The statement wins of Ulster, Leinster and Munster over Clermont, Northampton and Leicester have proved the Irish provinces' resolve remains in tact
By Alex Shaw
Four proud provinces. That’s the mantra of Irish rugby and it certainly lived up to that billing this past weekend.
There were a lot of premature European obituaries for the provinces after lacklustre campaigns in the 2015-16 season, with many – inside and outside of Ireland – proclaiming the new-look Champions Cup to be a tournament that will see Anglo-French dominance for the foreseeable future.
Last season, the provinces, who rely so heavily on Irish Test players – particularly Leinster, Ulster and Munster – were coming off the back of a Rugby World Cup that taxed their players both physically and mentally. With more professional clubs in England and France to share that burden, as well as deeper contingents of foreign, non-Test players, it’s understandable that they were in a better place to succeed last season.
There were other problems around the teams, of course.
Leinster’s attack was stalling, Ulster couldn’t compete physically in the pack with the best teams and Munster, well, Munster had a whole host of problems. Admittedly, Connacht chugged along nicely in the Challenge Cup until an enthralling loss to Grenoble in the quarter-finals.
If you’ve been watching the Guinness Pro12 this year, you didn’t need to see this weekend’s array of European rugby to know that the provinces are much-improved this season but if you did, you saw three statement victories and an understandable away loss to one of the tournament’s top teams.
It started off on Friday night when Leinster travelled to Franklin’s Gardens to take on, an admittedly out-of-form, Northampton Saints side. The men from Dublin were comfortably the better team and though the stingy Northampton defence was keeping Saints in the game, a second half red card for Dylan Hartley – just six minutes after he was brought on from the bench – caused the self-destruct button to be pushed and Leinster ultimately cruised to a bonus point 37-10 victory.
Ulster continued the party early on Saturday, winning a 39-32, ding-dong battle with Clermont at the Kingspan Stadium and just as Leinster did, wrapped up a bonus point in the process. Fly-half Paddy Jackson and versatile forward Iain Henderson both put British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland on notice with fine performances in Belfast.
Perhaps the most impressive victory came immediately after the Ulster game – although not quite as compelling a game – as Munster systematically crushed the life from a Leicester Tigers side that have never looked less like a Leicester side. The tactical nous of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber and the emotional fire lit by the tragic passing of Anthony Foley has never looked so potent a combination as it did in Munster’s 38-0 humiliation of the side from the East Midlands.
Reigning Pro12 champions Connacht couldn’t quite make it a clean sweep of victories, falling to 32-17 defeat to Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, but it was a result to be expected, with the side from Coventry one of the favourites to make a run at the trophy this season.
It is worth remembering, though, that we are only at half-time in these back-to-back games.
Richard Cockerill will fire his side up and they will more resemble a Leicester team of old at Welford Road – they couldn’t resemble one any less, in fairness – and Clermont will have the advantage at the Marcel Michelin, despite Ulster’s belief they will be able to win. Connacht will also have the belief they can stop Wasps at the Sportsground in Galway and it may be advisable to go ahead right now and pencil in Northampton’s trip to Dublin as a win for Leinster, such is the respective form of the two teams at present.
However, what that first round of results have done is put the provinces into enviable positions in their respective pools.
Munster sit atop Pool 1 with a game in hand yet to be played against bottom-placed Racing 92 and Leinster enjoy the same position in Pool 4, a point above an impressive Montpellier side. Meanwhile, Connacht must settle for second spot in Pool 2, but with Zebre also in the group, it is likely a pool that will offer up two quarter-finalists, so even if Wasps finish top, it may not be the end of Connacht’s European journey.
Ulster are in the most precarious position of the four provinces, sitting third in Pool 5, three points behind leaders Clermont and they still have trips to the Marcel Michelin and Sandy Park to contend with. Exeter are at far from their best this season and it’s not unimaginable that Ulster yet qualify but the odds are still against them.
The fact is, Ireland may have more contenders for this year’s trophy than either England or France.
The hopes of the Aviva Premiership are pinned clearly on Wasps and Saracens, with the latter continuing to look like the comfortable favourite to retain their title, whilst the Top 14’s bid for success rests heavily on Clermont shoring up their defence, or Montpellier or Toulon locking up favourable seeding heading into the knockout rounds.
Don’t call it a comeback – they’ve been here for years – but the resurgence of the Irish teams took a big step forward this past week.
They weren’t on the cusp of a slow demise as some would have had you believe last season, it was simply a fallow year, but this weekend was a coming of age party for a new era of provincial rugby.
Now, through a combination of Irish resolve, improving squad depth and new coaching influences, such as the arrivals of Erasmus and Stuart Lancaster, not to mention the Joe Schmidt masterplan taking shape at both Test and provincial levels, the four Irish sides are back at Europe’s top table.
With only Connacht currently sitting outside of the Champions Cup qualification spots in the Pro12, it doesn’t look Leinster, Munster or Ulster will be leaving Europe’s elite anytime soon, either.