Not even six nations can stir blood like crunch euro ties
Forgive me if I sound a little unpatriotic here, but why do I get a rush of adrenalin in the build-up to a Heineken Cup weekend that not even the Six Nations can match?
In less than a month's time, Ireland will set out for Rome on the first leg of another Six Nations campaign -- a big one too, with it being a World Cup year.
With the French coming up after, the Six Nations -- the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown -- will take centre stage again.
The tournament appears wide open, which adds to the excitement, but who is thinking any further than the next fortnight in the Heineken Cup as Munster, Ulster and Leinster are -- to borrow from Donncha O'Callaghan -- "fighting for their very lives"?
Just recently I saw former Australia coach Bob O'Dwyer describe the Heineken Cup as the best competition in the world. Of course the World Cup tops the lot, but as an annual event, it's the Heineken Cup that does it most for me.
The Heineken Cup is a special event with a special place in the hearts of Irish folk. It transcends sport.
January and the post-festive blues represents a dismal time but at least we have the Heineken Cup; it's our escape valve, particularly so in these drab recessionary times.
So as Hurricane Toulon and Hurricane Biarritz fast approach, the nation holds its breath. For Munster and Ulster it really is 'must-win' territory -- sporting drama and tribal warfare at its competitive best. Leinster have given themselves a little latitude, but not a lot.
That's the beauty of this wonderful high-intensity competition. How many events, sporting or otherwise, can be guaranteed to live up to the hype?
Ravenhill on Saturday and the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday will be heaving with atmosphere and excitement from first whistle to last.
We had the calm before the storm in a winning Magners weekend for our Heineken Cup three.
Three wins on home soil, but not a lot to write home about -- and that's how Tony McGahan, Brian McLaughlin and Joe Schmidt would have wanted it. A win to fuel confidence and keep all three in the shake-up for Magners League play-off places, but still with much to do before the huge weekend ahead.
Toulon, Biarritz and Saracens (with Mark McCall now in charge) will demand a different level of intensity. To have peaked last weekend would be tantamount to rugby suicide, although Sarries' win over London Irish and Biarritz's 10-try rampage against Agen would have registered alarm.
The goal-kicking of Ronan O'Gara, Ian Humphreys and Jonny Sexton kept the Irish three ticking over. Munster and Leinster did enough, with Ulster cutting loose in the opening 40 minutes, before losing their way after the break, despite the second-half introduction of Stephen Ferris.
The real talking points were at Musgrave Park, where the performance of referee James Jones came in for much discussion.
I am not a referee beater, because refereeing is a thankless task. And I firmly believe that no match official at this level takes the field with anything other than the most honourable and fair-minded intention. That said, referees, like players, have their good days and bad. And Saturday, for Mr Jones, was bad. Some of his decision-making raised wider issues in need of address.
First and foremost was the scrum. The scrum is a lottery riddled with so many technicalities that even those once skilled in the dark arts of front-row play can not readily identify who or what is at fault at any given time. What chance the referee? Particularly one who has never played the game, in the scrum or out.
The four-phase instruction is a nonsense that has exacerbated the problem, with more scrums collapsing now than ever. The most recent cop-out is to encourage refs to penalise the side they feel jumps the 'engage' by a millisecond.
So what we get is about a 90-second loss in time at each scrum, followed almost inevitably by a penalty or free-kick. It's killing the game and the very relevant art of scrummaging.
Depower the scrum (a la rugby league) and you lose the sport's great appeal to all shapes and sizes.
The second issue relates to David Wallace's debatable try on the hour. Wallace may have completed the touchdown but the one thing clear from Mr Jones' positioning and body language in attempting to see if he could disentangle bodies quickly enough to spot the grounding, was that he couldn't be sure.
So what does he do? He asks the TMO for assistance with the question: "Is there any reason I cannot award the try?" That implies the referee had seen the touchdown, so why then go upstairs, unless there was something specific in the build-up that concerned him?
Surely the more relevant question to the TMO is "was it a try?". In other words, did the camera capture the grounding of the ball? The fault here is as much with the administrators as with the officials in not keeping it simple. The referees have enough to be getting on with in policing the complex jungle that is the breakdown, never mind honing their linguistic skills.
But irrespective of the framing of the question, to me the answer as regards Wallace's match-turning push over was "no try". Because, quite simply, we couldn't see it being touched down.
The third issue was the penalty (the result-deciding kick from O'Gara followed) and yellow card to Glasgow full-back Bernard Stortoni for an apparent deliberate knock on.
Granted, it's a lot easier with the benefit of video replay, but here I would again be critical of the role of the assistant referees. It's too much to expect touch judges to assess what's happening immediately in front of them.
Let's just call it a moderate dress-rehearsal on a bad day for officialdom all round.