Sunday 30 April 2017

Back-row bonanza

TONY WARD - On Rugby

No trophies were handed out, but if four European wins out of four - with two on the road - doesn't represent a promising weekend for Irish rugby, then I don't know what does.

For Declan Kidney, it ensures that his players will turn up for national duty from all four corners in a positive and winning frame of mind.

In the Heineken Cup, the order stays the same, with Leinster again producing the most complete performance, leaving Ulster and Munster to ponder mixed displays -- albeit ones that culminated in timely wins.

The last thing Joe Schmidt needs now is a two-month break. How he must wish he could play Leicester in the quarter-final in a few days' time, rather than in April.

Leinster are on fire. Their all-embracing rugby is a joy to behold. It is easy on the eye but also underpinned by ruthless ball-winning. We understand what Jamie Heaslip means when he hints at the pragmatic over the aesthetic (ie, winning) but equally he knows that winning with a smile makes for a much greater package.

Right now Leinster under Schmidt are top box office.

Although there is no such thing as an easy ride in the last eight, the draw has been good too -- but Leinster will not forget that in 2005, when they were unbeaten top seeds after the pool stages, Leicester came to Dublin and proceeded to give them a thorough tonking.

That said, this is a different Leinster animal entirely. And while it may be the best part of three months before the sides run out in Dublin 4, down-to-earth Tigers coach Richard Cockerill won't thank No 8 Jordan Crane for his over-exuberant boast that Leicester "fear no one" and "can beat anyone".

We know that to be the case, but it is the walk -- not the talk -- that tends to be the well-travelled Leicester way.

Temperament

Yet again on Friday in Paris, Sean O'Brien was the stand-out performer. What impressed this time was his temperament in overcoming a missed tackle on Virimi Vakatawa (for the Racing try) followed by an uncharacteristic handling error (when a Leinster try in response seemed a certainty) to take control and prove the game's most influential figure when it really mattered.

I don't care what number he wears against the Italians provided it is somewhere between one and 15, but more realistically it will be seven or eight.

The most obvious back-row is Stephen Ferris at No 6, O'Brien at No 7 and Heaslip in between at No 8. And with Denis Leamy and David Wallace in reserve, Ireland have truly exciting back-row options.

While props may remain thin on the ground, the back-row cupboard is overflowing, with the contributions of Rhys Ruddock and Shane Jennings at Racing adding even more to the abundance of in-form riches.

As for full-back, there is still not a readily identifiable solution in sight.

Elsewhere, in Italy Ulster made it difficult for themselves for 40 minutes with unrealistic running into unrealistic areas and (most worryingly) in unrealistic circumstances.

Unlike Munster and Leinster, who both understand the value of patience on the road, they forced the game at a time when sensibly-tailored basics were required.

Whatever was said, a dose of Brian McLaughlin at the break did the trick, with a much more realistic performance in the second half sealing a place in the last eight.

Pedrie Wannenburg was the main beneficiary of the second-half forward platform, but from an Ireland perspective Andrew Trimble was again top notch, so it was disappointing to hear of his arm injury last night. Paddy Wallace and Tom Court too had their moments, while the youthful exuberance and sheer physicality of Nevin Spence continues to impress.

As for Munster, they (like Ulster) upped the ante in the second half, making for a brief trip back in time for the Thomond Park faithful. Most encouragingly for Tony McGahan and for Kidney, the Paul O'Connell spark was back. He was the catalyst for the second-half resurgence when the chips were down and Munster were under the cosh.

Nevertheless, they are still nowhere near where they want to be. Just as the previous week's defeat in Toulon was very far from the end of the world, neither was Saturday's spirited final quarter a sign that everything is rosy. It was, however, typical Munster and that still matters hugely.

Munster may be down but they are very far from out. The Amlin Challenge does count. Success in Brive, if it can be achieved, would open the way to a battle against the winner of Conor O'Shea's Harlequins and mighty Wasps in a home semi-final.

As attention now turns to the Six Nations, only the French have a greater representation in the knock-out phase of the Heineken Cup. There are no Welsh, Scottish or Italian sides through -- only English and French, plus the two Irish.

That gives an indication of where the balance of power lies coming into the Six Nations and this time around (as in the Grand Slam-winning '09 campaign) both heavyweights have to come to us.

The full-back issue apart (and on the assumption Mike Ross starts at No 3) we are as good as we could possibly be ahead of what appears a wide-open Six Nations.

Given the World Cup year that's in it, it's a reasonably optimistic place to start.

Irish Independent

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