Dynamic Leinster and Ulster leave predictable Munster lagging behind
This weekend's Heineken Cup fixtures gave a lot of food for thought. In Paris we saw what clever coaching and motivation can do; in Northampton we marvelled at what a great spectacle rugby can be when played without fear; and in Limerick we were reminded that all is not rosy in the Irish garden.
I wonder what Mark McCafferty was thinking when the full-time whistle sounded at Franklin's Gardens. As the home team chased nothing but blue shadows, how did the Premiership Rugby chief executive rationalise his absurd intransigence over this wonderful tournament? Would he have looked deep into his soul and realised the sheer foolishness of his plight? I doubt it. Perhaps it merely strengthened his resolve.
For the rest of us, Saturday night's massacre only served to highlight the madness of McCafferty's approach to the future of the Heineken Cup. Next season promises another European tournament under the directive of ERC. As things stand, English clubs will be absent. One can only hope, for the sake of northern hemisphere rugby, that the Aviva Premiership chiefs have not tied themselves to a man with a one-way ticket to European isolation.
For Saints fans and followers of English rugby, it all must have made for difficult viewing.
The second best side in the Aviva Premiership were taught a lesson in the art of rugby; Northampton were torn to shreds by the wizardry of Brian O'Driscoll, the trickery of Luke Fitzgerald, the composure of Rob Kearney and the giant leaps and bounds of the ever-improving Devin Toner.
The silence of the home support was deafening, the difference in class palpable.
Fitzgerald was simply magnificent. Although O'Driscoll again defied his age, the post-BOD era looks brighter if Fitzgerald can remain injury-free and take over at outside-centre.
The interplay between Leinster backs and forwards was a joy to watch. Just as the foundation for victory was laid in the power and aggression of the pack, the scores were sealed by the vision and agility of the backline.
In a newspaper interview in the run-up to this fixture, Northampton back Ken Pisi suggested Leinster would be taught a lesson if they even tried to play ball at the home of the 'super Saints'. Alas for the young Samoan, instead of heeding his warning, Leinster gripped their English opponents in a suffocating vice and slowly turned the screw.
When Pisi, playing at full-back, knocked the ball on in the opening moments and then, seconds later, missed a simple tackle to allow Fitzgerald to touch down for the game's first try, the writing was on the wall. At the final whistle, 77 painful minutes later, Northampton slumped off the field battered and bruised.
Meanwhile, an injury-ravaged Perpignan arrived in Limerick to take on Munster yesterday. Still that does not excuse the flat performance that made them easy victims for the southern province, who secured a bonus-point victory without breaking sweat.
Next week will be different in the south of France – Rob Penney's team have none of Leinster's guile and flair. The red backline was without innovation and spent the afternoon running laterally. Where Leinster used two passes, Munster took six and ran out of space even against a slow-forming French defence that allowed acres of space in the wide channels.
The comparisons in other areas were telling. Munster's Damien Varley had a bad day at the line-out, while Leinster's Sean Cronin benefited from the lofty target that was Toner. Leinster were also well served at prop forward and have four reasonable performers, whereas Munster have just BJ Botha. Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer never looked comfortable even against a half-hearted Perpignan scrum.
Munster's biggest problem is a lack of dynamic ball carriers, whereas Cronin was magnificent for Leinster and Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip ably backed him up. One of Cronin's breaks was worthy of O'Driscoll.
This morning the Heineken Cup tables make comforting reading for Ireland, with three teams atop their groups.
However, Leinster and Ulster are playing a high-octane game based on the flair of their backs and the dynamism of their forwards. Munster lag behind and may find next week's game a big ask as Perpignan even at their worst looked to have more flair. The disallowed try after half-time saved Munster a tricky last 35 minutes.
This weekend showed us the fallacy of McCafferty's plan. English rugby may be like that of South Africa in the apartheid era.
Shorn of the excitement and invention of the top clubs in Europe, the Premiership game may sink in to a morass of boring, predictable clashes between giant forwards and backs of doubtful intellectual ability.
It is hard to believe Conor O'Shea can be happy that Harlequins, the most exciting team in England, face years in the wilderness.
Connacht's stunning triumph will echo around the world
On Friday evening as I contemplated the upcoming weekend for Irish provinces, there was the certain win in Belfast, the probable victory in Limerick, the possibility of an upset in Northampton, and no hope for Connacht in Toulouse.
Yesterday, in one of the greatest upsets in Heineken Cup history, the unheralded Westerners beat one the giants of European rugby in their own backyard. It was all the more surprising given that this had hardly been a vintage season under coach Pat Lam (right).
There have been big days before. Periodically, aided by Atlantic breezes and driving rain, there were one-off victories in the old inter-provincial championship at the Sportsground.
Eddie O'Sullivan masterminded a victory over Fiji and Warren Gatland had a famous victory in Northampton, when he unveiled the 14-man line-out.
This result is different. Toulouse take the Heineken Cup more seriously than any other French club.
Their one-point victory away to Saracens in Round 2 was testament to their ongoing commitment to the competition.
They may have been guilty of underestimating Connacht yesterday, as in the early stages they disdained kicks at goal for try attempts. Kieran Marmion, as he had done to shock Saracens, scored a vital try and Dan Parks continued to show his full range of kicking skills to keep the scoreboard ticking over and put his team in to a 16-7 lead that nobody thought they could hold, with most of the second half left.
Since his arrival, Parks has given the team a sound tactical game which has not had its true reward.
Toulouse's full-strength side was repelled with comparative ease in the closing stages despite Thierry Dusautoir's converted try, which left just a two-point margin.
There will probably be a reality check next week when the French come to Galway and, with a trip to Saracens still to come, expectations of reaching the knockout stages should remain realistic.
However, like the assassination at Sarajevo in 1914, this result will be heard around the world.
Former coaches, administrators and players will be standing a little taller.
In London, Jim Staples and Simon Geoghegan; in Manchester, John and Barry O'Driscoll; and in Dublin, Ray McLoughlin and Ciaran Fitzgerald will have raised a glass last night. Even in far-off Zimbabwe, David Curtis will have heard the news.
Today is a good day to be associated with Connacht rugby.