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And so we exit the second legs of the Christmas European cup competition as clean as Leinster in the second half from their own 22 against Exeter. Another great weekend for the Irish provinces and another punch to the guts for the rich fat cats of Europe.
In no particular order, we start with Ulster v Harlequins. After picking up the win in the snow last week and turning around their season, Ulster wanted to get another win to keep the door open for qualification. But also to resurrect their season. It has been just not up to scratch, but with the return of the international players and the emergence of a confident Cooney pulling the strings. They looked impressive against the London side. Playing away in the snow in the first leg, Ulster just looked hungrier, looked like they believed in what they were doing and out fought an ageing rugby dynasty to get their season trucking forward. The return leg at the Kingspan was an utter destruction. 52-24. The Ulster season has finally started. It may be too late for them to progress with La Rochelle still to visit Ravenhill, but massively positive stuff from the Norn Iron men.
Then we take the bus to Leicester and their attempt to wrestle back a score from the visiting Munster men. In reality, they were never going to do it. There was just too much bad work done last week from the team on the field and the coaching staff. Nonstop giving out from O’Connor and Murphy bleeds negativity into the dressing room and Leicester would feel the effects. It was a struggle, it was a dog fight but Munster should be beating that Leicester team every week. That should be expected. The messages from the rugby pundit royalty is that the good times are back for the red men. That it was the best European performance ever. 50% right! If (IF) the management team can keep a few more key players then the good times will be back, but no one in the top tier fears going to Thomond park as they used to. That may arrive in time, but it does take time. Van Graan hasn’t begun his moulding of the team yet, that will also take time.
But let’s look at the opposition, Leicester are not contenders. They used to be a team you would worry about, but that is not the case anymore. While massive consistency is back in the Munster team, they are not feared as they once were. Back to back wins puts them in pole position to qualify, if they get to the semis then they will have their first proper test of the season. Pressure and top opposition.
Connacht hammered Brive, instead of going behind early as they did in the first leg, they arrived warmed up and ready to rumble. Massive confidence to be gained from back to back wins, and in the European cup, they will have the respect of all opposition in any game. Great form shown too in the 2 games which is important to make it to the business end of the league season.
Finishing in the Aviva stadium this week. Leinster welcomed a battered but hungry for revenge Exeter. A team with nothing and everything to prove. Opening with a Sexton head injury and a Ross Byrne head injury early meant that plan a to w had to be thrown out. We would find out what this Leinster team is made of in the eyes of adversity. The first half was tough to watch. Exeter played their game fairly easily and drew 2 yellow cards. They didn’t score during these times but they piled up points and it looked to be a tough hurdle to jump for Leinster. They appeared to be happy to allow Exeter to run at them and trust the defence, which is fine, but can’t be done all day. Especially against good opposition. 17-9 at half time. Hard to watch. There where players out there carrying injuries (O’Brien) and it appeared that they were going to be given minutes while the J10 was on the pitch pulling the strings to be replaced relatively early. But when the injuries mounted the changes were not going to be made so early.
Leinster regrouped well at half time. O’Brien made his way into the game. And slowly, led by the inimitable Isa, clawed at the Exeter lead. Penalties as a result of pressure mounted and the visitors were beginning to wilt. Consistent kicks brought the score lines close and Dan Leavy (on for O’Brien) cut through Exeter like a hot knife through butter to off load to Luke McGrath to bring Leinster ahead for the first time. Eventually closing the game.
Psychologically, this was absolutely massive. It showed that when plans are thrown out the window that the team can think on their feet and manage their way through a tough time. No one panicked and kicked to corners, slow and steady won the race. That comes with experience, but I would suggest to you that none of the other teams in Europe would have been able to come back against a tough Exeter side. This is what puts Leinster in the elite level of world club rugby. A visit to Thomond Park beckons after Christmas dinner and this will be fantastic to see.
Another piece of news coming in is that the Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal wants to sell the club before 2019 and has feelers out for prospective buyers. This shows the delicate balance of French rugby. Toulon is not the force they once were and they are actively looking for another owner. If they slowly fall down the tables then who would want to buy a bloated franchise?
Finishing off, it was a massive weekend for Irish rugby again. Great news coming from Munster about Peter O’Mahony and every single province stepped up again, showing that the new normal is higher than the other teams in the groups. Munster have a talisman that is now confirmed to be there forever in O’Mahony and Connacht and Ulster are bringing their internationals back into the fold as leaders.
Big times ahead for the provinces.