Rob Penney must stick to his guns
Published 23/10/2012 | 05:00
The trophy is never handed over in October, but life in the latter stages can be made so much easier by how well the ground is hit in the opening two Heineken Cup rounds.
Barring a miracle, seven of the 24 teams have no chance of progressing, including Scotland and Italy's full complement as well as two of the three Welsh sides that qualified. That is not good for the game and certainly not good for the competition.
From an Irish perspective, it's still all to play for with six wins from eight, although a form report would suggest some good work done, but buckets more to do.
The sides showing real intent so far have been Clermont, Saracens, Harlequins, Toulon, Toulouse, maybe Ulster -- probably in that order. It's an opportune time for ERC to sit the French and English around the negotiating table perhaps!
Ulster did what they had to do at Scotstoun on Friday night. It would be a tad unfair to describe it as winning ugly. Factoring in the difficult conditions, it was a tactically astute display on the road.
Against the better of the two Scottish sides, they were simple and pragmatic in all they did, with Ruan Pienaar the main man and half-back partner Paddy Jackson again doing the rudiments so well -- nothing flashy, just kicking with conviction and linking play together with quiet but growing confidence.
Beyond that, apart from scoring what was effectively the match-winning try, back-row Chris Henry assumed the mantle of leader, surely impressing Declan Kidney ahead of tomorrow's Ireland squad announcement for the autumn Tests.
Ulster lead the way in Pool 4, with the crunch tie at Northampton next up. A huge task, but win that and everything is possible in the new year.
For Leinster, a win is again a win. Here, perhaps, for the ultimate entertainers the term winning ugly does apply. But with two wins from two and the dreaded trek to Clermont next up it's 's**t or bust'.
Irrespective of the autumn internationals. it is imperative that the reigning champions up the intensity -- currently way below its normal suffocating level -- at home to Zebre on December 1 (not the dress rehearsal of choice) before heading to deepest France.
Failure to do so and the three-in-a-row dream could be dead and buried before Christmas.
As things stand, they are well on course (with two wins from two) but they should not believe the adage that 'good teams win while playing within themselves'.
Some suggest that the spark is missing; for me, it's pure application and a subconscious drop in standards. The losses of Sean O'Brien and Brad Thorn are really being felt. Shane Jennings is playing his best rugby since he was at Leicester, but he is not a ball carrier in the O'Brien mould.
On the plus side, Gordon D'Arcy was back doing what he does best, snaffling ball at the breakdown and making hard yards.
The half-backs too were good. Jonny Sexton's cross-kick for Isa Nacewa and long-range drop goal were classic pieces of out-half play, while on a weekend of fine performances from Irish scrum-halves, Eoin Reddan's all-round effort was again the standout (bettered only by South Africa's Pienaar).
At the Sportsground, Connacht gave it the kitchen sink, as we knew they would. In the end, Harlequins' class told by way of Danny Care's blistering pace off the base of the scrum.
David McSharry's first-half try was pure class. Though operating off morsels, Connacht backs Rob Henshaw, Tiernan O'Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Kieran Marmion and McSharry are the real deal and I hope most will be involved in the extended Wolfhound squad to face Fiji.
Like Eric Elwood, I firmly believe that good enough is old enough. Failure to give youth its fling continues to be a bugbear in Irish representative rugby. There's only one way to gain experience.
The travesty in Galway was the non-bonus eight-point defeat, but the big one is next up when Biarritz head west under lights.
Credit where credit is due to Munster for what was, undoubtedly, a second-half reversion to type but, unlike many calling for the 'old ways', I would urge Rob Penney, Simon Mannix and Anthony Foley to continue the path they are on.
It was never going to be easy and clearly some -- Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell (back to his best) and Peter O'Mahony -- are not yet fully at ease in space, particularly down the outside channels. That will come with time, practice and a wholehearted buy-in to the system.
Mention Saracens, and memories of Vicarage Road (35-34) and Thomond (31-30) in 1999-2000 come flooding back. The way both squads are performing in Europe at present, we could be in for a repeat of the same but, whatever it takes to eke out that one-point win, I urge Penney to stick to his guns.
Rome wasn't built in a day but what is required is a little more mid-match savvy. The right to go wide must always be earned, in terms of squeezing the opposition tight. Expansive rugby does not mean putting the ball through hands for the sake of it.
What it does mean is recognising space and attacking it, whether close in or wide out.
For now it's the Anglo-French setting the pace, but with at least three of the Irish four bubbling under, it's all set for a momentous December.