Mal O'Kelly's Heineken Cup column: Job done for now, but huge tests await Leinster
Well, Week Two of the Heineken Cup traditionally separates the wannabes from the contenders and this year was no different.
Leinster posted a much-improved performance and dominated their encounter with Llanelli Scarlets but they were spared a backs-to-the-wall last play of the game by a poor touchline finder, the erratic Rhys Priestland finding the dead ball line rather than the touchline, which was immediately followed by the final whistle.
That summed up Scarlets’ day perfectly and perhaps they didn’t deserve a last chance to save their Heineken Cup season.
In the first half they had no answer to Leinster’s graft and intensity at the ruck area. Jamie Heaslip reigned supreme, stealing Scarlets ball at will. He wasn’t alone as Gordon D’Arcy, BOD and Shane Jennings stopped the Welsh from getting any foothold in the game.
Leinster were impressive in the first half, nobody more so than Isa Nacewa, who fielded and dotted down Sexton’s cross-field kick despite the attention of an out of sorts George North.
At half-time there seemed little hope for Llanelli, but the inaccuracies that have dogged Leinster this season allowed Scarlets back into the game. The game burst back into life after 53 minutes when, off a set piece lineout, the Welsh centre Maule scored in the corner having stood up BOD, who’ll be Scarleh when he sees it!
I was rubbing my eyes in disbelief. This is not Munster Rugby, I’m all for game development but play to your strengths.
You always felt Leinster had the beating of Scarlets and they kept their noses in front, helped massively by their front row, which dominated the scrum in the closing stages and allowed Sexton the opportunity to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Overall Leinster delivered a much-improved performance, especially in defence, but they’ll need to find some extra gears, particularly in attack, for December’s mouthwatering challenges.
You might think Clermont away to Exeter, perhaps a banana skin for the French side? Not this year as they made a massive statement down in Cornwall. With the strongest team they could field, they did a demolition job on the Chiefs.
One key difference I noted from Exeter’s two very different performances was that in Week One, Exeter upset Leinster in the lineout and stopped them from creating opportunities in good areas, whereas against Clermont they struggled to get any platform themselves and for this, Julien Bonnaire deserves massive credit and was a worthy Man of the Match.
Elsewhere, Ulster continued in their quiet but stealthily journey through the group stages with a gritty win in Scotstown. This Ulster side dug deep against Glasgow and ground out an important away win, something that was beyond them in previous campaigns.
With Castres beating Northampton at home, Ulster have taken control of Pool Four ahead of back to back matches with Northampton, first away and then at home. A victory at home and a losing bonus point away would see them still in command and this is very achievable in what is going to be a very tight group.
Munster took to the field on Sunday at the unusual hour of 1pm and I would imagine the crowd’s hangover worsened as the first half drew to a close.
Munster got the job done against Edinburgh on Sunday... eventually
Munster were playing all the rugby but were playing too laterally with second rows on the wing and wingers taking it up the middle with no support. I was rubbing my eyes in disbelief. This is not Munster Rugby, I’m all for game development but play to your strengths.
Munster Rugby as I remember it was always in your face and very direct and if there was a doubt in your head they would exploit it. Munster players play hard rugby, but they are footballers and they looked over-prescribed with players filling positions on the pitch rather than leading the charge.
I’m a believer in playing with width but there is a well-quoted basic rule in rugby that “you must first earn the right to go around a team,” as in: Do the dog work first! With the talent that is in the Munster side they should fully understand the coaches’ desires but also be allowed the freedom to design how they break down the opposition by playing off each other and reading the game.
In the final 20 minutes it looked like they changed tactics and they seemed to revert more to type and they ripped Edinburgh upfront by mauling them and being more direct. With ten minutes to go it looked to all that a victory would be secured but that Munster would be shy of a bonus point.
Three tries in ten minutes changed all that, with two coming from tries from the maul and one thanks to an insightful line by JJ Hanrahan, which was finished off by the very impressive open side Sean Dougall.
Paul O’Connell gave another big performance and was a part of everything that was good from Munster. Other positives were their defence, which was top class, and Edinburgh were made to look clueless as to how to break them down and never threatened the home team’s line.
Edinburgh seem to be in a dark place at the moment or perhaps they’re in a dark room because they seem completely unaware of each other or as if they have not played with each other before.
The game burst back into life after 53 minutes when, off a set piece lineout, the Welsh centre Maule scored in the corner having stood up BOD, who’ll be Scarleh when he sees it!
You would have expected last year’s semi-finalists to be looking to take it up a level but they have lost everything that made them a dangerous team, with no width, no ambition, no confidence and of course, no points. They will have two horror movies to dissect before December to restore some pride in the jersey.
A bonus point for Munster but also, food for thought as tougher encounters lie ahead.
Lastly, to the west, and if you blinked, you missed it!
Connacht gave a performance full of heart and they got off to a flyer with McSharry scoring a lovely individual try from open play. But at key moments, their scrum seemed to falter, giving Harlequins soft territory, and a brace of tries just before half-time by the talented Mr. Care sealed the fixture and Connacht’s fate.
It’s perhaps too early to write them off as I can’t imagine Biarritz will be too keen on the trip to the dog park! But from past experience, there are few harder places to win than at Biarritz. The West will be alive and kicking if they can manufacture two victories in December, but otherwise, they’ll be destined for the also-rans tag.