Tony Ward: Battles lost but war far from over
Published 18/12/2012 | 05:00
The beauty of sport is its unpredictability. The beauty of the Heineken Cup is all of that and more. This great tournament never ceases to amaze. Even though Irish teams produced their worst return in the competition's history, those watching on could not fail to have been intrigued by the quality on display.
Outside of the World Cup, this tournament is the best around and if the 'mad dogs and Englishmen' of the Top 14 and Premiership see it come a cropper, professional rugby in this part of the world will deserve all the self-inflicted pain that might follow.
So much for that Irish advantage in terms of preparation that apparently puts the fear of God in the under-resourced English and French. Spare me. When the final was last held in Ireland (2003) it was an all-French affair (Toulouse and Perpignan) and signs are that another Gallic invasion of Dublin 4 could be on the cards come May.
Not for a minute are we writing off the English but in terms of sending out the most compelling message, look no further than Clermont and Toulon. Toulouse are still in the mix, so too Montpellier, with the big Premiership three of Saracens, Leicester and Harlequins leading their pools. Conor O'Shea's Quins, along with Clermont and Toulon, look like breezing to three of the four home quarter-final slots.
That leaves just one home place to play for and, on the back of Saturday's shock home defeat to Northampton, previously invincible Ulster appear to be in a dogfight with Castres and the Saints for knock-out qualification, never mind home comfort.
For the reigning champions it looks like mission impossible but with a maximum 10 points still on offer (home to Scarlets and away to Exeter) you just never know.
Gallant Connacht were drowned out in Biarritz in a game that should never have taken place. Irrespective of the result at the Stoop, beat Zebre at home and three wins from six would make for some return in just a second dip into the shark-infested waters of Heineken Cup rugby.
Ulster should return to winning ways against Glasgow next up but with a trek to Castres in the final game, a five-point haul against the Scots could prove essential for qualification, never mind a Ravenhill run-out in the last eight. All of which leaves Munster.
At Vicarage Road the north London side probably just about deserved victory. And much like the previous week in Limerick, space was at a premium, although there is an issue to be addressed in terms of size of the Watford football club pitch.
In 80 minutes of attrition I can recall two fleeting moments of space-creating skill. One, a most delicate dink by Ronan O'Gara over the Sarries midfield for the impressive Simon Zebo to re-gather on the charge, and the other a deliciously executed Richard Wigglesworth grubber for David Streetle's first-half try.
Beyond that, it was a brutish battle for territory in which young gun Owen Farrell out-scored the more seasoned O'Gara when the few second-half scoring chances presented themselves. A more cohesive Saracens scrum and a hugely committed defence (particularly when Will Fraser was in the bin) plus Farrell's goalkicking opportunism despite a definite wobble either side of half-time, made all the difference.
From a Munster perspective it was a typical bonus-point securing performance from times past with the core of the side; Conor Murray, O'Gara and all four back-row forwards; Dave O'Callaghan, Peter O'Mahony, James Coughlan and Paddy Butler meeting the physical challenge. Zebo too was outstanding, particularly under the high ball, in his first-half shift from wing to full-back. I love his 'get up and at them' attitude. Long may it continue.
Although it was Sarries' day, the war that is Pool 1 is far from over. And while only in third place now, the January run in could scarcely be better choreographed for Munster, with Edinburgh away (as Racing Metro entertain Saracens) to be followed by the Parisian aristocrats at Thomond Park on the final day. Tickets should be snaffled up for that.
Of course the real concern over the weekend were the injuries shipped by Tommy Bowe and Richardt Strauss. We'll leave the prognosis to the specialists but certainly from personal experience both knee injuries appeared serious. For both Ireland players let's hope I am wrong.
All told it made for a disappointing weekend for Irish rugby but let's keep a sense of perspective here. Sadness isn't losing a handful of rugby matches – it's waking up and hearing we've lost the great Páidí.