By Brendan Cole
Irish supporters have been spoiled in recent years but on the evidence of the opening weekend, it will be a while before three provinces make the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup again.
Full commentary on Munster v Edinburgh on Sunday Sport Extra on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, LW 252 and rte.ie from 12.30 on Sunday 21 October.
It may even be some time before an Irish side wins the competition outright...
In the end, only Ulster put in the type of dominant performance you might expect from a prospective champion – and it must be taken into account that they had the easiest task of all playing against a stereotypically semi-motivated Castres side at Ravenhill.
Munster’s defeat away against a more determined Racing Metro side was out of character, with the failure to capitalise on both dominance in the early part of the game and Simon Zebo’s audacious late capture of the lead particularly disappointing.
Ronan O’Gara’s early departure can probably be pointed to as the reason Munster failed to tailor their play to the conditions more convincingly – in his absence, option taking and execution at half-back remain live concerns among supporters.
Even so, Munster look a racing certainty to beat Edinburgh at Thomond Park, though that is based more on Edinburgh’s dreadful form than anything else.
Tim Visser is the obvious danger man on the wing and Edinburgh will also bring a decent front row to Limerick, but this looks like an opportunity for the Munster pack to flex its muscles in front of a home crowd.
Despite the loss, Munster are far from dead in this competition and can expect to get a boost when CJ Stander comes into the squad from South Africa – the flanker will start on the bench for the Blue Bulls in the semi-finals of the Currie Cup this weekend.
But they will need to pick up their form. Saracens made a statement by putting 45 points on Edinburgh in Scotland. This looks like being an easy win, but Munster will need to have rediscovered their ruthless streak by December’s back-to-back clashes.
Leinster didn’t look like themselves either. In contrast, they can expect a very difficult test in Llanelli.
Every team wants to play well against the holders and Leinster’s injury woes mean they are vulnerable to almost any well-motivated side. Leinster benefitted from the Chiefs’ occasional poor decision making and place kicking, and from their lack of gas and guile in the backline.
But Llanelli are more of a threat in that respect and showed enough to suggest they are a real danger to the ‘big two’ in the group despite ultimately suffering a heavy defeat in Clermont. The match was turned on its head by the sending off of Morgan Stoddart by Peter Fitzgibbon – a second yellow card given for not rolling away of all things. Few teams can withstand the Clermont juggernaut with 15 on the pitch and the Welsh region had no chance down a man.
But they proved they could live with the best.
If things were going well Leinster would look to exploit the Scarlets’ weakness is in the pack, but right now they simply don’t have the weight and power to outmuscle teams in general play.
On that basis, we might expect this clash to be decided by which of the two backlines plays best. That would be also be a worry for Leinster as aside from failing to dominate up front against Exeter, Leinster did not fire creatively.
Tighthead prop Mike Ross actually secured the only line break of note.
Ross could yet turn out to be the key man as Leinster need something to hide their weaknesses behind for another week or two and ideally, their scrum specialist tighthead will provide it. If Leinster can keep a lid on the Scarlets backline, the scrum may just provide the platform for a shaky win.
Harlequins are expected to make up for last year’s defeat at the Sportsground, though Conor O’Shea’s men will face a Connacht side that looks to have improved since then.
Quins travel without star out-half Nick Evans but Ben Botica has looked a capable replacement in the Premiership. They also bring plenty of strength and leadership in the pack with the likes of Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler all making the trip, while at scrum-half Danny Care has already embarked on what could be a very big season.
Connacht’s hard-working forwards and the big boot of Dan Parks could make this a struggle, but Quins should have enough class to cope.
Ulster got the weekend off to a perfect start for the Irish provinces with a 19-8 win over Glasgow. Read match report here.
Heineken Cup Predictions:
Llanelli 8-11 Leinster (Saturday, 1.35pm)
Connacht 7-19 Harlequins (Saturday, 6pm)
Munster 32-9 Edinburgh (Sunday, 12.45pm)
New Zealand v Australia
Away from the Heineken Cup, this weekend will also see New Zealand bid to create history by achieving a record number of consecutive wins over Tier 1 opposition when they take on Australia (Saturday morning, Irish time).
That record currently stands at 16 and New Zealand are now tied with Nick Mallett’s Springboks of the late 90s.
Even though 13 of New Zealand’s 16 victories so far have been achieved on New Zealand soil (thanks to the Rugby World Cup), and even though they include wins over the likes of Fiji and Japan, the quality of the sequence is not in doubt.
The majority are against major Test nations in the toughest competitions in the game: the Rugby World Cup and the Rugby Championship.
Ireland, in the second Test, are one of teams to have come closest to snuffing out the run and it may also be a comfort that after going in 16-12 down at half-time when the played South Africa, the All Blacks scored 20 points unanswered in a tour-de-force second half in Soweto to keep the run going last time out.
Lithuania and Argentina (both 20) actually hold the record for the longest sequences of international wins. New Zealand’s November tour will see them face Scotland, Italy , Wales and England.
If they keep winning, they will pass out Lithuania and the Pumas by beating England, who by then would be the only major nation not yet contained in the sequence.