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Selfless leadership allows Munster to regain old verve

When all else fails, lads, go back to basics. After a seriously anti-climactic Six Nations there was a sense of foreboding around the prospects of the provinces involved in Europe last weekend.

Hope was our lot, rather than confidence. So, two wins from three was a good return, given the quality of the Premiership opposition encountered, but the stark contrast in the performances of Ulster and Munster has provided a serious talking point.

Munster's ambush of Harlequins in the Stoop was the weekend's highlight. Back to basics indeed. We were treated to a vintage performance of the Munster of old; Paul O'Connell the master of the forward exchanges, Ronan O'Gara controlling the territorial game, a highly-physical proactive defence, lineout excellence, and a marauding, rampaging back-row devoured everything in their path. And all that was on the pitch – off it, their marvellous supporters dominated too through a disproportionate procurement of tickets. It was very much the day Munster came to conquer.

Every so often in a team sport, an individual's performance catches the eye of even the most casual and non-informed observer – Roy Keane in soccer and Henry Shefflin in hurling come to mind. In rugby, because of the nature of the game, it invariably tends to be backs; Brian O'Driscoll is the most obvious recent example, or Dan Carter, and back-row Richie McCaw is probably the only forward with form in this regard. Front-five forwards just don't grab the viewer's attention – they're cast in the role of the grafters at the coal-face, what the Welsh used to refer to as the pit-ponies.

Last week, for the first time in my memory, a second-row forward dominated proceedings from start to finish, and influenced the game to the extent that he commanded the attention of even the most uninitiated in the subtleties and nuances of front-five forward play. Paul O'Connell's was a truly majestic and typically selfless performance.

Afterwards, he deflected attention on to his younger colleagues. David Kilcoyne, Mick Sherry, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell were indeed excellent in everything they did and really came of age on the European stage. Flanker O'Donnell was particularly impressive in completely outplaying Chris Robshaw, previously touted as a potential Lions captain, a forlorn dream now for the England skipper thanks to the man from Clanwilliam.

Their trip to Montpellier to face what looks like a near-unstoppable Clermont team will be a tough ask. Leinster managed to get out of France with a win at this point last season, by the skin of their teeth, but a year on Clermont look to be a more complete outfit, and have made no secret of their European ambitions. In ways, it's a perfect setting for Munster, and one they'll relish.

Rugby is, at its most basic level, a physical fight; if you don't win the fight, you've little chance of winning the game. Ulster, unfortunately, allowed themselves be knocked around the place physically by Saracens. Mark McCall's Saracens side are supremely physical and a controlled, if uninspiring and unexciting, unit and were always in control. Number eight Nick Williams was stifled, Chris Henry struggled to match the impressive Will Fraser at the breakdown and skipper Johann Muller was injured early on, severely hampering the Ulster lineout. They simply never came to terms with the challenge.

Overall, it's been a tough second half to the season for Mark Anscombe and Ulster. Following their unbeaten run from the beginning of the season, international call-ups and injuries combined to bring their momentum to a halt. To finish trophy-less would be a deflating end to an emotional season and they can be expected to throw everything at the Rabo now. Interestingly, none of the league's top five teams remain in the Heineken Cup.

Before leaving the topic of Ulster, it was worrying to see Luke Marshall depart the field at Twickenham with what appeared to be another concussion, his third in recent weeks. His withdrawal highlights again the contentious issue of player welfare; in recent years we've had the retiring John Fogarty and Bernard Jackman

referring to the lasting impacts on their lives of repeated concussions, and former Irish international Dr Barry O'Driscoll stepped down from the medical committee of the IRB, the game's international governing body, because of his concerns around what he considered to be the compromising of players' interests in this area.

It is to be hoped, for the unfortunate Marshall and for all his colleagues, that their health and safety will always remain paramount, notwithstanding the rampant commercialism which pervades the game.

Leinster 's debut in the Amlin Challenge Cup at Wasps provided a strange game, way off the intensity of anything seen in the Heineken Cup in terms of physicality, particularly in defence.

At one point in the second half it seemed that they'd coast home but with the pace of Christian Wade causing serious problems, the final scoreline was a lot closer than it should have been. The continuing emergence of Ian Madigan will have pleased the coaching staff and while there may still be questions around his option-taking and capacity to control a tight game, his ball-playing abilities are undoubted. Their season remains very much alive, if not at the levels of recent years.

Back to basics indeed.

jglennon@independent.ie

Irish Independent