Byrne was excellent yesterday albeit with a maurauding pack in front of him. Tougher tests will lie in wait but the lack of experience in such a pivotal position in the coming weeks could potentially bite the side at the end of the pool but with sixteen points already in the bag, Leinster will have time to regroup and have the likes of Sexton and Carbery back for the quarter final. Isa Nacewa’s performances have being nothing short of sublime; leadership and experience in spades and Adam Byrne has flourished in the first team ranks. Cullen and Lancaster coaching setup has produced the required results.

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Connacht – Grade B+

This grade could have being easily a ‘C’ grade if the late try and conversion had not happened. An incredible ending to the contest last night at the Sportgrounds. Connacht took victory from the jaws of defeat. The penalty controversy is an officiating issue; Connacht played to the instruction of the match official in charge. Wasps ultimately will need to review how their defensive setup for the Connacht ruck could not prevent the decisive try. The Westerners ended a turbulent two week period with a win that has them joint top of their pool with thirteen points. A pivotal away game with Toulouse beckons and one that Connacht should enter with renewed confidence. The plus points are the strength in character of the side to get up and win a contest given the number of injuries in the squad. The back line injury list is horrific at present and it was good news that Matt Healy featured this weekend for the province. The leadership of John Muldoon has being sublime this season; he leads by example in defensive and ball carrying duties. Pat Lam’s departure news had an impact last week; uncharacteristic error strewn pack performance in Coventry was not present this weekend. The pack competed well in the set piece and it is a significant plus point going into the busy festive period. The one issue is the lack of fly-half options. Carty aside, limited options at Pat Lam’s disposal. O’Leary potentially with Bosch out for indefinitely. With a home game banker against Zebre at the end of the pool phrase, the province will finish at a minimum of eighteen points. A loser bonus point at Stade Wallon could be enough to secure quarter final playoff rugby come the Spring. It would be a superb achievement given the injury crisis and the news off the pitch in recent weeks. Connacht are in prime position to secure qualification; up to the staff and squad to deliver two quality performances in January to achieve this goal.

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Munster – Grade B

The recent upsurge in form and unbeaten streak was halted in Leicester with a late Owen Williams penalty. It continues a worrying trend of road losses for the province in Europe over the last three seasons. Take out the games against Sale and Treviso, Munster have succumbed on the road to the likes of Clermont, Saracens, Leicester, Stade Francais. All those reversals had Munster unforced errors all over the performance and it continued yesterday after a promising start. Tyler Bleyendaal at ten had a mixed afternoon with the boot and his persistence to stand well behind the game line was easily read by the Tigers, other teams will take note. The high penalty count yesterday was a surprise given recent weeks and is something that will need to be addressed. There are plenty of positives from the campaign so far; work rate and team work in defense and offense in abundance. Eleven points from three games is decent but with an arduous January with toad trips to Paris and Scotstoun, Munster’s fate will be determined from their performance away from Thomond Park. Encouraging signs from the province since the tragic death of Anthony Foley but yesterday’s cameo was too error strewn to win on the road. Lessons of the past were not heeded. Rassie Erasmus will have learned plenty from this reversal and the fact that Munster made crucial mistakes in game management at the death will not go unnoticed. Stander ball carry was isolated; the subsequent clear out was too late and players off their feet when a kick deep into Tigers territory would have sufficed. Certain Munster based journalists thought the pool was a formality after Glasgow failing to score the bp win over Racing last Friday night, think that assessment may have changed and the Warriors look in a strong position given Munster’s  current squad inability to win on the road in Europe.

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Ulster: Grade C-

Let us be frank. Ulster were never going to beat Clermont this weekend; a rampant home side were looking for instant redemption after their reversal at Kingspan Stadium last weekend where Pienaar, Jackson, Henderson and Piatau were sublime. Clermont’s running lines early doors will have future opponents taking note. Ulster’s start today was far too passive, their line speed was too cumbersome and Clermont identified mismatches in the first half. Credit Ulster for the three try salvo in the second half but the damage was done. There have being too many performances this season where Les Kiss’ charges have being punished for sloppy periods in play. The Bordeaux Begles game in the final quarter where the French side went over for a couple of tries was indicative of this. The home game against Exeter had periods of lethargic play from Ulster. For the talent at Kiss’ disposal, this season has being a massive disappointment. Pool qualification looks beyond them but it will be the loss to Begles away which will be the killer. It was great to see Tommy Bowe back in the Ulster lineup today; great try. Les Kiss as head coach? Two indifferent season campaigns to date would raise questions of his position given the investment and talent in the province. Must do better.