McGahan must bring in Warwick to ignite Munster's backline
Published 12/10/2010 | 05:00
If anyone doubts the difficulty of winning away in the Heineken Cup, then look no further than the opening weekend of this truly great tribal competition. The 12 games played resulted in 10 home wins, with only Leicester (as expected, albeit by way of a try at the death in Treviso) and Biarritz (by the odd point in 23) winning away from home.
That Biarritz victory at Bath was the last thing pool rivals Ulster would have wanted. Parc des Sports Aguilera is pretty much mission impossible at the best of times but, with the Basque club already sniffing Pool 4 success, it is going to take some performance from an impressive Ulster side to turn around their pitiful record on French soil, where they haven't won in 11 attempts since 1999.
In taking the bonus point against Aironi, the Ulstermen did what they had to do, but last year's beaten finalists Biarritz clearly have the resolve to go one better this time around.
It is the ideal circumstances for Brian McLaughlin's side to travel -- rank outsiders, winning consistently, if not playing particularly well, yet with class in abundance just waiting to cut loose.
If the coach can nail down his half-back combination -- and for me it looks like Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys -- then the fundamental pieces appear in place for a serious assault on the knockout stages.
For Munster, it was in many ways mission accomplished at the Madejski. They did not play particularly well yet, in typically resilient fashion, eked out a bonus point that, in the end, they had every right to. London Irish coach Toby Booth has a bit to learn yet in his take on bonus point relevance.
However, Tony McGahan does have cause for concern. When Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Lifeimi Mafi and Tomas O'Leary are fully fit and back in the mix, the two-time winners will be a different proposition but, for now, it's all hands to the pump in a qualifying path they know so well.
Much was made of the honesty of Richard Dunne's post-match interview at the Aviva Stadium last Friday. I would say the same of Ronan O'Gara in Reading. He was his team's best player and driving force and he acknowledged the courage displayed in clawing back the bonus point but left no one in any doubt as to the shortcomings in the Munster make-up.
McGahan needs Wallace and Keith Earls back to full match fitness, while the loss of O'Leary is a severe blow.
The one area I differ with the Munster coach is in his take on Paul Warwick. The Australian Sevens international (unfortunately for Ireland) would be in my team every time. When O'Gara is available, Warwick should be selected at full-back and in the out-half's absence, the Australian can run the show from No 10.
Johne Murphy has already proved himself an extremely versatile operator right across the three-quarter line but Warwick -- on the bench in Reading -- continues to provide the most potent and assuring presence at full-back.
Crucially, he has that counter-attacking spark of inventiveness so central to the quickly evolving attack-oriented game.
Sam Tuitupou did well in his route-one role. He brings a midfield presence in the Jean de Villiers/Trevor Halstead mould but, admirable though his commitment is, his reckless tackle on Paul Hodgson sullied the Munster midfield for the second week running. And I'm sorry, this macho defence that the swinging arm or spear-tackle might raise few spectators' hackles in Tonga, but it is just not acceptable.
With his line-out under pressure, thereby limiting his touchline options, O'Gara's reading and general game management, when nursing his side back into contention for the bonus point, was exceptional.
Tony Buckley, too, had an impressive hour, putting it up to John Hayes for the tight-head position that was for so long sewn up.
In that key position, for so long Ireland's Achilles heel given the lack of depth, there was another big performance at the RDS. And Mike Ross wasn't alone in that regard. This was Leinster, as Willie Duggan might say, "suckin' diesel". Slowly but surely, and more confidently, they are gaining momentum.
They are best equipped of the Irish from 10 to 15 to exploit quick ball on the front foot -- witness Rob Kearney's clinically efficient try created by the outstanding Brian O'Driscoll and fast-recovering Jonathan Sexton. Sexton's presence is even more imperative to Leinster than O'Gara's is to Munster.
On the day, against a really hot and physically committed Racing Metro side, there were so many Leinster players on top of their game. The front-five as a unit, Richardt Strauss and Ross in particular, were outstanding. So too both locks, with Devin Toner really coming of age. And Cian Healy came on in the final half-hour and helped seal the victory.
In the back row, Jamie Heaslip continues to grow in status as stand-in captain, while Sean O'Brien is more than ready for the step up to Test rugby. Heaslip and O'Brien complement each other so well.
Beyond Sexton, every three-quarter contributed, including Shane Horgan and Fergus McFadden, when coming on for Sexton and O'Driscoll respectively. O'Driscoll's hamstring is a concern, given the nature of the injury, but such is his mental desire that, despite it being less than a month away, I would bet my bottom euro on the Irish skipper being in situ when the Springboks run out at the Aviva on November 6.
When desire matches natural talent, as in the case of the tackling and kick-chasing of the Leinster back three (Kearney, Isa Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald), then you know a team is playing for its coach and its cause.
It has taken, as expected, a little while for Joe Schmidt to bed down but, talking to the players and watching Saturday's hugely encouraging, high-tempo display, there can be little doubt that the transition from Michael Cheika to Schmidt, with Jono Gibbes the continuous link, is coming along just dandy.
The challenge now is in backing it up at Wembley against Saracens. O'Driscoll will be missed but, with this mood and fuelled by a clearly growing confidence, there is every reason for Leinster and Irish optimism in the weeks and months ahead.