The European Cup December home and away fixtures are in the books. Several teams are looking on with envy as their European campaign is done and dusted before the Christmas turkey is put in the oven. The plight is particularly stark for the Ireland provinces where Ulster are realistically the only team who had a chance (outside chance) of securing a best runner-up berth. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the weekend action.
The fourth round of European games, a round where teams cannot necessarily win the competition but a slip-up could prove fatal. It was the scenario that faced Munster heading into their clash with Leicester Tigers. Leicester, a city on the crest of a sporting euphoric wave with both the soccer team and rugby team excelling this season. The Leicester people love their sport and the parallels between Leicester and Limerick are so uncanny. Both cities rugby grounds are world famous with both supporter sets proud of their team (despite what Munster Rugby may say otherwise).
The contest in Welford Road yesterday afternoon capped Munster’s season superbly. Player work rate and endeavor could not be faulted but basic skill sets were yet again lacking in the scoring red zone both from the boot and ball in hand. How many times do Munster have to make the same mistakes week in week out for the coaching staff particularly Brian Walsh and Ian Costello to rectify.
Pat Lam mentioned before Connacht’s now infamous victory against Munster at Thomond Park four weeks ago that the contest would be decided on the training pitch. Lam’s astute assessment is where Munster are being exposed at present. The training regime is not focusing on the basic fundamentals on the training ground, again yesterday exposed fundamental issues in ball retention and ability to identify offload and passing opportunities. The lack of a consistent goal kicker is seriously denting any confidence that the team is trying to generate. Munster’s lack of support running is now an embarrassment and made Leicester’s defensive duties routine albeit if Francis Sailli’s try opportunity went over early in the second try, could the direction of the game have shifted?.
Leicester again exposed Keatley’s lack of open play game management to release his three quarters, profited from the out-halves’ inconsistent performance with the boot to clinically execute in red zone (two try opportunities, two tries) was the key difference. Ian Keatley has taken plenty of flak last week but there is a gaping leadership issue in the team post Paul O’Connell. Peter O’Mahoney’s absence is even more devastating for the team as his influence both in training and game day would be invaluable. Murray, Earls and Zebo should be driving this team forward along with CJ Stander but their cameos in recent weeks have being mediocre at best. Stander tried to win the contest on his own but it was such a forlorn battle to witness. The sooner O’Mahoney and O’Donnell return to first team action the better as several Munster players were again exposed at this level of competition. Munster Rugby’s statement of respect is a two way street, their ability to turn a blind eye to the playing side of the organization is coming home to roost. Keatley’s performances this season is the end product of a lack of serious competition in the out-half position.
The backroom coaching setup needs to be shaken up. Jerry Flannery aside, the other coaches need immediate assistance. The rigid back line performances exposes this point as it is getting more and more magnified by each passing week. One dimensional, little in supporting runners and game moves are telegraphed throughout. The only saving grace for Munster is that 6N fixtures loom large on the horizon and will reduce playing pools considerably and hence easier matches to win but it is only a short term solution. Two key pivotal fixtures against Leinster and Ulster will determine where Munster are come the New Year. I fear Munster could be involved in a battle to even stay in the premier European Cup competition such is the lack of quality shown across all facets of play by the team in recent weeks. Munster are mathematically still in the European Cup but such is the squad’s ability to execute away from Thomond Park means that they will be eliminated in early January. Foley must regroup and shake things up again to stake a claim for the head coaching role more than the eighteen months he has now.
It has being a humbling seven days for Leinster Rugby. The European aristocrats of only four seasons ago are now in the chasing pack and now becoming detached from the top table much like Munster and Toulouse. Leinster’s loss to Toulon at the Aviva Stadium showed the good, the bad and the ugly. The good, the first forty minutes. The bad, the lack of breakdown dominance throughout so much so that Jamie Heaslip was hauled off. The ugly, the pack’s sheer inability to defend Toulon’s maul which threatened scores at very given opportunity.
Matt O’Connor was vilified for Leinster’s woes last season, the team have further recessed under Leo Cullen’s watch. The RWC was a factor but over the last four weeks, Leinster have lacked the physical dominance and set piece execution to deserve victory in Europe this season. The form of Sexton is of particular concern, his confidence with ball in hand is a worry ahead of the 6N. Sexton is a pale shadow of the player who wore the Leinster jersey two seasons ago. The lack of pack aggression in set piece and ball carrying has resulted in ineffective clear out and slow ball for the half-backs to unleash on paper a talented back line.
Cullen must now try the fringe players in the last two fixtures to run the rule over their long term future at the club. Cullen must be ruthless in weeding out the weak points of the squad and building competition for first team places. Leinster’s group are nightmarish but the lack of performance at times during this European campaign cannot be understated. Ian Madigan and Sean Cronin must wonder what they have to do to secure a first team starting berth. Leo Cullen like Anthony Foley in Munster is under pressure.
The only province who is staking a serious claim for the European Champions Cup last eight. Ulster’s performance against Toulouse in the last ten days will be pivotal in their passage to the quarter final stage. Their defensive shape was outstanding at the Ernest Wallon and when presented with try scoring opportunities struck with clinical ease. Pienaar is the fulcrum of the side, his game management, eye for a break and ability to unleash his three quarters (something that Munster should take note of) has caught the eye. His unerring kicking provides Paddy Jackson with the platform to orchestrate.
Stuart McCloskey personally has being the stand out for Ulster this season. The three quarter is physically imposing, breaks tackles, make yard game line yards and his ability to offload to colleagues when tackled have caught the eye. McCloskey is a cert to start for Ireland in the 6N. Henshaw and McCloskey at three quarters is an exciting combination and when you add Luke Marshall’s form in recent weeks, things are looking very rosy for the side.
Les Kiss will be delighted with the side’s progress after a shaky start to this competition. Ulster are without several marquee players at present and when fit and available for selection, the side will be a dark horse in the tournament. Oyonaxx who are effectively out of this tournament should see further success for Ulster. Ten points from those two games would see Ulster advance to the last eight. Ulster are leading the way for Ireland this year and one hopes that they will advance deep into the competition.
This season’s competition has seen the decline of several once powerhouse teams. Munster, Toulouse, Leinster are on the scrap heap. The competition is effectively looking like an Saxon / Franco mix with the potential hopefully of Glasgow and Ulster to join the party. Glasgow’s nine point haul from Llanelli means that they are well in the race for last eight progression. Their case was even further enhanced when Northampton and Racing Metro drew 9-9 at Franklin Gardens. Glasgow need to be in the last eight of the competition for their own team and club development. They have shown viewers of the Pro 12 that they are worthy champions so the next step is European progression. It would be another nice tonic for Scottish rugby as well.
The standout performances were Clermont and Saracens. Clermont’s attacking threat against a gallant yet naive Exeter showed a different side of their play. Strettle on the wing has to be included for England’s 6N campaign, scintillating pace and his running lines are superb. Saracens this season are primed for European glory, they have all the ingredients required to win the big prize. Their pack is imposing, defensively superb but this season’s ability to score tries from all facets of play is the missing link.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Wasps whose away trip demolition of Bath at the Rec issues a serious statement of intent that Wasps are back in English Rugby. Daly at centre is a super player and with searing pace out wide, Wasps will be a tough team for anyone who they met in the last eight. Toulon though are still the team to catch. They played in fits and starts against a revved up Leinster, absorbed the hosts punches and inflicted fatal wounds with two maul tries. Toulon’s back line is misfiring at present but will improve ominously as the season progress. Toulon’s pack is strong and with Paul O’Connell primed for an April start date, few will pick anyone other than Toulon to retain their crown.