Tony Ward: On-fire D'Arcy putting heat on Wallace
Published 26/01/2010 | 05:00
It's the equivalent in Olympic currency of three golds and a silver for our provinces in Europe.
Munster, Leinster topped their pools and ensured home quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup, and Connacht did the same in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Ulster finished a close second in their Heineken Cup group and were desperately unlucky to miss out on the consolation of a place in the last eight of Europe's shadow competition.
It is said you reap what you sow but, in Ulster's case, I'm not so sure as, yet again, the pools with an Italian presence -- Treviso and Viadana -- provided the two best runners-up, in Northampton and the Ospreys. That is the one real weakness in the system. Draw an Italian team in the pool and straightaway you're in with a double-route chance of qualification for the knock-outs.
It re-emphasises the need to get the Italians' act together, to get the professional game there up to speed with the rest. We all want the Italian game to succeed but right now it is a huge albatross around the neck of the ERC.
Whatever it takes, within reason, ie Magners League participation must be supported to the full. If that means extra financial input from the IRB, then so be it.
Italy have played in the Six Nations since 2000, but as with Argentina, their lack of a domestic professional structure, capable of keeping the best indigenous talent at home, means they remain a rugby nation in crisis. They look destined to finish last in the Six Nations again.
Ulster have come a hell of a long way in a very short space of time under Brian McLaughlin. There is now a real sense of purpose to what they are about. They deserved Challenge Cup qualification at least. There is a balance to the Ulster game I like. Yes, they lost their way somewhat in the second half at Bath in search of tries as they pushed for the bonus-point. However, there were standout performances from hooker Nigel Brady, lock Dan Tuohy, blindside Stephen Ferris and wings Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli, while scrum-half Isaac Boss continued his fine form of late.
Such was Ferris' rampaging impact at the Rec that, much like Munster No 6 Alan Quinlan at Thomond Park the night before, he made the term blindside almost a rugby misnomer.
Out-half Niall O'Connor, recalled in place of Ian Humphreys, did well with his goalkicking, but, in terms of game management at this level, he is still learning the ropes. The European experience, particularly away from home, will do him the world of good and I suspect that was McLaughlin's measured logic in what appeared a big pre-match gamble.
As for Munster, it's a case of job done and they move on, but, unfortunately, with Northampton again next up. Not for a minute would I bet against Tony McGahan's side upping the ante appreciably when next they meet in early April, but, have no doubt, they will need to. No matter how much they seek to dress it up, the scrum creaked badly at times. Ironically, it took a heel against the head to save the day but McGahan and Laurie Fisher know better than anyone that work on the set-piece needs to be done. However, fixing that will prove difficult given the absence of so many internationals in the coming weeks.
On the plus side, there were influential performances from Dougie Howlett, Paul Warwick and Ronan O'Gara as well as Quinlan. Donnacha Ryan and Damien Varley also made their mark off the bench.
I do not share the view that skipper Paul O'Connell overstepped the mark in questioning referee Romain Poite throughout. The clear difficulty in communicating highlighted the problems language-barriers can create.
But more than that, personality had an input. Despite the armbands worn by O'Connell and Northampton's Dylan Hartley, the French official was not for negotiation. This was his gig, being done his way. Assertive authority is essential but not at the cost of losing the co-operative assistance of both skippers -- and with it the teams.
Whatever criticism can be levelled at the Munster captain, he does not do arrogance. The genuine frustration at being unable to communicate was etched all over his face.
For Leinster too it was a case of mission accomplished and on we go. For me, despite the final nerve-tingling drama, it was a case of fear-driven, suffocating dross from almost first minute to last. There was the occasional spark -- inevitably ignited by the on-fire Gordon D'Arcy. Paddy Wallace did reasonably well in Bath but in London, D'Arcy was back to his all-embracing, midfield hard-yard and line-busting best and no doubt Declan Kidney will have been taking note.
Despite using the get-out-of-jail card by way of Chris Malone's profligate goalkicking, there was still enough in the quality of Leinster's defensive control to suggest a team in charge of its destiny.
They were nowhere near top gear but still efficient enough to see off a London Irish side capable of so much more.
That was the disappointing aspect for me. A contest which clearly offered so much in terms of talent turned out underwhelming, because both teams seemed dedicated to snuffing out the opposition and eking out a result by the most risk-free method manageable.
Despite being kept apart, the draw has not been kind to either Irish qualifier, while for Biarritz and Toulouse it's home comforts from here on in. There was, however, one little bit of luck for the Irish and I think I speak for fair-minded rugby-lovers everywhere when saying that pulling Bourgoin at the Sportsground represents pretty much the dream draw for Michael Bradley's all-conquering Challenge Cup heroes.
It will make for a massive match in Galway and, more importantly, one of those rare occasions when national interest will focus on Connacht every bit as much as the big two in the higher-profile main event.