So the Irish provinces marched into week 2 of Europe in fine fettle. The ghost of the cup that shall never be mentioned looks to have been exorcised after a clean sweep in week 1. Could they continue in week 2?
Starting on Friday 22nd. Ulster welcomed the euro powerhouse (and Leinster best fiend) Clermont to the Kingspan. A strong and confident start to the competition meant that the heads where up for the Norn Iron men. Clermont are always dangerous and would welcome an Irish scalp so early.
It started well for the home side. 17 minutes in and they got over the whitewash with a bully try. A try that demoralizes the opposition. A great start. Cooney continued the form that has people being Monday morning scrum halves (90 days later) saying he should have been in Japan, but the break has done him good. Hitting the ground running and creating his own try. An early contender for try of the season. The Lurgan dink (that Stockdale has perfected) became the Belfast book over the oncoming (and stressed) Clermont defense, sat up perfectly and finished by a player who looks like he wants to prove something. With 2 penalties, a conversion and a try on the day, Cooney looks to be leading the way for a start in green 9 jersey.
It finished 18-13, but let’s have a gander at the stats:
Ulster ran 200 more meters at 359. Had 58% possession for 60% territory, 9 clean breaks (0 for Clermont), offloaded twice, and conceded 17 turnovers (a slight worry). Ulster lost 3 of 12 scrums with 10/10 in the lineout (including some ballsy throws to the back under pressure). Ulster missed only 8 tackles of 96 (great work), Clermont missed 17. The big alarm bell for Ulster is the penalty count sitting at 16 that is just far too high. Clermont, while not at their best, conceded only 7. The last positive for Ulster is that the Clermont missed tackles are all over the pitch which shows a want to attack from everywhere.
A good day at the office for Ulster. The confidence is coming back with consistency.
Moving to a jam packed Thomond Park, Racing 92 arrived with their former Munster lads looking for a performance. The French sides are all still settling back into competition after the RWC (as Ireland are) so this would be interesting. Racing scored the first try after a free play afforded Finn Russell the opportunity to produce some rugby pornography for a chip through and collect, he is more consistent that the super valu click and collect. The Munster heads never dropped. Defended well but where caught by Teddy Thomas for another chip over and collect. The impetuous nature of a quick defense sometimes opens up space and this happened here. Well worth a watch on the highlights. 14-6 at the half hour mark. But just before half time (the championship minutes) Earls shows his class to force his way past a few defenders and to send the Munster team into he break with their heads up again. Massively important score from a massively important player.
The second half opened with Russell cutting through the Munster midfield like Freddy Kruger in his prime. Amazing to watch. Imhoff (and he certainly was when Russell made the pass) finishing the job, and putting the pressure back on the home side. 21-14 at 48 minutes. No scores until the last 7 mins. A free play at 73 mins resulted in a fantastic cross field kick finished by Conway. A fantastic conversion from JJ made it 21-21 and had a shot to win it, but the drop goal was not to be. It wasn’t his best effort from a relatively easy position but a really strong game from JJ.
Munster made some changes early, bringing Murray off at 62 minutes with the game in the balance shows that maybe he has some work to do to get back to form. Mathewson came on and played well. Outside of the issues Munster have at 10, it is important for this run to continue. The return leg will be interesting.
We fly from Thomond to France where Lyon (top 14 leaders) welcomed Leinster. This was a dogfight. The big scores put up by Leinster this season (3-0 win in Italy aside), was not going to happened. More D than a glass of orange juice (there was going to be a rude analogy there but this is a blog for everyone) and a showing of strength that will make them money as the season goes. Much like 2 seasons ago where teams knew they needed to put 3 scores on Leinster to knock them out, this is returning. The mix of experience with relative newbies has gone swimmingly. Kelleher / Deegan et al have been doing more than keeping the blue ship afloat in the senior player’s absences. At 21 minutes Leinster scored a try similar to Ulster, a bully try, a try that hurts the sole of the opposition. Max Deegan and that top notch haircut over for a try. He was so close to the ground that he could open a landscaping business. Big bully stuff from Leinster. Lyon never went away. Lyon didn’t get on the board until 66 minutes that was a penalty. 10 minutes later Sexton sunk a sitter for a 10 point lead. A minute later Lyon pressure resulted in another 3 points. This was going to be a tough finish. 13-6 at 78 minutes. At 81 minutes Leinster boot the ball from Lyon to Sandymount Dart station to get the game finished and leave with an impressive win.
Let’s have a look at the stats: Leinster ran 120 more meters at 344, operated with only 38% possession for 36% territory (shows the ability to score with very little ball), missed 16 of 170 tackles, conceded 12 penalties (a big number for Leinster), lost 2 of 10 lineouts and won 6/6 in the scrum, conceded 18 turnovers (not good) in comparison to Lyon 15. 11 clean breaks to Lyon 2 is a strong stat.
To win in France against the league leaders is always a good result. All about momentum and 3 of the 4 Irish provinces have that.
Moving down or up the road to Stade Toulousain and this game really upset me. Connacht had a fantastic opening weekend with a gutsy and deserved win against Montpellier and with players missing and injured, it was going to take that kind of shift again. But the heartbreaking thing is that they could have won this. Connacht continued to shoot themselves in the foot. The only stat needed here is penalty count, 13 conceded by Connacht to Stade’s 5. They knew they could squeeze out mistakes from Connacht. The game finished 32-17, but the Stade try in the 81st minute put some dulux on that result which isn’t really fair. Sport never is, but if Connacht can get the head right, revenge may be theirs in the sportsground.
Until next week….
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