| 14.6°C Dublin

Hugh Farrelly: Incident-packed Heineken Cup weekend brought home the value of good coaches

ANOTHER gripping weekend of Heineken Cup action and one which, unfortunately, highlighted the entertainment gap that now exists between European rugby's flagship club and international competitions.

The Six Nations has tradition, national pride and the continent's best players grouped together but, while there were some decent contests in this season's championship, it is struggling to compete with the Heineken Cup in terms of drama and intrigue.

Last weekend's quarter-finals are a case in point. You had the excellence of Leinster and Clermont, the exuberance and to-hell-with-reputations success of Edinburgh and the history-altering ferocity of Thomond Park.

That game was truly something special -- all you could wish for in rugby entertainment. The quality of fare may have been more basic than beautiful on occasions but it was never less than compelling.

The needle bubbling under the surface added to the intensity of the physical and verbal exchanges, and looking at the combined personnel from Ulster, Munster and Leinster and the levels they reached in these quarter-finals provides a shard of hope for Ireland's summer challenge in New Zealand.

GOOD WEEKEND FOR ...

Brian McLaughlin

He has conducted himself in an exemplary manner since it was confirmed that he was being moved aside at the end of the season.

There are arguments that this is a player-driven Ulster revival, and there is no doubt McLaughlin squad is dripping with leadership and ability.

But he is the man charged with bringing it all together and has done that spectacularly well. When he was skills coach with Ireland, McLaughlin's speciality was the breakdown and, against a Munster side who have forged a reputation for ruling the ruck, Ulster laid down a match-winning marker.

McLaughlin was a relative unknown in wider circles, but this result has made European rugby sit up and take notice, and there are likely to be several tempting job offers for him to consider now for, while a role in the Ulster Academy is important and one he would excel at, front of house suits him very well.

Joe Schmidt

Sky Sports may be prone to hyperbole, but the suggestion that Schmidt would be a good choice as Lions coach was based on hard facts.

That job is Warren Gatland's, but Schmidt, who has always maintained he is more comfortable with the less high-profile duties of an assistant coach, has blossomed since taking over Leinster.

Quite simply, when the Kiwi has Leinster firing, they are mesmerising to watch, and his graduation into international rugby, wherever that occurs, now seems inevitable.

Michael Bradley

Was seen as a bargain-basement acquisition by Edinburgh and, in terms of the Pro12, the former Connacht coach is in familiar surroundings at the bottom of the table.

However, Bradley's coaching pedigree was always sound, and his single-minded approach with Edinburgh has been spectacularly rewarded.

With no relegation from the Pro12, Bradley centred all his focus on Europe and gave his players free reign to give it a lash (the way Mick Doyle did when coaching Bradley and a young Ireland team to the Triple Crown in 1985).

There were nearly 40,000 people in Murrayfield for the win over Toulouse on Saturday, and who would have thought that it would be an Irishman who would re-energise Scottish rugby?

Luke Fitzgerald

With his contract still up in the air under the cloud of reduced valuation, and Tommy Bowe's surgery creating a gap in the Ireland back three, Fitzgerald needed to re-emphasise his quality in Lansdowne Road on Saturday and he did exactly that.

He may not have been involved as much as he would have wished, but everything the winger did he did well and his depth and awareness were critical for Brian O'Driscoll's memorable try.

30-somethings

All the talk post-Six Nations was about the need to inject the Ireland squad with youth and vitality, and some of the old-stagers were lined up to be moved aside for the summer tour.

However, the likes of Paddy Wallace, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen refuse to go quietly into the recesses of Irish rugby and instead are making a concerted push for New Zealand.

It was especially encouraging to observe the energy exuded by Ireland's figurehead 30-somethings O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell -- and, while we are on the subject of enduring energy, a mention must go out to Edinburgh's colourful prop Allan Jacobsen.

BAD WEEKEND FOR...

Mark Anscombe

Not only does Ulster's incoming coach have to find his feet in new surroundings next season, he is now faced with the ultimate hard-act-to-follow scenario.

Perhaps Ulster's overseers now have a better understanding of why their decision to stick with the move-McLaughlin-aside plan regardless of results caused such a furore.

When that story broke, the Ulster reaction was a faux weary 'this was always the plan and everyone is on board' -- which they clearly weren't.

With McLaughlin continuing to bring the side forward by reaching a first Heineken Cup semi-final in 13 years, the decision just looks daft.

Prop solutions

Leinster are holding up Irish scrummaging ambitions through Cian Healy and Mike Ross but, almost a month on from the Twickenham debacle, the issue of who fills in for the top two has not been resolved.

Munster and Ulster are reliant on imported heft at scrum time and there were no glimpses of Stephen Archer or Paddy McAllister to see if they have what it takes. With both provinces still in the hunt for the Pro12 as well, opportunities may be limited.

Toulouse

Guy Noves must go? Hardly, but even after all he has achieved with the four-time champions, being unable to mastermind a win over Edinburgh is a major blot on a glittering CV.

Toulouse have a budget pushing €20m and a squad jammed with international stars, Edinburgh have a yellow pack team of journeymen and Scotland wooden-spooners. Noves' decision to put Yannick Jauzion at full-back was Lievremont-esque and he will need a Top 14 title to appease disgruntled fans.

Welsh regions

Cardiff provided tangible evidence of the sorry slide of the Welsh club game -- and yet the Grand Slam-winning national side goes from strength to strength. As the Americans would say, go figure.

SAD WEEKEND FOR...

Tony McGahan

McGahan will leave for Australia at the end of the season, having laid some serious groundwork for his successor in terms of bringing talent through and masterminding Munster's transition.

The sad thing is he will be remembered as the coach who was unable to bring the province to European glory or even a final in four seasons -- that is how coaches are judged in Munster. McGahan conducted himself with great dignity after the loss to Ulster and will do well with the Wallabies and, while his spell with Munster did not secure the ultimate prize, it was still time well spent.

Irish Independent