O'Connell red card a very harsh call
The realistic target was two home wins and a bonus-point defeat on the road and that is how it panned out for Ulster, Munster and Leinster respectively.
For both Ulster and Munster, the wins give marginal psychological advantage ahead of next Saturday's re-runs at the Recreation Ground and Liberty Stadium, but to Leinster goes the lion's share of the kudos in defeat at Stade Marcel Michelin on another magical weekend of Heineken Cup rugby.
Even the most blinkered sports fan with the most distorted view of the oval code cannot but be touched by the drama and sheer competitive intensity of this extraordinary tribal competition.
The early phase of the Champions League is a non-event by comparison. It is a tournament second only to the Six Nations in this part of the world and to the Rugby World Cup on a global level. And, yes, you can have your Autumn Internationals, just give me the Heineken Cup -- whether qualification or knockout stages -- every time.
The feeling in advance was that home advantage would see all three host teams cross the finishing line ahead, but with none a racing certainty. It is that journey into the unknown, that 'X factor' called unpredictability, which gives competitive sport its never-ending appeal.
Ulster and Bath set the tone on Saturday -- albeit in an error-riddled affair at Ravenhill. In the end the four points went where they were most deserved, but the real battle and decisive stage in the Ulstermen's season lies ahead in Bath next weekend. They have given themselves the incentive, one added to appreciably by Aironi's astonishing win over Biarritz.
Back-to-back wins over Bath would make the Frenchmen's visit in January the biggest game in Belfast since David Humphreys and his European Cup-winning squad strutted their stuff so convincingly in 1999. They are still nowhere close to where they want or need to be, but with winning comes confidence and another important brick was put in place at Ravenhill on Saturday.
Save for the final quarter, they dominated the English Premiership side in terms of position and possession. It would have been a travesty had they let it slip away but as of now that clinical and ruthless ability of Munster -- in particular -- and Leinster to close games out is not yet there.
On an individual level there were some big performances, with Stephen Ferris once again a colossus. Ferris is already the superhero to Ulster that Paul O'Connell has been to Munster for some considerable time. Against Bath he was like a magnet to the ball. He is the go-to player, with a Jamie Heaslip-like work ethic to match when not in possession.
On Saturday, he was shadowed almost stride for stride by the outstanding Pedrie Wannenburg, while Dan Tuohy and BJ Botha were also immense. Credit too to Nevin Spence, who appeared to the manor born and ever so comfortable in this level of company.
Winning in Europe, when still some way short of top gear, is a pretty good achievement. Biarritz must be put on the back boiler, however, as all Ulster roads lead to the Rec.
So it is for Munster, too, as they set out for Swansea. Again, when it mattered in Limerick, they were solid without being spectacular. They did what they had to do and, no matter how well the Ospreys had prepared, there was little they could do to stop them.
It is the beauty of Munster, but equally the frustrating element for any opposition. You know what to expect at Thomond and are seldom, if ever, disappointed. Munster don't talk any talk but for sure they walk the walk every time on home turf.
Unfortunately, so much of the good has been overshadowed by the red card shown to O'Connell. As one consistently opposed to foul play, in this instance I have the utmost sympathy for the player.
Let me add that however well-intentioned Jonathan Humphreys (the Ospreys forward coach) was in commenting that "Paul O'Connell is not a dirty player by any stretch of the imagination," for me that is largely irrelevant. Any player anywhere, however placid, is well capable of a red-mist moment. The 'Mr Nice Guy' defence simply doesn't wash. Nor should it.
Of more concern -- and here there is need for on-field understanding -- is the part of those charged with administering justice. What O'Connell did was wrong, yet fully understandable in the circumstances. He was the victim, but, as is often the case in retaliating without malice on the spur of the moment, he became the perpetrator.
I defy anybody to suggest there was malicious intent to his trying to break free from Jonathan Thomas' illegal stranglehold. Unfortunately for O'Connell he made contact -- however unwittingly -- with the Ospreys player's head and that is what the officials saw.
I would hope at the hearing that common sense and fair play will prevail. It is at times like this that it is essential to have at least one former player on the adjudicating panel. A yellow card would have been sufficient punishment in the circumstances. As it transpired, in terms of time off the field, red amounted to the same as yellow. The player will now ship a suspension of some sort. In my view, it's not warranted.
I sincerely hope that common sense will indeed prevail and whatever the ban -- for me it should be a maximum of one European match only -- will be at the lowest end of the scale.
Invariably the O'Connell incident overshadowed everything else and left a stunned rather than bitter taste. Beyond that, Munster did all that they had to do in setting themselves in the most positive frame of mind for Saturday's return.
As for Leinster? They did 'a Munster' in eking out a precious bonus point, one they richly deserved. It was an outstanding collective performance, even in defeat, one of the best ever by an Irish side on French soil.
From a national perspective, to witness the likes of Sean O'Brien, Dominic Ryan, Eoin O'Malley and Fergus McFadden come of age is hugely encouraging. All four are made of the right stuff and are now firmly in the picture as first-team operators in their own right.
And, please, may we be spared ever again hearing O'Brien's ability and potential being questioned on the basis of his supposed lack of height. Whether six, seven or eight, the guy is equally at home as a top-quality back-row, whether in defence or attack.
Alongside Jamie Heaslip, head coach Joe Schmidt is now blessed with two of the most dynamic ball carriers in the business, and forward coach Jono Gibbes must be licking his lips at mixing and matching the pair in attack off the Leinster scrum.
A good start is half the battle, and in the back-to-back mid-point to the European season, it's a case of much done but so much more to do. In these dark and depressing economic times the return legs can't come quickly enough.
HEINEKEN CUP TEAM OF THE WEEK
15 P Warwick (Munster); 14 D Howlett (Munster), 13 E O'Malley (Leinster), 12 G D'Arcy (Leinster), 11 F McFadden (Leinster); 10 R O'Gara (Munster), 9 T O'Leary (Munster); 1 T Court (Ulster), 2 D Varley (Munster), 3 M Ross (Leinster); 4 D O'Callaghan (Munster), 5 D Tuohy (Ulster); 6 S Ferris (Ulster), 7 S O'Brien (Leinster), 8 P Wannenburg (Ulster).