Tony Ward: O'Gara responding in style to Sexton's Irish challenge
If ever there was a perfect antidote to Ireland's Triple Crown depression, we got it in spades on another magical weekend of European club rugby. There have been good ones in the past but this surpassed anything. Leinster, Connacht and Munster all did us proud.
Connacht's defeat of Bourgoin was up there among the greatest days in the province's history, alongside the victory at Northampton in 1997. The fact that they needed a late Miah Nikora drop-goal was almost a travesty. All too often, lack of guile and potency across the three-quarter line has sold Connacht short. For all the passion, and sometimes forward domination, the inability to translate position and possession into points has cost them dear.
On Saturday, they were so good in the first half they should have been out of sight at the break instead of a mere four points ahead. However, unlike previous occasions, they were creative and threatening in almost everything they did.
It was pretty much the complete team performance, but with Niva Ta'auso, Keith Matthews, Frank Murphy, Sean Cronin and the back row of John Muldoon, Johnny O'Connor and George Naoupu very much to the fore.
I am delighted for Connacht coach Michael Bradley. As he hits the final straight in his time out west, he has set up the biggest day in the province's history, when wealthy, star-studded Toulon come to the Sportsground in three weeks' time. That cherished goal of a Heineken Cup place is one step nearer and, irrespective of the opposition, Connacht have the ability, camaraderie and self-belief to achieve that Holy Grail.
Leinster's performance on Friday was hardly their most convincing but, given the quality of the opposition, a quarter-final win was welcome in any guise. The pressure got to Brock James and the last place he wanted to be was in the 'pocket' for that last-ditch drop-goal attempt. Had he succeeded, there would have been few complaints given the way in which Clermont worked their way back into it, but there is a doggedness to Leinster. You feel they are capable of soaking up whatever pressure comes their way and then replying with points almost every time they counter-attack.
That said, had James fronted up and done his bit, there was no time for fighting back. Toulouse will be red-hot favourites to advance to the Paris final but when you have the calibre of players as Stan Wright, Leo Cullen, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll, you know it is set for the wire.
Rob Kearney too was immense, as was Kevin McLaughlin on his return. Michael Cheika has done some job in transforming the mindset to the point where Leinster now travel, much like Munster, no longer in hope but with realistic expectations.
As for Munster, their collective resolve was typical but magnificent nonetheless. It is something we must never take for granted. In the absence of Paul O'Connell, the challenge was there for others to step up to the mark and almost to a man they did.
Ronan O'Gara as stand-in skipper was magnificent. Leadership in his case is not about getting involved in forward scuffles but in providing sensible and effective game-management. He was superb, producing his most complete 80 minutes of the season. On current form, he is the better of two very fine game-running out-halves -- were an Ireland team being picked right now, he would be a cert for re-selection.
Jonathan Sexton's arrival as a very real alternative has provided the Munster maestro with just the type of challenge he needs at this watershed stage in his illustrious career. Against Northampton he was sublime. He is not a natural leader a la O'Connell or, in my view, Jerry Flannery, but when it comes to doing the right things under pressure, his example is inspirational.
Flannery was, as ever, the powerhouse. The amount of tidying and dirty work he does is phenomenal. But there were so many others willing to accept that responsibility too. Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll (how fortunate are Munster to have him in reserve) were immense, while John Hayes continues to defy the sands of time.
David Wallace is seldom heard but when it really matters, always seen. When the Munster pack delivers, you know the rest will follow and from Tomas O'Leary right through to Paul Warwick they did, with Jean de Villiers standing out for the committed physicality he brings to the cause.
The interchange between De Villiers and Hayes following the former's match-turning try said it all. O'Leary made the clever angled run and delicate pop into space for the Springbok centre to crash through, but in running to Hayes on the way back to half-way, De Villiers was acknowledging the right-shouldered tilt led by the veteran tight-head at the all-important scrum.
The consistent Dougie Howlett sealed the deal following more O'Leary spadework and with that, the most perfect weekend for Irish provincial rugby was complete.
There are bigger fish to fry now but the May bank holiday weekend can't come quickly enough.