SO much for the English Premiership. So much for the French Top 14. The Celtic cousins came out on top in the all-out Heineken Cup combat across the battlefields of Europe this |weekend.
The PRO12 League provided Leinster’s draw in Montpellier, two Irish winners, three Welsh winners and even two Scottish winners as English and French clubs were humbled.
“For the PRO12 League clubs to have done so well this weekend is a huge plus for the strength of the League. It shows it is as good as the other two big leagues in Europe,” reacted Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin.
Indeed, Ulster hobbled Clermont-Auvergne (16-11), Cardiff Blues stiffed Racing Metro (26-20) in Paris, the Scarlets bounced Castres Olympique (31-23) and the Ospreys just about survived Biarritz Olympique (28-21) at the Liberty Stadium on a sorry weekend for the French clubs.
Edinburgh shocked London Irish |(20-19) on their travels at The |Madejski Stadium and, of course, Munster came back from the dead against Northampton Saints (23-21) in Limerick.
Connacht were dreadfully unlucky not to take a losing bonus-point from Harlequins (25-17) on their debut night in London on Friday, while the Italian clubs Aironi and Benetton |Treviso did enough to show their challenges are legitimate.
Champions Leinster somehow extricated themselves from a torrid time in Montpellier by making sensible use of their replacement bench for a storming final quarter and by having Jonathan Sexton at out-half to seal their 16-all draw.
“I was standing on the sideline crossing all my fingers and toes. |Luckily, it went over. Fair play to |
Jonny! I have never heard more noise for someone taking a kick,” said McLaughlin.
“He just soaked up the pressure and banged it over. It was a very, very important draw for us away from home. We really needed it. Every point counts in this competition.”
Last season’s experience against Racing Metro was the template for Leinster’s plan to counter the sheer size and muscle of Montpellier with a fast, wide strategy in tandem with the late charge of Leinster’s lighter brigade of replacements.
Most significantly, hooker Sean Cronin made two bursts, the second a flying surge and recovery, bouncing back to his feet when not held in the tackle for a superb try before Sexton’s penalty from wide on the right.
“The physical nature of the game and the fact that we were playing away in the south of France meant it was necessary to bring on the players for freshness to take us to another level,” McLaughlin added.
“I think it paid dividends. In the last 20 minutes, we had a lot of ball and the tempo went up. Redser (Eoin Reddan) made a big difference at nine. He brings a different tempo to the game than Bossy, who was very good too.
“We have two different players at nine who can do different things in a game. This is one of the best signs of the strength in depth of the squad.”
Leinster were given further encouragement in Pool Three by a freak injury-time try by Glasgow Warriors (26-21) which toppled Bath at Firhill yesterday afternoon.
Fly-half Duncan Weir’s half-blocked drop goal from distance dropped well short of the posts for lock Richie Gray to benefit from Bath’s switched off defence for a match-winning try.
This makes the visit of Glasgow to The RDS next Sunday a more interesting proposition than was otherwise anticipated before the start of the season.
“It is going to be all hands to the pump this week. We are going to take nothing for granted. They have two second rows near 6ft10in, which makes their lineout very good and they stole some of Bath’s ball,” said McLaughlin.
“Richie Gray is a very impressive player in the loose, as are a couple of their back-row players. We are going to have to nullify their impact on the game and make sure we bring our game to the table.
“We will approach it with as much trepidation as we would any other game. Glasgow beat a good Bath |side at home and they also beat us already this season in the league at The RDS.”