Champions' frailities exposed on sobering weekend for provinces, writes Jim Glennon
The Heineken Cup has been won four times by Irish teams since the last time all four provinces were beaten on the same weekend – way back in January 2007. That's how unusual last weekend's whitewash was for Irish rugby.
Connacht were the first to hit the rocks on Friday night in Biarritz, as they came unstuck in appalling conditions. Similar to the other provinces, and reflecting a situation which has become a regrettable norm, they had travelled without several leading players, most notably Gavin Duffy and John Muldoon.
They came up against a re-energised team, inspired by a combination of a hunger for revenge and a mini dressing-room revolution, who ran out comfortable winners. Connacht didn't make things easy for themselves either and both coach Eric Elwood and backline linchpin Dan Parks have questions to answer around certain formations, particularly in defence.
Leinster's defeat to Clermont provided a sharp reminder of the thin margins separating the really top teams. Their losing performance in France the previous week had provided grounds for expectations of a win, but an unusually tired-looking team never came to terms with the visitors' massive physical challenge.
The early loss of hooker Richardt Strauss certainly didn't help matters and the visitors seemed to have taken the measure of Andrew Goodman in the centre too by stifling any possibility of a repeat of his previous week's impressive performance.
One of the hallmarks of Joe Schmidt's success has been his capacity to make bold selections, as in the away leg with Goodman and Isaac Boss; this time, however, his decision to start Heinke van der Merwe rather than Cian Healy was open to question, and the South African was part of an outplayed forward unit which, on this performance at least, is in need of more than Mike McCarthy.
The return of Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald can't come soon enough, for psychological reasons as much as anything else, but whenever they return the harsh reality for the champions is that their chances have all but evaporated.
Ulster's home defeat to Northampton on Saturday night was the classic example of a hungry and sharper team bringing their A-game on a revenge mission. An Ulster side crucially without their skipper Johann Muller and long-term absentee Stephen Ferris were only barely lacking. They remain Ireland's chief candidates for the knockout phase, but their hopes of a home draw have been dealt a serious blow. Having got back on the horse, as it were, on Friday against Leinster in the league, they'll want to push on again through Munster to position themselves to maximise their chances of that crucial home quarter-final.
Munster's performance in defeat to Saracens at Vicarage Road was, for me, the most positive of the four. They put behind them the nightmare of their previous away game in the competition against Racing Metro to put to the pin of their collar a home side, coached by Mark McCall, who harbour real ambitions for a visit to Dublin in May.
With only Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan of the old guard starting, it was the new generation led by Donnacha Ryan and more than ably supported by Mike Sherry, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony who caught the eye in a performance in keeping with the best traditions of their predecessors. While their chances don't appear to be as forlorn as those of Leinster, they will be relying on a highly unlikely Saracens collapse in their remaining games.
All in all then, quite a sobering weekend. A common problem for all four provinces is the number of players out through injury. Declan Kidney had the problem for the autumn series which all four of his provincial colleagues deal with on a daily basis, in both the numbers of injured and the gravity of their injuries. It is inevitable, after such a sustained period of high-profile casualties, that the effects on fit colleagues begin to take their toll and I suspect that some of what we saw last week was this process being played out.
A final observation: Ireland won four Triple Crowns between 2004 and 2009 – for the first three, Eddie O'Sullivan was coach, and it was largely his team with which Kidney was successful for the fourth.
We're now given to believe that, notwithstanding his status as the most successful Irish coach of all time, O'Sullivan hasn't even been invited to interview for the position of coach of Connacht, the province in which he and his family have lived for many years. Former international Noel Mannion indicated on radio during last week that O'Sullivan was advised to apply for the job; if that's the case, then it's a shoddy way for Irish rugby to treat one of its more distinguished sons and reflects very poorly on those involved.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding his departure from the national job, or indeed from his previous tenure as coach of Connacht back in the '90s, it's difficult to imagine that the job application of a coach of his proven experience and record of success, not to mention local knowledge, was so inferior to those of other applicants that it didn't warrant elaboration by way of face-to-face discussion.
Coupled with the ongoing shambles that is the IRFU's so-called recruitment process for a national scrum coach (a position for which it's reported that no Irish coach was interviewed), it says a lot of the levels of respect and esteem in which Irish coaches are held by the game's authorities here. No Irish need apply – surely not?