There were good wins for Leinster, Connacht and Ulster in the PRO14 last weekend, while Munster suffered a surprising defeat at home to Edinburgh. It’s back to the Champions Cup this week for the first of the make or break head-to-head pool games.
There was some great rugby played in the PRO14 on matchday seven, with three of the four Irish provinces leading the way with excellent displays and well-deserved victories. But more on that later…..
There was some criticism of the tournament in the press over the weekend which I feel was completely unwarranted. It was suggested that the competition in its current form isn’t fit for purpose, that there are too many dead rubbers and that the gap between top and bottom is too great.
It struck me as a very strange thing to say just seven weeks into the campaign – at least wait until the final weeks before talking about dead rubbers. Don’t worry, we’ll see plenty of dead rubbers in the final two rounds of pool games in the Champions Cup come January. Will we hear the same criticism then? I don’t think so.
Regarding the gap between top and bottom, a World Rugby report indicates that the winning margin in approximately half of all PRO14 games last season was ten points or less, putting it in line with the other major leagues worldwide.
So why this sudden outburst at this stage of the season? It seems strange. There has been talk of ditching Zebre and the South African contingent and bringing in a Japanese team, or maybe amalgamating the competition with the Aviva Premiership. Could it be that there is some sort of agenda at play?
Now, back to matters on the pitch! Leinster laid down a serious marker as to their aspirations this season with a fine win over Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun on Saturday. It was a replay of last season’s final and Leinster came out on top once again after another titanic struggle.
It was their toughest challenge of the campaign so far and, despite losing Hugo Keenan to the sin bin and conceding a try early on, they managed to wrestle the initiative from the home side and emerged deserved 23-10 winners.
Ruaridh Jackson crossed twice for Glasgow who led 10-3 at one stage, but a brace from Cian Kelleher and 13 points from the boot of a faultless Ross Byrne saw Leinster home with plenty to spare as they continue to set the pace in Conference A with 33 points from a possible 35.
The result leaves them eight points clear of second-placed Ulster whose early bombardment of Scarlets at the Kingspan on Friday night saw the home side come away with a 29-5 victory. Tries from Matt Faddes (2), John Cooney, Matthew Rea and Robert Balacoune secured a winning bonus point for Dan McFarland’s side who simply rolled the visitors over in the opening half with a superb display of running rugby.
Ulster are four points clear of surprise-package-of-the-season-so-far Cheetahs, who edged a tight game against Ospreys in south Wales, and ten ahead of Glasgow.
Munster remain at the top of Conference B despite going down to a surprise 18-16 defeat to Edinburgh at Irish Independent Park. Like the other Irish provinces, Munster rested most of their big names ahead of their Champions Cup encounter with Saracens this weekend at Thomond Park, but looked out of sorts from the beginning and can have no complaints about the result.
It was their second defeat of the campaign following their loss to Cheetahs on matchday three and does beg questions about the depth of their squad. It leaves them just one point ahead of Connacht in second place following the Westerners’ hard-fought bonus point 24-12 win over Southern Kings at The Sportsground.
The South African outfit are much improved this year as their victory at Ospreys on matchday six showed, so Connacht head coach Andy Friend will be pleased to have negotiated this one safely as tries from Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and a brace from Australian John Porch proved enough to seal victory.
Attention turns to the Champions Cup this weekend and the first of the crucial pre-Christmas head-to-head pool games where Leinster’s European ambitions for this season could be defined by the outcome of their trip to Franklin’s Gardens to take on Premiership leaders Northampton Saints on Saturday afternoon. Both teams currently share top spot in Pool 1 on nine points apiece.
The Irish side did the double over the Saints when they last met in 2016 – who can forget the Dylan Hartley red card just five minutes after coming on as a substitute for striking Sean O’Brien? – and a similar outcome this time would almost certainly guarantee them a home quarter-final tie. However, Northampton are a very different proposition this season (although they will be without key man Courtney Lawes in the engine room) and we should be in for two very competitive matches.
It’s the day of reckoning for Munster as they look to progress from the 'Pool of Death'. Following their dramatic 21-21 draw at home to Racing 92 on matchday two, they return to Thomond Park to take on reigning champions Saracens on Saturday evening.
The English outfit’s travails have been well documented and, between that and the absence of some of their big name players after the World Cup, they struggled in the early part of the season. However, they have looked more like the Saracens of old in recent weeks and Munster will have to be at their very best to beat them.
Arguably, it’s a must-win game for both sides following earlier results in the pool, but a defeat for Johann van Graan’s men will make it almost impossible to qualify for the quarter-finals with away fixtures against Saracens and Racing 92 to come.
Connacht face Gloucester at Kingsholm on Sunday afternoon knowing that victory would give them a fighting chance of getting of Pool 5. Favourites Toulouse are already four points clear of Montpellier in second place going into their meeting at Stade Ernest-Wallon, with Connacht a point further back.
However, Gloucester were unlucky to lose out to Montpellier on matchday two and will harbour ambitions of their own to stay involved in the tournament beyond the end of January. Connacht haven’t always travelled well in European competition, so this will be a very stern test for them and a measure of how far they’ve come under Andy Friend.
With two wins from two, Ulster are in a very strong position in Pool 3. They currently top the pool, two points clear of Clermont Auvergne and four ahead of Premiership outfit Harlequins whom they welcome to the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
However, with the return leg to come next week plus a trip to Clermont and the fortress that is Stade Marcel Michelin, they can't afford to rest on their laurels and a bonus point victory is crucial to their hopes of making the knock-out stages.
By Kieran O’Daly
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