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Published: 16:18 | 9/10/18

The Front Row No 6


There was plenty to savour from round six of the PRO14 after two cracking derby matches saw victories for Connacht and Leinster over Ulster and Munster respectively. It sets the scene nicely for this weekend’s foray into Europe.

There was plenty to savour from round six of the PRO14 after two cracking derby matches saw victories for Connacht and Leinster over Ulster and Munster respectively. It sets the scene nicely for this weekend’s foray into Europe as Leinster, Munster and Ulster begin their Champions Cup campaigns, while Connacht compete in the Challenge Cup.

A full house at the Aviva for a Leinster-Munster derby! It’s been a few years since we had one of those and it was a pleasure to see. What we got wasn’t a classic but it was a tight, high quality encounter between two very committed sides. The result might have been quite different but for the bounce of the ball here and there and some superb finishing from James Lowe, but Leinster were more clinical, defended better and, therefore, probably deserved their victory in the end. Still, after having so much possession, Munster will be wondering how they contrived to leave Dublin without so much as a losing bonus point. It will be a bitter pill for them to swallow.

Earlier last week Rob Kearney remarked that some of the steam had gone out of the Leinster-Munster rivalry as many of the players from both camps were part of the Ireland squad and were good friends both on and off the field. I must admit that my heart sank a bit when I read that. Not that I yearn for the bad old over the top days of a decade ago which were ultimately damaging for the international set-up, but a bit of healthy rivalry goes a long way every now and then. And, fortunately, that’s what we got on Saturday. It threatened to boil over from time to time as one would expect from a local derby with such history, but there was barely a bad challenge throughout the entire 80 minutes.

Perhaps Kearney was just trying to play down the significance of the game. Much had been made of the decision to rest Jonny Sexton with the Champions Cup just a week away, but the mantra around the RDS is that there is no first and no second string – just one panel, a true team effort with players coming in and out as required. Both the coaches and the players have faith in the depth of that panel and they were right – it was good enough to get the job done. A 30-22 victory is no mean feat against a very strong Munster line-up.

Ross Byrne kicked six from six as he outshone erstwhile colleague Joey Carbery, James Lowe was superb, while the returning Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier both got more valuable game time under their belts. Not a perfect performance by any means from Leinster but, as all great teams do, their phase play became more effective and controlled and their defence more aggressive in those key minutes between 50 and 75 as they slowly strangled the life out of the Munster attack.

The result will give Leo Cullen’s side a massive boost heading into their Champions Cup campaign as, with Sexton expected to figure, they welcome Wasps to the RDS this Friday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 7pm) before heading to France to face fellow four-time winners Stade Toulouse in round two.

Munster

Munster, for their part, were clearly up for this and intent on making a statement. Buoyed no doubt by their nine-try thumping of Ulster the previous week, they named a full-strength matchday squad as they looked to end a run of three defeats in succession against their biggest rivals. But, despite playing some good rugby – with skipper Peter O’Mahony imperious and new signings Carbery, Tadgh Beirne and Albie Matthewson all looking dangerous – it was not to be.

Head coach Johann van Graan has since expressed his discontent with the referee following the incident early in the second period that saw Keith Earls’ solo dash to the line from inside his own 22 cancelled out and a penalty given to Leinster for what the was thought to be an intentional knock-on in the tackle by centre Sammy Arnold, but was Earls in front of play anyway when he collected the ball from what was obviously Arnold’s touch? It was a fine line which van Graan feels cost his side dearly as Leinster crossed for their third try shortly afterwards. Earls himself has also remarked that the award of the penalty try for his alleged interference with Lowe close to the Munster line early in the first half was harsh.

But ultimately the better side won the game as Munster’s brittle defence away from home was exposed once again. The table doesn’t lie and, after losing all three of their away games in this campaign so far, they find themselves in fourth place in Conference A, ten points behind leaders Glasgow Warriors. They won’t get away with that kind of form on their travels in the Champions Cup. Something has to change very quickly. Munster start their European campaign at Exeter Chiefs this Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 3pm) before hosting Gloucester a week later (LIVE on BT Sport 2, Sat, Oct 20th from 12.30pm).

Connacht celebration

There is so much to celebrate in Connacht this week. Not only did they beat Ulster in Belfast for the first time in 58 years, but Monday morning saw the announcement of a whopping €30m redevelopment package for The Sportsground which will see capacity increased to 12,000. The proposed project is still subject to a public hearing but hopes are high that it will go ahead. An independent report carried out in 2016 found that Connacht rugby contributes approximately €34.4m to the local economy on an annual basis, a figure which will increase significantly upon completion of the redevelopment scheme.    

On the pitch Andy Friend’s side bounced back from their disappointing 20-3 defeat to Leinster in round five with a superb 22-15 victory over Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium. Despite losing Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O’Halloran to injury within the opening six minutes (but not before the latter had sliced through the home defence to open the scoring), they dominated up front throughout to secure a well-deserved win. They were awarded a penalty try on 19 minutes following a spell of sustained pressure close to the Ulster line before Jacob Stockdale finally got the hosts on the board five minutes later after the Connacht defence had failed to gather a cross-field kick.

A major turning point came a minute after the restart when flanker Matthew Rea was shown a straight red card for tackling Connacht’s Cian Kelleher in the air. Bundee Aki sealed victory with Connacht’s third try seven minutes from time before Nick Timoney broke away to rescue a losing bonus point in the dying seconds, but there was no disguising the fact that it was a bad night for Ulster.

For Connaught though, it was a performance full of grit and determination – and no small amount of skill. The pack were superb and exposed the Achilles heel that is Ulster’s front eight once again. It leaves them in good stead as they welcome Bordeaux Begles to The Sportsground in their opening Challenge Cup match this weekend. They were quarter-finalists in the competition last year, eventually losing to runners-up Gloucester, but will be hoping to go much further this time out.

Ulster woes

Ulster coach Dan McFarland has his work cut out to lift his team ahead of the visit of Leicester Tigers this Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 5.15pm) after a second derby defeat in six days. After the euphoria of winning their first three games, injury-hit Ulster seem to have hit a wall as their early season swagger looks to have deserted them for now.   

They are missing a host of first team players through injury and it might be a case of trying not to fall too far off the pace in either competition while they wait for some of them to return. However, getting off to a winning start is vital and they will hope to have enough to see off the Gallagher Premiership side at the Kingspan. Round two sees them travel to Paris to face last year’s runners-up Racing 92 indoor at the new U Arena (LIVE on BT Sport 3 on Sat, Oct 20th from 5.15pm) and that could prove an altogether far more difficult examination.

Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland

eir sport will be the home of the PRO14 for the next three years. You can watch all 152 matches of the 2018-19 season on eir sport, with up to six LIVE matches every week. You can also watch EVERY Champions Cup game LIVE including ALL TEN from matchday one this weekend.

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