Before this tournament I had tipped both Ulster and Glasgow to make the last eight of the competition on the basis that both squads had the hunger, experience and know how to get the job done. Hawkeye Sidekick apologizes unreservedly for that judgement as both teams let themselves and their supporters down on a weekend where several teams chances of European Rugby Cup went down in smoke.
Ulster’s sheer capitulation against Saracens at Kingspan will hurt for some time to come. The hosts failed to show the application and organization required to compete with a Saracens who are well on the road to a home quarter final berth. Les Kiss has a tough job on his hands on the basis of this performance. The team collectively collapsed in the second half of this contest starting with the sheer inability to nullify the rampaging Mako Vunipola at set piece and ball in hand. Vunipola’s performance set the platform for Saracens to exploit a defensive system which lacked the cohesion and organization required at this level; players not trusting their colleagues to make a tackle was evident in the second half as the visitors exposed soft wing defense from the hosts with Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy channels peppered throughout. Les Kiss is only in the Ulster hot seat a matter of weeks but even at this early stage, numerous issues are glaring. The lack of self belief in the team put out on the pitch in the second half was damning; several players immediately put up the white flag which must concern fans and management. The defensive speed was pedestrian at times and allowed Farrell to control passing plays at will. The Ulster pack were flat out destroyed in set piece and one questions how Ulster can rebound from this reversal with the trips to Toulouse and Oyonaax looming large. Opportunity lost for Ulster as the squad is well capable of competing at this level and you would have thought that lack of performance in last season’s competition would be a motivating factor? Think again.
Glasgow’s inept first half performance proved fatal as a hungry Northampton Saints came away from Scotstoun with a huge win. Glasgow’s front five were bullied out of it in the set piece and Northampton Saints used the platform to score a decisive win that will turn their season for the better. Scarlets are as good as gone, pack were destroyed by a dominant pack by Racing Metro 92.
The good news for Leinster is that the performance at Bath was considerably improved to the one produced against Wasps last weekend. The bad news is that they lost a cliffhanger, even more miserable considering the Leinster second half fightback when Van Der Flier scored a superb try from an immaculate pass from scrum half McGrath. A tough afternoon at the Recreational Ground to play any expansive rugby. The pundits predicted that Bath’s pack would struggle in the trench warfare, a stupid statement when you consider a pack containing Louw, Webber, Hopper. The game was tit for tat with the hosts edging a tense opening forty minutes. 6-3 at the interval with George Ford and Johnny Sexton dominating the scoring. The Bath try was all to do with promising prop Nick Auterac whose scrummaging resulted in Bath advancing to a certain try only for the match official to award the penalty try. Leinster could have given up but credit to the province and leveling the scores at sixteen with a superb Van Der Flier try; the running lines and passing on such a miserable day was the highlight. Sexton missed a long difficult penalty kick and he was made to pay for the miss as Bath’s pack yet again yielded a Leinster penalty concession at the death to give George Ford a penalty kick that he never looked like missing. I thought Leinster were out of this pool but then came the shock of the tournament so far today.
Wasps’ demolition of Toulon 32-6 was a big surprise. Yes, Toulon named a couple of fringe players but Wasps won this game with their exceptional pace in the back line. Their pace was too hot for Toulon to handle as Wasps score two quick fire tries to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Was this a bad day at the office for Toulon or are there issues with the squad this season (mediocre French League form). Leinster will find out in a couple of weeks with a trip to the Stade Felix-Mayol. If Leinster could manage a losing bonus point effort, you never know with Bath and Wasps likely to share the spoils in their games in December. Leo Cullen can be proud of his team’s efforts but the levels required to get over the line in these European games is well short currently. Leo Cullen has tough decisions to make; players who he has gone to war with are not performing at this time. Ross, Healy, Heaslip, Murphy, Dave Kearney, Boss and Reddan are struggling for form. Does youth and fringe players get an opportunity in this competition for the Toulon games? Does he play guys on form or does he go with the tried and trusted which has not delivered so far.
Congratulations to Na Piarsaigh who won the Munster SHC Club final today at a pristine Thurles. Na Piarsaigh’s slow starts to matches continued as they trailed Ballygunner by 1-7 to 1-4 at the interval. Ballygunner were sharp in this opening period as O’Sullivan, Barron came to the fore. However, the Limerick City side have shown this season that their second half performances are emphatic with high quality and impressive score taking. This was evident in their run in Munster prior to the final with rampant second half displays against Sixmilebridge and Thurles Sarsfields securing passage to the provincial club final showpiece. The game today was decided in the first ten minutes of the second half as the Caherdavin outfit turned a three point deficit into a four point lead. Shane Dowling was to the fore with a dominant display in the air and dispatched frees over the bar. Dowling was ably assisted by David Dempsey, David Breen, Ronan Lynch (gorgeous long distance point at the death), Cathal King and Peter Casey (what a talent) as the team collectively snuffed out any threat from Ballygunner. The Waterford champions did score a goal from O’Sullivan to close the gap to two points with six minutes left but the manner in which Na Piarsaigh closed out this contest bodes well for the rest of the championship as they tacked on a further 1-3 in those last five minutes to win the provincial title. It was apt that Shane Dowling strode purposefully to dispatch to the net at the end of this contest to spark wild celebrations from Na Piarsaigh management, players and fans. Three Munster SHC campaigns and three Munster titles. Fantastic feat. This team have the right blend of youth and experience to go all the way to St Patrick’s Day honors. Physically imposing with no shortage of skill upfront where Dowling, Casey, Dempsey and Downes lead the line well, it is not impossible to envisage the Caherdavin outfit winning the All Ireland with the power houses of Ballyhale and Portumna are out of the equation. Oulart or Cuala await Na Piarsaigh in February for a place in the All Ireland club final and after this emphatic second half display, the Limerick side will be hard to beat. Another Limerick SHC club success, the talent is obviously there; hopefully all concerned with the intercounty panel focus and produce next season.
This is a strange strange EPL season. Once you think that the form guide has settled comes this past weekend’s results. Arsenal are raising huge credibility questions on their title ambitions, a chance to go top and they yet again produce a flat performance. Arteta’s own goal to decide this contest summed up a misfiring performance but then Santi Cazorla stepped or tripped up to miss a penalty in the second half took the theme to even ludicrous levels. Leadership is required excluding Sanchez.
Manchester United were lucky to come away from Vicarage Road with three points; a promising start led to Memphis’ opener on eleven minutes, lovely volley but as the game wore on, United decided to rest on their laurels and defend. Watford were far more dangerous in the second half and De Gea’s performance was looked upon with envy in the Bernabeu as the Spaniard produced three world class saves before Rojo lazily fouled Ighalo in the box to allow Deeney to dispatch the penalty. Deeney was the focal point of the game as he unluckily turned Schweinsteiger’s cross into the net to spark huge celebrations in the United dugout. United will have to improve from an attacking perspective but to be in second with a limited attacking option outlay will be taken.
Liverpool haunted Raheem Sterling and produced the performance of the weekend. Make no mistake about it, this 4-1 drubbing of City was truly merited. Sharp incisive passing with Coutinho to the fore, Liverpool exposed the absence of Kompany at the heart of the City defense. Firmino’s confidence soared after his goal. The Liverpool midfield led by James Milner and Coutinho suggests better days are not far that far away for Klopp and Liverpool. Nathaniel Clyne gave an exhibition at full back, the best full back in the league this season.
Gary Monk is under pressure. Swansea’s 2-2 draw against Bournemouth emphasized a nervous not seen at the Liberty Stadium for quite some time. Swansea’s defending was non-existent for Bournemouth’s early goal salvo but the Cherries sheer inability to kept clean sheets was emphasized yet again with two late first half goals from Ayew and Shelvey (penalty). Swansea need a win soon, otherwise Huw Jenkins could be forced to hire an experienced football manager to aid Gary Monk.
As for Aston Villa, Remi Garde was given an insight on what will be required to get the team out of the drop this season. Everton’s pace was too much for Aston Villa and the four goal loss flattered them. Villa’s lack of potency upfront means that January cannot come quick enough to buy or loan reinforcements. Gestede, Ayew look well short for this level. Tottenham’s emphatic 4-1 win against West Ham is a statement of intent and suddenly six teams are vying for top spot currently held by Leicester City. Jamie Vardy’s dream season continues, his work rate and pace created the time to slot his tenth goal in a row. United next Saturday, who would back the former Halifax striker from scoring his eleventh goal on the bounce? An incredible feat and story.