We'll hold fire and save calling it 'back with a bang' for now, but rugby returned with a fairly impressive thump over this long-awaited weekend all the same.
It wasn’t perfect, how could it be? Rust was obvious with scrums somewhat dishevelled and rucks still in the same logjam as pre-lockdown. All that said, and as one who unapologetically swears by almost everything rugby in New Zealand stands for, on the scale of comparison with week one of Rugby Aotearoa (their five-team interprovincial equivalent), this opening weekend and, specifically, the clash between Munster and Leinster, was right up there.
The opening half of Connacht against Ulster was equally enthralling too.
Form and, by extension, individual performances may have varied but, in terms of commitment in front of ‘two men and the proverbial dog’, nothing was left behind.
What we witnessed was the individual and collective pride which still makes Munster against Leinster the biggest crowd-puller in world rugby outside of the Test arena.
Miles on the clock may have been lacking, but the desire was most certainly not. And wasn’t it great to have our two premier provinces at full strength, as opposed to the now annual charade post- Christmas when Munster Select take on Emerging Leinster? This was the real deal and great credit to everyone involved for that.
Officials in this part of the world also have a bit of catching up to do (specifically in helping free up the breakdown), so we’ll forgive Andrew Brace, Frank Murphy and their respective teams for any ring rust, too. It took New Zealand officialdom a number of rounds but, ultimately, they’ve nailed it.
One plea I would make is that when the referee tells the scrum-half to “use it”, then, at that point, caressing the ball into the most comfortable kicking position finishes. In other words, the next foot touch must be the kick itself.
On balance, Leinster just about deserved the win but big individual performances on both sides abounded. My man of the match was also in red but it was CJ Stander given his destructive work at the still problematic breakdown.
He edged it from Garry Ringrose who continues to be the classiest back on this island. That said, his immediate opposite wasn’t far behind, with Chris Farrell having an immense input over the 80 minutes, while Robbie Henshaw more than matched Damian de Allende, who still looks the business at 12.
Take the best of Conor Murray now, and of Craig Casey to come, and you’ve got Aaron Smith, the best scrum-half there is about.
Murray did well but Casey brings that speed of pass about which I’m sure Stephen Larkham is salivating over. Murray, for now, but Casey sooner rather than later.
Johnny Sexton, too, was immense. While JJ Hanrahan made a point, Sexton still has that guiding presence the latter has yet to master. Beyond that, Caelan Doris, as a six, looks a very real proposition, with Stander still marginally ahead of the more dynamic Jack Conan in the race for that green No 8 spot. As for Ryan Baird? Watch out world, another James Ryan is here and now.
For Andy Friend and Connacht, it’s been a closeted period well spent. They had big performances from Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson, Bundee Aki, John Porch (most impressive at full-back) and from halves Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion, in particular.
Marmion lorded this match and kicked on appreciably when his immediate opposite and predecessor (at Connacht) John Cooney failed to show for the second half. Cooney is the glue that binds Ulster together. Through him flows all energy and zest. Alby Mathewson is an effective closer, but a he’s not a proactive force like Cooney when more is needed.
Carty is acknowledged for his intuitive skills but his game management fails to garner the respect it deserves. While Joey Carbery remains out and unavailable, Carty continues to be the most complete alternative to Sexton right now.
Ulster appeared leg weary but they are a squad, despite this setback, on the up. They will be the most disappointed of the losing two, but, like the rest of us, glad to have the game we love back and in fairly acceptable working order.
United Rugby Championship
Before the game Bundee Aki took the knee. Once the whistle went, he never took a backward step as he marked his 100th appearance for Connacht with a trademark influential role in a hard-fought win.
Shuffling around the magnificent St Anne's Park in Dublin yesterday morning, we came across one of many games of juvenile Gaelic football. Rounding the posts, with play at the other end, we asked the home goalkeeper who they were playing. He paused for a moment, took out his gumshield, and said: "I'm not too sure".
Back when Jono Gibbes was taking his turn in the revolving chair that was the Ulster coaching job, he had a very useful little time-killer for the nights before away games. His grown-up version of the schoolroom's 'show and tell', he would get a couple of lads to address the rest of the group. They had to tell the story of their lives.