Wednesday 21 August 2019

Tony Ward: Munster lead way as provinces fire a warning across Europe

Simon Zebo, here scoring Munster’s first try against Leicester, was class personified on Saturday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, here scoring Munster’s first try against Leicester, was class personified on Saturday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Before Round 3, I expressed the view that winning the Champions Cup might prove beyond the capability of our teams this season.

I still feel that Saracens and Toulon are that bit stronger than the rest, while Clermont and Wasps - despite indifferent performances against Ulster and Connacht respectively - have what it takes to go the whole way if they click into gear.

But last weekend's action represented a hugely constructive step as the provinces makes their way back to the top table of European Rugby. The feel-good factor following a massive November on the international stage is being replicated a level down.

The positives far outweigh any negatives - and I include the list of walking wounded in that.

At Franklin's Gardens for the second successive time Leinster ripped Northampton apart.

The Blues' performance against them in 2013 was the most complete I have witnessed from any Irish team on the road in Europe; while Friday night's win was every bit as comprehensive, the level was nowhere near the same.

Leinster will be fully aware of what happened in the return match three years ago as they prepare to host the Saints in the Aviva on Saturday.

But there was so much to admire in how Leo Cullen's men went about their business. Their pack - pretty close to the first-choice Ireland eight - was brutish in the extreme.

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Devin Toner was again superb and in every aspect. He is playing the rugby of his life in that understated way. Given his height, we now take his lineout expertise for granted; he seldom gets the credit he deserves. Take away the goal kicking and he is our John Eales.

The front-row trio of Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong are echoing the great Pontypool and Wales trio of the '70s - the 'Viet Gwent' of Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price, with their motto of "we may go down; we may go up; but we never go back".

Add to that Cian Healy springing from the bench, plus the strength and depth in the other provinces, and our front-row shelves have never been better stocked.

Rob Kearney too was immense and central to laying down that early marker. If only we got to see him more consistently in this aggressive attacking mode. He is still a class act with a fair bit to go before his time is up.

As for Dylan Hartley, the red mist theory doesn't wash. I hope his sanction will be at the top end of the scale. What he attempted on Sean O'Brien was nasty and full of malicious intent - not merely 'reckless'. England coach Eddie Jones' effort at an expressionless reaction said it all.

Where Leinster left off in Northampton, Ulster took up against Clermont at the Kingspan with Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall supplying the physicality, and Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson providing a masterclass in game management.

Jackson is on current form second only to Johnny Sexton and edging ever closer to challenging for the Ireland No 10 shirt.

Joey Carbery, despite his injury setback, has those extra strings to his bow and will eventually assume the position, but for the upcoming Six Nations (with Sexton resting) Joe Schmidt has a big call to make at No 10. Would he want it any other way?

In the end it was tight as Ulster got the win they richly deserved, but they, like Leinster, came in behind Munster on the type of European weekend that makes this competition so special for Irish rugby.

To do what Munster did to Leicester beggars belief. There could be a price to be paid next week, but for now concentrate on a Thomond Park European performance up there with the very best.

This was old-style Munster with Tyler Bleyendaal (a la Ronan O'Gara) converting territory into points as the hosts played sensible, balanced, intelligent rugby. With that buffer, confidence grew.

The driving maul was nothing short of magnificent, and CJ Stander and Conor Murray continued their incredible form for Ireland with Munster. Add to that Peter O'Mahony's increasing influence after his injury.

And add Darren Sweetnam to that growing list of players of interest to Schmidt. He has the offloading potential to be our George North and is developing by the match. As for Simon Zebo? Simply class personified.

Welford Road will be a different psychological and physical challenge entirely but Munster's confidence is back and well founded.

As for Connacht, there was much to admire in defeat as they faced the most difficult challenge of the lot. While the lineout struggled the scrum and maul (when attempted) was full of intensity, which I suspect caught Wasps by surprise.

John Muldoon and particularly Kieran Marmion at eight and nine were outstanding.

The Sportsground will be heaving for Saturday's must-win rematch.

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