Tony Ward: Dramatic finale shows folly of English threat to pull plug
Published 15/01/2013 | 05:00
Ten gone, four through to the knockout phase and 10 still scrambling for the remaining four places. And the all-important seedings are still to be confirmed. This is the state of play across Europe going into the nail-biting final weekend of the greatest competition to come rugby's way since the game went professional.
And yet, if the French and English megalomaniacs have their way, this fantastic tournament, the best on the rugby calendar, will at best lose its way, and at worst be no more.
Bear in mind, too, that, of the 14 clubs still in the mix, only three – Munster, Leinster and Ulster – are not English or French, and yet the spin is of a tournament tilted heavily in favour of the Celtic nations and Italy. Who's fooling who?
Thankfully, on the field, the drama – if not always the quality – is top-notch. From an Irish perspective, it's still all to play for for our big three.
Connacht may be gone but, if they manage to finish off their second campaign with a victory, a three-from-six return would represent some achievement.
Indiscipline cost them dearly at The Stoop, where, despite the 47-8 difference on the scoreboard, they again gave it a real lash, trailing just 6-3 before a penalty try and a penalty tore the heart out of the challenge coming up to the break, making the second half against such classy opposition totally predictable, aided and abetted by an overused bin.
But it's been a great learning experience, particularly for young guns Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O'Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Matt Jarvis, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Mick Kearney and Eoin McKeon.
Could there be a finer legacy from the departing Eric Elwood?
Against Quins, Henshaw, O'Halloran and Mike Swift were particularly prominent.
The incoming Pat Lam will have to face into the wind, hill and rain, like every Westerners coach before him, but he does so with an ever-growing identity tapping into the grassroots of Connacht sport and that developing pride in rugby in particular.
For Ulster, mission qualification has been achieved but doing the double over Castres on Saturday is essential to secure a Ravenhill quarter-final and a confidence-boosting win on French soil.
Bearing in mind the loss of Stephen Ferris, Johann Muller and Tommy Bowe, what Ulster have achieved under Mark Anscombe has been remarkable and, as in Connacht, a new generation of gifted young players is coming through.
I am thinking of Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Ian Henderson and Paddy Jackson, a really talented playmaker in development.
However, while Ruan Pienaar can exert a stronger influence at scrum- half, I feel the combination of Paul Marshall and Pienaar is a more effective combination at this point in time. Not for a minute am I underplaying Jackson's potential; I'm just not sure the timing is right. It's a critical decision.
Of the more experienced players, Tom Court and Nick Williams – who will be hugely missed during the eight weeks he faces on the sidelines following the knee injury he picked up last Friday – have been immense. Again against Glasgow, these two were the forward linchpins upon which another match-winning performance was built.
In Ireland terms, Court is unlucky that Cian Healy is playing out of his skin for Leinster, but for Ulster he is now a key piece in the jigsaw.
And Munster? If anyone had offered them a final game at home against Racing Metro with a possible place in the last eight on the line, everyone would have accepted such a scenario gratefully.
They are not in great shape but are still a competitive force. Qualification is a possibility but, beyond that, you would wonder.
On the downside is their backline, which looks anything but smooth. It lacks balance and any semblance of shape or structure in attack.
Again, at Murrayfield, Felix Jones spent far too much time involved in clearing out rucks. It looks impressive but is self-defeating. He is a full-back, not an extra wing-forward. Indeed, Munster can be thankful that for Conor Murray's try, Jones wasn't pinged for going off his feet (in support of Murray) on the line. It is an issue I have raised before and I am astonished it hasn't been addressed.
The full-back position is still the one offering the best scope for line- breaking – provided the No 15 is on the end (a la Jared Payne) and not immersed somewhere in a tangle of bodies freeing up possession.
If that is the instruction Jones is getting, then heaven help back play in the province in the future.
On the plus side, Murray exerts increasing influence at scrum-half while Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Doug Howlett continue to have vital roles in the backline.
Ronan O'Gara still has a role to play if qualification is to be achieved, but beyond that the clock is ticking for him. That is not a criticism, just a fact of life.
Replacing forwards will never be a problem, although precision out of touch needs to be improved for Sunday's must-win clash.