Well, it was a bit of a mixed start to the Heineken Cup for the Irish provinces. Although 3 of the 4 teams won their games, the performance’s overall in the games wasn’t great. To show the change in Irish fortunes as well, it was the 2 stronger sides, traditionally that put in the disappointing performances, Munster and Leinster.
First to the victories. Ulster got their campaign underway with a 41-17 victory over Castres. Ulster got the 4 tries which gained them a bonus point, with both wings, Bowe and Trimble featuring in the action. Despite the scoreline, Castres didn’t go quietly and made Ulster work for their victory.
Ulster next face Glasgow (on Friday evening), who lost 24-15 to Glasgow. They will be without their start flanker Stephen Ferris but still go into the match as favourites.
Connacht also got their Heineken journey off to a good start, with a 19-10 victory over Zebre. It was another hard victory, but Connacht managed to deny Zebre the losing bonus point (for coming within 7 points of the victory).
Connacht will face a much stiffer challenge against Harlequins (Sat at 6), who crushed Biarritz, 40-13. The 2 teams were drawn in the same pool last year and Connacht managed to win the second game. Harlequins are stronger this year though and will be helped by their coach, Conor O’Shea (the RTE rugby panalyst).
Leinster won their match against Exeter, 9-6, but it was a poor performance overall by the defending champions. Exeter are new to the Heineken Cup but put in a very strong challenge. Leinster were lacklustre for most of the game. Let’s hope it was just opening match jitters, but they looked far different from the team that won back-to-back trophies.
Leinster next face Scarlets (Sat at 1.30). Scarlets had a tough time against Clermont, losing 49-16, and they’ll be looking to put their campaign right with a win over Leinster. Leinster will be buoyed by the (hoped) return of Rob Kearney, but Scarlets have a strong team, especially in the backs.
For Lions fans, it will be interesting to see the duel between Sexton and Scarlet’s Rhys Priestland. Both player’s look to be the current favourites for the Lions test no.10 (ie to play at out-half for the Lions against Australia).
Munster lost their match against Racing Metro, 22-17. Munster seemed the stronger side for most of the game, but seemed to lack the killer instinct to finish Racing off. Even last year, Munster managed to scrape a victory in the dying minutes in the pool matches. They’ve suffered a further dip since then.
To add to the disappointment, Munster lost Ronan O’Gara towards the end of the first half, which may explain their fall in form. They will be without O’Gara when they face Edinburgh ( Sun at 12.45). Edinburgh suffered a crushing defeat to Saracens, 45-0. Even more amazing, Edinburgh were the favourites going into the game. Munster need to start reclaiming their fire/passion and become the force of old. They could face another humiliation of not qualifying for the quarter-final stages.