Sunday 17 December 2017

O'Gara is box-office on and off the pitch

After sparking more controversy before the match -- not a rugby player, you understand, but a Munster rugby player -- Ronan O'Gara delivered a bravura display to emphasise that he is, well, a Munster rugby player, not a rugby player.

All the hype in West Wales focused on the clash of style and generation between Rhys Priestland and the ageing gunslinger. There was no contest, the result of that particular individual battle settled long before the match's outcome, when Priestland was removed to full-back as the home side sought to retrieve a desperate situation.

Stephen Jones once more refused to sit in the pocket in high-pressure circumstances; he may almost match O'Gara in age but the Munster maestro still rules the roost.

Conor O'Shea had been at pains all season to play down Harlequins' hitherto unbeaten start in all competitions. Nobody would listen.

On Friday night, the Heineken Cup champions Toulouse came to the Stoop and summarily brutalised the Londoners' frailties. Now we're listening.

Once their set-pieces started to founder, you knew they were in trouble. Add to that a sizzling cocktail -- from the the power of Jauzion and Fritz to the panache of Medard and Clerc, from the force of Picamoles and Dusautoir to the flair of Burgess and Matanavou.

The French champions will win the return and bank a home quarter-final; they will be in the final this season and their favourites' tag to earn a fifth European crown is fully justified.

"Toulouse were good tonight," tweeted Brian O'Driscoll. "Probably the team to beat ... AGAIN. #Barcelona".

Just as Scarlets' thin skin was exposed by their daft reliance on an expansive game in difficult conditions against grizzled veterans of this competition, Harlequins must regroup and focus on their domestic campaign.

French flops

Not many in Europe would have shed a tear at the lonely, distracted figure of Serge Blanco as he waddled across the Stadio Comunale Monigo.

For a second successive year, Biarritz have succumbed to Italian opposition; no great shame in losing to improving Treviso, perhaps, but the sense of crisis within the five-time Bouclier de Brennus winners is palpable.

Currently slumped at the foot of Top 14, relegation is a live possibility for an outfit that have perennially flattered to deceive -- twice Heineken Cup finalists, twice semi-finalists, thrice quarter-finalists.

Almost always conveniently placed in a group containing an Italian side, perhaps their luck may be up, albeit Treviso must now face a return to the Basque Country.

And Biarritz can welcome back a few injured players -- Johnstone, Field, August, Yachvili, Lakafia, Lauret and Erik Lund. Oh, and some bloke called Imanal.

Racing Metro are another side with glorious pretensions. Having ditched backs coach Simmon Mannix -- an old buddy of Leinster coach Joe Schmidt -- his replacement Gonzalo Quesada, the man who did for Ireland's World Cup hopes in Lens all those years ago, has failed to arrest the decline.

After being 14-3 ahead against a moderate London Irish outfit, they utterly imploded, eventually losing 14-34. Only seventh in Top 14, the disparate galacticos may not re-qualify even with Jackie Lorenzetti's millions at their disposal.

Defence of the realm

Leinster butchered about five try-scoring chances but, although a limited Bath side snaffled the only try of the game, it was the champions' supreme defence which ultimately thwarted the English.

They will want to be more clinical next week when they seek the five-point bonus in Lansdowne Road. A home quarter-final is their goal; by that stage, they will not be able to afford to cough up so many scoring chances.

Number of the weekend

1,233 Ronan O'Gara extends his record of points scored in his 100th appearance.

Quote of the weekend

"And the Scarlets defence has been cheesewired by Munster!" Mark Robson commentating on Niall Ronan's try. No, we're not sure either.

Banner of the weekend

"Mike Tindall! I'm pregnant!" -- Seen at Parc y Scarlets. Genius.

Referee howler

Card-happy Pascal Gauzere had a 'mare at Wembley and his assistant was also guilty, ruling forward an Ospreys pass which clearly wasn't. The resulting scrum earned Saracens seven points. Gauzere also had blinkers on in scrum and breakdown.

Tackle of the weekend

Poor old Roman Poite got cheesewired -- oh, that's what it means! -- by Sione Timani at Parc y Scarlets. Not hard enough, if you asked the home fans.

One to watch

Denis Leamy came on at half-time and his hunger and drive indicated a man eager to re-establish himself as starter for both province and country.

Tweet of the weekend

"No point in Scarlets scoring a try as Ronan O'Gara will just kick a drop goal in injury time anyway." -- Chris Cusiter.

Team of Round 3

Medard (Toulouse); Martial (Castres), Fritz (Toulouse), Jauzion (Toulouse), Matanavou (Toulouse); McAlister (Toulouse), Kockett (Castres); Gill (Saracens), Paice (London Irish), Botha (Munster), Van Zyl (Treviso), O'Connell (Munster), Ferris (Ulster), Warburton (Cardiff), Picamoles (Toulouse).

Irish Independent

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