Tony Ward: We need the English as much as they need us
Excitement of Saints clash shows why we must fight to keep Heineken Cup fully intact
Strange really, but when the French and English are setting the pace, the general perception -- driven by primarily by cross-channel media -- is of vintage Heineken Cup rugby.
I reference our friends across the water on the basis of the perception now being peddled that the greatest competition the game has ever seen has somehow lost its gloss of late.
Whatever gloss it may have lost, has been caused by the ego-mad, power-hungry tactics driven by men with buckets of money but precious little rugby sense. Despite the most recent statement issued by ERC that five of the six unions/federations are still on board the good ship Heineken for next season, there continues to be grave cause for concern.
Talk of a possible South African involvement in a future tournament north of the equator is not as outlandish as it might seem, while the desire of the Aviva Premiership to entice the Welsh on board is matched by the regional yearning in the Principality to jump into that particular bed.
We are still in dense political woodland -- lest anyone thinks we have emerged just yet.
All the more reason for enjoying what we have while we have it. And, from an Irish perspective, what transpired last weekend was special.
Granted, Connacht are in the premier competition on the coat-tails of Leinster's recent European success (three trophies in four years). But the men from the west have added to the David and Goliath element more than any other tribe.
Four wins, with two on the road, made Round 3 the most successful weekend for Irish rugby since this great competition came into being. To have it then downgraded as being in someway substandard is pitiful and twisted in the extreme.
I did not expect Leinster to win in Franklin's Gardens. At best I thought they would do well to come away with a losing bonus point. Mind you, assistant coach Richie Murphy left me in no doubt the night before the game that it would take something really special from Northampton if they were to deny Leinster, given the mood he detected in the build up.
He was right -- and how. I counted just three Leinster mistakes in the opening 40 minutes. It was as close to flawless as a performance could possibly get. They didn't just beat the Saints on their own patch, they wiped them out.
Does it guarantee a repeat seven days on? Of course not -- and these back-to-games are a big part of the appeal of this tournament. Yes, the psychological advantage is with the teams that came out on top last weekend, but opportunity knocks within days for the vanquished to atone.
And for those on this side of the Irish Sea adopting the attitude of 'sure let the English stew in problems of their own making', I suggest they think again. To be in Franklin's Gardens last Saturday and to experience the excitement of the best of English against the best of Irish... it is an ingredient that must not be lost without a real fight.
We need the English clubs involved every bit as much as they need to be involved. English Rugby Union chief executive Ian Ritchie has insisted: "I'll flog my guts out in pursuit of a resolution."
He should do so with the full and unconditional support of everyone who cares -- and that includes every fan, however blinkered.
The blame game as to why we are where we are serves no purpose whatsoever, other than driving the tournament into oblivion or, again to quote Ritchie, "opening a Pandora's Box for the game across the world".
Back to matters on the field and today looks like another 'Super Saturday' with all four provinces in action. First up, it's Ulster with a 1.35 start in Treviso.
The lessons from last year's collapse against Northampton at Ravenhill (having hammered them away the previous week) have been learnt. The Italians might not boast the same quality of opposition as the Premiership side but home pride following last weekend's hammering will be on the line. That said -- although Mark Anscombe will not say it in public -- Ulster have every chance of a perfect return of 10 points from 10 from in these back-to-back clashes.
Verdict : Ulster
Next up, at 3.40, it's the turn of Munster to follow Connacht's lead. Perpignan's Stade Aime Giral is one of the most hostile venues, and following last weekend's Thomond Park thumping this will be 'mission revenge' for the Catalans.
That said, this is Munster's opportunity to make a really positive statement. No one is sure where they are at but, with every game a cup final since losing to Edinburgh at Murrayfield, this is another they dare not lose. The heat is on but I'm taking the four-time finalists to deliver once again in France.
At around the same time in the east (at the Aviva) and west (the Sportsground), the atmosphere will be heaving as last weekend's headline-grabbers both take centre stage.
For Connacht, it is a huge ask for the second week running. To visit the giant's den and beat the most iconic team in the tournament on their own patch was a phenomenal achievement.
I dearly want to be proved wrong but, given that Toulouse are still top of the pool and with Saracens to come at home, the incentive to salvage lost pride allied to qualification suggests that we can expect a much more committed physical performance from the French side.
That said, our meteorological experts predict an Atlantic howler in Galway.
Verdict: Toulouse to spoil the party
Ahundred and forty something miles away, Leinster will be facing the same psychological challenge against a club that sold itself way short last weekend.
Northampton are nowhere near as bad as they appeared in their Franklin's Park humbling, but Leinster can be that good again.
No doubt the Ulster message from last year has been heeded but this is now Leinster's pool to lose.
I take Northampton to perform but Leinster to prevail and make it four from four.
Big well done to ref Helen and her team
THE first of this season's Section 'B' schools finals took place at Templeville Road on Wednesday, when St Gerard's pipped Newbridge in a quality Junior League U-16 decider that did enormous credit to everybody involved.
In a match that flowed from first minute to last, the referee and touch judges were central to the continuity and enjoyment for players and spectators alike.
I highlight this fact because, for the first time, we had a team of female officials handling the biggest game of this season's schools rugby calendar to date.
If referee Helen O'Reilly and touch judges Aoife McCarthy and Susan Carthy, all of them Leinster Rugby referees, represent the quality of female officials now taking up the whistle throughout the land, then rugby in Ireland is in a pretty good place.
Needless to say, the respect shown by both schools was exemplary, despite the novel aspect to the proceedings. Great credit is due to the Leinster Branch for this ground-breaking initiative.
More than anything, a big well done to the three ladies concerned for a game and an occasion to savour.
Kudos for poacher turned gamekeeper Lacey
While on the subject of referees, it was also announced in midweek that former Shannon and Munster three-quarter John Lacey will take charge of his first Six Nations game when Wales host Italy at the Millennium Stadium.
It is a fantastic achievement by any standard but more than anything an example of what former players can bring to the world of refereeing when hanging up their boots.
Like Alain Rolland before him, Munster Branch refereeing development officer Lacey is top of the tree in that regard, a former poacher turned gamekeeper brave enough to walk the walk.