European Rugby Champions Cup: Irish Province Review

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The pool stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup are done and dusted for another season. Munster and Leinster advance to the quarter finals as second and fourth seeds while Connacht and Ulster reflect on what might have being.

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24-24 draw in France would be considered quite a good result but when your opponents have rested several first team players for more pressing Pro 14 assignments, it is a missed opportunity from Leinster who were punished for a sloppy defensive performance which saw the province slip to fourth in the seedings.

The manner in which Castres scored their tries must be a worry to Cullen and Lancaster and even more so the fact that Johnny Sexton is struggling to get the required game minutes under his belt having to yet again retire early from proceedings after twenty minutes. It is a clear concern heading into the business end of the season.

Sexton will be required as a pivotal figure for the province against Wasps in the quarter finals. His game management and ability to launch his runners is second to none but his niggling injuries and concussions are mounting up. Wasps will look to target the position in April.

Leinster provided that they do not suffer significant injuries during the RBS 6N tournament will enter their quarter final match-up as favorites; their squad depth is the best in the country and on their day can destroy opposition in a matter of minutes with pace and power leading to swift tries.

A reality check for Leinster with this draw; Ringrose’s defensive education continues and the fact that Devin Toner is struggling for a cohesive second row partner who can perform at the level required is also glaring. There are clear negatives but given the squad, the experience of winning the competition multiple times, Leinster will identify and address some of the concerns outlined. A monster quarter final beckons but one that if Leinster execute to their potential should win but there are concerns at this time.

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Munster advance to the quarter final as second seeds. A fixture with Toulouse beckons in Thomond Park early April. The province’s rise has being the standout story of the season; the team could hit rock bottom after the tragic passing of Anthony Foley but the team has being galvanized and the performances produced since October have being at a level not seen in recent years.

Munster topped a tricky pool on paper. Glasgow Warriors also join Munster from the pool in the last eight of the competition. Racing Metro 92 look the team to beat on paper but indifferent early season form put paid to their chances. The less said about Leicester Tigers the better. This is a club in crisis on and off the pitch. Aaron Mauger will soon follow Richard Cockerill out of the club given the humiliating loss at home to Glasgow last night.

Munster’s defensive structures have stood out. Four tries in six European fixtures is excellent. Their line speed and first time tackling has being on point. Munster’s pack have improved this season; their work rate and set piece delivery has vastly improved and the maul is again a weapon that opponents are finding hard to stop.

There are potential issues in the side. The over reliance on Conor Murray at scrum-half is notable. If anything happens to the Patrickswell native, Munster will be in a bind. Bleyendaal has provided accuracy at fly-half but the New Zealander will be asked to provide key game management moments in April. Rory Scannell has provided the outlet for kicking the ball in behind. Bleyendaal needs to provide this angle to his game as well.

The front row has being on point with their scrum and lineout duties but there will be a step up in class in the quarter-final. Toulouse’s beefy pack will look to create the platform with their scrum and if Munster do advance from this fixture, Saracens front five will be a tough stern test as well.

This has being an excellent season for Munster; the team are playing for the jersey with renewed vigor but with improved precision on both sides of the ball. The fan base has recognized the fact and this looks like a potential new era of Munster competitiveness.

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Opportunity lost. Toulouse for all their physicality in the pack were like a boxer on the ropes in the last quarter. Toulouse were exhausted and Connacht were beginning to make line breaks but it required cool heads and smart game management to strike the decisive blow. Unfortunately, neither facet was executed as Connacht squandered decent field position on a couple of occasions and let slip a quarter final berth.

Road trips require the visiting team to be solid in the opening quarter in an attempt to quieten the home crowd but the tentative nature of Connacht’s play in this phase of the match ultimately proved their undoing. The tries leaked against shambolic Zebre last weekend were soft and it was not remedied during this contest. Potential blocking for one of the Toulouse tries but Connacht’s defensive line speed and structure were exposed. Matt Healy had to make the tackle on Bonneval. Tekori’s was untouched for this score.

Connacht will learn plenty from this European adventure; when on top, smart game management is required to put points on the board. Why Jack Carty felt the need to throw an ambitious pass to Matt Healy in the closing quarter when building phases would suffice was a prime example. The lineout loss on the Toulouse 22 with ten minutes to go was also a key turning point; Connacht left Toulouse off the hook.

Pat Lam leaves for Bristol at the end of the season. Where Connacht go from here depends on the new head coach hire. Given their league position in the Pro 12, it is highly unlikely that Connacht will be back in this competition next season.

It is a shame that the team did not advance; it was their best opportunity to get to the last eight of the competition with the likes of Zebre in their group. Toulouse are a team on the wane and their conditioning is a major issue heading into the quarter finals particularly in their pack. Wasps were the standout team in this pool. Definitely an opportunity lost for the province to enhance the brand of Connacht Rugby to rugby fans around the globe.

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Where do you start with Ulster? This has being nothing short than an abysmal European Cup campaign. Two wins in the pool is simply not good enough for a province whose squad is clearly better than this statistic. The back line is loaded with talent. Jackson and Pienaar in the half-back position and with the likes of Henry, Henderson, Best and Van Der Merwe in the pack.

What has gone wrong? The four point loss to Bordeaux-Begles on Saturday summed up their season perfectly. Lapses have being the hallmark of Ulster’s season. The first Bordeaux Begles try was indicative of this. Reidy’s inability to control the ball at the base of the scrum was poor and then Shanahan’s inability to deal with the situation was more down to inexperience than ability. A try which would make a head coach and management team go potty.

The good parts of Ulster’s were encapsulated in their tries scored yesterday; quick clearout of rucks, quick distribution and hands to players in space. These are the hallmarks of Ulster’s style of play. However, immediately after the first try scored, there was a clear breakdown in communication on the restart. The ball bouncing and possession lost to their opponent. Les Kiss’ patience on these mistakes must be wearing thin.

The key issue from a player personnel perspective for Ulster is their of prop coverage. The scrum was destroyed at times against Bordeaux. McCall is a major loss but the reserves have not performed to the levels required. Ah You has being a bust signing. I have mentioned it in numerous blogs in recent weeks. It is killing Ulster in terms of setting a platform in which to launch their exciting Ulster back line.

Where do Ulster go from here? With the imminent departures of Van Der Merwe and the mercurial Pienaar, it looks to me that next season is a rebuild year for the province. Two key leaders are departing for pastures new, one for a new challenge and the other reluctantly leaving even though he wants to stay in Belfast. The Pienaar situation is ridiculous.

The lack of scrum-half coverage was highlighted by the fact that John Cooney will be heading to the province next season. It is a blow for Shanahan next season; a young player with undoubted ability but will not get sufficient game time with Cooney and Marshall vying for the starting number nine jersey.

The defensive side of the ball is at times glaring; lapses are down to structural and organizational issues. Coaching ticket will need to be reviewed at the end of the season as the issues which have plighted Ulster this season have not improved this season. Their defensive performance in recent weekends has not being good enough.

Les Kiss as head coach should be safe but the coaching staff underneath him needs a revamp; perhaps Andy Farrell is required on the defensive side to remedy the line speed and communication issues which have existed in recent games. This is a team which has massive potential but if the province do not rectify these issues, the rest of the Pro 12 season will be a damp squib similar to Munster last season. Must do better!