Irish sides on track for Heineken Cup progress

Seán Ryan

After two rounds of this year’s Heineken Cup, the outlook is bright for all the Irish provinces. Leinster have two wins from two fixtures to date, including a fantastic result away to Saracens at Wembley. A resurgent, Springbok-infused Ulster side gained a bonus point victory over Aironi at Ravenhill, but succumbed away to last year’s finalists Biarritz. Nevertheless, they are in a promising position, with two pivotal fixtures against Bath in December.

From a Munster point of view, a losing bonus point away to London Irish was a reasonable outcome, while the bonus point at home to Toulon was a marvellous result. The fact that the Ospreys have only managed one bonus point to date, while the other sides in the group have none, is a great advantage and a telling statistic in terms of Munster’s efficiency at cup rugby. Once more, premature shouts of their being a side on the slide were disproven, and the double header against the Ospreys – a side that have always flattered to deceive in European competition – will tell a lot.

As ever, there are cries of derision at the state of Munster’s play out wide, but given time, combinations will come together and a fully fit Keith Earls will make a huge difference. Johne Murphy has proven a shrewd acquisition and will only get better when more fully integrated in the system. Ronan O’Gara has clearly been revitalised by the competition for the Irish number 10 jersey and has been reliable as ever, while creating opportunities for the men outside him with his customary range of outstanding kicking and handling.

In terms of the pack, the return of Denis Leamy from injury has been great to see, while Mick O’Driscoll’s comeback against Toulon provided a great fillip for a previously shaky lineout. John Hayes has been a magnificent servant of Munster and Irish rugby, but it seems almost sadistic for a man of his age to be the only option in a position with such a high rate of attrition. Tony Buckley is dynamic with ball in hand, as well as being hugely valuable for his counter-rucking work, but his scrummaging leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall, it has been a decent start to the pool stages for the Irish sides. Leinster have qualification in their own hands at this point, Munster should also progress, but  a ‘group of death’ such as theirs will likely see just one qualifier facing an away quarter final. I expect each team to suffer at least two defeats, so bonus points will prove vital. Here is where Munster hold a trump card in terms of experience.

Ulster face the toughest task, but they proved last season that they had the measure of Bath, home and away. Their fixture against Biarritz in January may be pivotal in their quest to escape the pool for the first time since 1999. At this point I believe all three sides have the potential to progress and Leinster should be targeting a home quarter final. In the mean time, though, club rugby is consigned to the back of fans’ minds as international action takes centre stage, with Ireland continuing their search for an elusive first win against the All Blacks.

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