What a weekend for the provinces, no one saw that weekend coming. All 4 provinces showed up and deserved the wins they got. Some had tougher opposition than others but the end results showed the Irish dominance on the club stage.
Starting on Friday night. Munster went to Gloucester with confidence, showing that they are finding their way. Especially when they can call upon their starters. Gloucester coming in at 4th in the premiership, winning 6 of 12 games and hoping to show that they are more than an average team. They failed, and they were not allowed to show anything. It was very impressive from Munster. They played with confidence and that appears to happen when Farrell is in midfield and their second row of Beirne and Kleyn are working as a unit. The defence has been the key to improvements in results for the red men. In saying that, they missed 20 tackles and gave away 12 penalties in comparison to Gloucester missing 19 and conceding 6 penalties. 49% possession with 47% territory, ran for 377 metres, 5 tries and beat 19 defenders. So there is still a lot of work to do, but you can only beat the team in front of you, and that is what Munster did. A hefty beating that sent the red parts of the internet into joyous orgasms of celebrating. Finishing 15-41 to the visitors. In the words of Alan Quinlan, let’s keep calm here, if this team can continue to play together they will get better, but they are not there yet. Remember the opposition.
Flying back from Gloucester we arrive in the RDS where the champions where salivating at the visit of the high flying Toulouse. A team on a 12 game unbeaten streak playing against a Leinster team missing 7 internationals, who haven’t played at their 85% normal like last year and who are coming off a very un Leinster like performance in Thomond park.
Starting with the score it finished 29-13. And that flattered Toulouse massively. Leinster had 59% possession for 59% territory, ran for 60 more metres at 493, had near 30 more carries at 180, missed 32 tackles for 8 penalties and only failed to deliver at 2 rucks at 142. This was THE Leinster team. A relentless wave of Leinster-jitzu strangled Toulouse, who quickly realised that the free flowing rugby works when things are going for you, but if it is against you, you cannot depend on that way of throwing the ball around. They were completed shell shocked from very early and just never recovered. Leinster where beyond organised, anywhere they looked to break they saw at least 2 blue jerseys, the gaps that where there in Toulouse where shut down much like a tenant asking to keep the rent at the same level for another year.
The way Leinster ran the game was impressive to watch. It broke into 12 minute points. The first being JVDF stopping an early attack from Toulouse with a steal that held out the entirety of France. And then came the wave of 30 plus phases hammering the line. Yes, the point is to score, but Leinster where looking to test the wind of the visitors. You could see 3 players bent over struggling after that early onslaught and when Leinster saw this they knew that they could out work Toulouse and break them mentally. And that is what happened.
Leinster put down a marker than the support where waiting for and that the other teams in Europe where dreading. Missing those players and playing the monsters from France. They wiped the floor with them. Marker laid down, your move Europe!
Then we moved up to Kingspan, some faced the game with dread. Racing came in looking for a bonus point win. No matter what they say, that was the aim. Ulster had to do what the song says, stand up for the Ulstermen. And they did. Starting with the score, Ulster where good value for a 26-22 win. Looking at the stats, I have no idea how they did it. In every facet bar one they were hammered. Let’s take a look: 43% possession for 38% territory, 274 metres gained whereas Racing ran for 617, had 121 carries Racing had 187, 3 tries to Racings 4, conceded 6 less turnovers at 12 and conceded only 6 penalties to Racings 11. That is some shift from the lads. To concede in the single digits when being called on to make that many tackles is fantastic. So how did they do it? Well there is magic in that team. Stockdale is THE MAN of the moment. Anytime the ball is near him, his team knows and the opposition knows that there is a chance of magic. I don’t use the term magic to nullify his genius, but it is what it is. The Ulster pack really put a shift in too.
Even though I am a Leinster man, this is the result of the weekend for me. McFarland has come in off the back of a rotten year off the field and a mass exodus of retirees on the field. He has managed it fantastically and to come back from the hammering against Leinster like this shows the testicular fortitude of that Ulster team. With an academy brewing with top players nearly ready to be let loose, the future is bright for the Ulstermen. They are about a year ahead of schedule. SUFTUM!
We finish in Galway, Connacht welcoming the Sale Sharks. A team filled with stars against a team who are still the red headed step child of Irish Rugby. A full house intimidated Sale and Connacht finished with a 20-18 win. The game was close, 2 tries each, 50% possession each, Connacht missed 22 tackles for 14 penalties conceded, Sharks missed 14 tackles for 16 penalties so the pressure was there from Connacht to squeeze out mistakes form Sale. Connacht won double the turnovers at 8 which slowed up momentum for the visitors while galvanising the home side and the supporters in the stands and they had 3 more carries at 111. Connacht showed up and left it all out there on the pitch. Much like Ulster they struggle with a squad but when they have most of their starters fit, you won’t find more guts anywhere else on the planet.
Again much like ulster, Connacht are ahead of schedule now. In 4 of their league losses this year they have been beaten while the clock is red, this is a team very close to competing at the top table. This is another validation of Friend and his work. Fantastic result
So we move into next week with confidence. The time is near to dust of the big green jersey too. Beyond positive for all provinces, now let’s keep it going.