Well, a great opening weekend for the Heineken Cup, especially for the four Irish provinces. This is actually the first time, ever, that all 4 Irish provinces are competing in the Heineken (the Heineken Cup started in 1995, just as rugby went professional. Irish legend Tom Kiernan was one of the founders of the tournament. Great wins for Ulster and Munster, a hard fought draw for Leinster, and a good performance by Connacht, despite losing to Harlequins. Leinster’s result might have been the best, as it took place in an away game. It’s always more difficult for team’s when they’re playing away.
Connacht were first up, on Friday. They were facing off against English side, Harlequins. Harlequins will be familiar to Irish fans as the team that were involved in the ‘Blood-gate’ scandal, against Leinster, back in 2009. They pretended that a player had suffered a blood injury so that he could be replaced. This led to the dismissal of their coach, Dean Richards. Richards was replaced by, current RTE rugby pundit, Conor O’Shea. Harlequins were coming into this match with an amazing record, having won their last 10 games in a row. Connacht, in contrast, were having a pretty dismal season, having just won 3 of their last 10 games. All portents led to Connacht getting a hammering, with the only question been if the could keep it respectable. As we have seen, in the recent World Cup, though, you can never, comfortably, predict the outcome of a rugby match. Connacht really took it to Harlequins, and kept the score very close, just outside the 7 point’s, the final result been, 25-17. Connacht deserved a bonus point for their performance. They need to work on their discipline (they conceded far too many penalties), and not commit so many player’s to the rucks/mauls. They look like they could easily give some of the bigger team’s a scare.
In the other pool 6 game, Gloucester almost put one over, Heineken giants, Toulouse, with the final score, 21-17. Gloucester are the team of, disgraced English player, Mike Tindall (who was recently fined and suspended from the English team for his conduct during the World Cup. Possibly the first of many who will suffer for England’s poor showing, both on the field, and off). This game was supposed to be another mismatch, but Gloucester went all out, to keep one of the favourites for the Heineken, close. It looks like this pool will be a lot more open than many originally thought.
Leinster got the ball rolling, on Saturday, when they faced, French club side, Montpellier. Neither team had been playing well so far this season, while a lot of their stars were on international duty during the World Cup. Both sides were back to full strength, so fortunes were bound to change, for at leas one of the team’s. Leinster seemed to have the tougher time gelling together. It’s always difficult for a side with a lot of international players. When the star players are away, the others have to cope. Then when the international season is over, these players return to the club, often uprooting players who have been playing quite well (e.g., Isa Nacewa had been a star of last years Heineken, at full back, while Rob Kearney was injured. With Kearney back, Nacewa moves to wing. A worse player would be on the subs bench, or off the team. Not Kearney’s fault, of course. But this sort of thing leads to problems creating a lack of consistency within a side, with a different group of players playing each week). Leinster were finding it difficult to function as a team, and Montpellier got into a quick lead. Luckily, Jonny Sexton had reclaimed his, pre-World Cup form, and was on top of his game, eventually getting a draw with a last minute penalty. Leinster had had an earlier chance to kick a penalty, but decided against it, which could have cost them the match.
In the other game, Glasgow beat Bath, 26-21 (payback for England beating Scotland in the World Cup perhaps). Btw: New Zealand World Cup winner, Stephen Donald (who came on during the final as the Kiwi’s 4th choice out-half) was playing his first game for the English club. Playing outside New Zealand may be detrimental to his chances of ever been an All Black again.
Leinster won’t have an easy time against any of these sides.
In one of the most amazing sequences ever seen, Munster beat Northampton with a last-minute drop-goal, after an astonishing, 41 phases of play, which lasted more than 5 minutes! This reminded me of a heart-stopping finish during a Lions 2001 game, against the ACT Brumbies, of Australia, where the Lions clinched a victory at the last minute, after been able to retain the ball for the last 5 minutes of the game, without a Brumbie hand touching it. Ronan O’Gara was playing in that game as well. He was the hero here against Northampton, as he so often has been. Northampton were beaten finalists last year, and were Munster’s equal’s during the whole game. Northampton’s 2 best attacking players, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, looked to have returned to form, after a pretty poor World Cup. This result was a great boost for Munster, who had suffered a dip in performance in recent years. In this game, legendary Munster and Irish player, John Hayes, created a record, in been the first player to make 100 Heineken Cup appearances.
Also in this pool, Welsh side, Llanelli (pronounced thla-neth-li) Scarlet beat French side, Castres, 31-23. Both Wales out-halves, Stephen Jones and Rhys Priestland, play for Scarlets, and they both made an impression on the game. Jones was first choice for the match, and kicked 13 points, while Priestland kicked a late drop-goal. This was the Scarlets 100 game in Heineken competition, becoming the 5th side to reach a century of Heineken performances, the other’s been Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Leinster. Scarlets are the only team, out of the 5, not to have one the Cup. The others have all won it multiple times, Toulouse 4 times!
It really was a great performance by Munster. They had had a poor Heineken last year, failing to advance to the quarter-finals, for the first time, ever. Hopefully, the win will mark a return to form for the boys in red.
Ulster got a great win against Clermont, beating them 16-11. Irish World Cup stars, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best led the Ulster performance. Last year, Ulster had their best Heineken Cup performance since winning the tournament, in 1999. They managed to reach the quarter-final. They are in a very tough pool, though, so it will be tough.
In other pools: Pool 5-Saracens were the only team over the weekend to get 5 points, after getting 4 tries against Treviso, winning the match, 42-17. Former World Cup winning captain John Smit (for South Africa in 2007) was playing his first game for Saracens. He is actually the 2nd former Springbok World Cup winning captain to have played for Saracens, after they signed 1995 great Francois Pienarr, back in the late-90’s. In the other Pool 5 game, Welsh club Ospreys beat Biarritz, 28-21. Ospreys are the club of Irish star, Tommy Bowe. They have had a lot of talented players over the years, but haven’t been able to get the results. Hopefully that will change this year.
Cardiff beat Racing Metro, 26-20. Welsh World Cup star’s Jaimie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins and Sam Warburton all played a role in the victory, Warburton especially. Unfortunately, Roberts was injured in the game, and will miss Cardiff’s next outing. Finally, London Irish lost to Edinburgh, in a very close result, 20-19. Cardiff and London Irish are the favourites for this pool, and will meet next weekend.
All in all, a great opening weekend of rugby.