This has been the first clean sweep by the Irish provinces with four bonus point wins since the South African teams entered the URC competition. It is an outstanding achievement and a great way to finish off this block of games ahead of the 6 Nations championship. Nothing is guaranteed, but Irish rugby has never been in a better place.
Ulster 35 Stormers 5
Benetton 30 Munster 40
Leinster 38 Cardiff 12
Connacht 43 Lions 24
Ulster returned to winning form with a decisive victory over the champions, the Stormers, who beat them narrowly twice last season. Both sides were missing their international contingents, but the Stormers seemed worse effected by a combination of player unavailability, injuries before and during the game, and a gruelling travel schedule. It’s hard to escape the impression that Ulster have played better and lost recently, but they will take the bonus point win which moves them back up to 3rd. in the table after two narrow defeats in the league.
Stewart Moore and James Hume provided much of the creative spark for their tries, and MOTM Jeff Toomaga Allen made up for his vulnerability in the tight with a storming game in the loose. Doak and Cooney continue to show how blessed Ulster are at 9, and Timoney and Lowry reminded Ireland team head coach Andy Farrell of their enduring quality. Duane Vermeulen continues to show there is life after the departure of Ulster’s previous South African star Marcell Coetzee.
Munster were in a match that had everything against Benetton, played at a surprisingly high standard considering both teams were missing their international contingents. Leinster supplying the majority of the international squad has its advantages for the other provinces. Munster’s second string back-row of Kendellen, Hodnett, and O’Sullivan were outstanding, and Carbery had a good game despite missing a couple of place kicks.
To come back and win decisively against a lively Benetton outfit which has only lost once at home this season having gone 12-0 down was a considerable achievement, and Munster’s new all action running and offloading game was on full display. Munster couldn’t get much change out of Benetton in the tight but their play in the loose has really come on. Patterson was key to all they did well and Frisch and Daly continue to build on recent good form. Kleyn was also pivotal up front in an all action display.
Leinster were forced to pick almost a third string side with 20 players in international camp and 7 players out injured. They were up against a Cardiff side with 13 experienced internationals despite their international call-ups. Having written recently that the Leinster conveyer belt of talent might not be quite as flush as recent results might indicate, I was intrigued to see by how a very inexperienced Leinster back-line would perform.
I really enjoyed the way Leinster’s experienced players like Ruddock, Deegan and McGrath took responsibility for controlling the play and created two early tries for Leinster, one from an inventive play off a close in penalty. Not for Leinster the usual bashing into the nearest player. The young guns were certainly not over-awed by the occasion and began to school Cardiff as McGrath sniped in for a third try. The casual observer would never have known this was almost Leinster’s a third choice team.
Leinster continued where they left off, drawing a yellow card for a deliberate knock on by Jason Harries, and then the bonus point try for Deeny, converted by Byrne. 26-0. Far from resting on their laurels, Leinster were absolutely ruthless and were doing exactly what their internationals would have done with O’Reilly scoring in the corner 31-0.
It was a great time for Connors to come in after his horrific injuries, but for the first time in the match, Cardiff mounted a sustained attack. Leinster’s defence was not found wanting and King and Culhane come on to make their Leinster debuts and there were now 9 Leinster academy players involved.
Cardiff finally got some purchase on the game when the Leinster front row subs come on and score a couple of tries, but Turner has the last word with his first score for Leinster. It doesn’t get much better than that for young players trying to make their way into professional rugby, 38-12. Referee Peyper deserves credit for managing the game well and allowing the game to flow in an unfussy and decisive performance.
Connacht were missing Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Cian Prendergast to the international squad, and Alex Wootton, Byron Ralston, Dave Heffernan and Paul Boyle to injury. Their improving strength in depth meant they can still field a credible team but they have been frustratingly inconsistent all season. Can they really close this one out? They need to show some Munster dog.
Perhaps mindful of going 21-0 down in the first few minutes at Newcastle, Connacht start at 90 miles an hour and score a fine try by Kilgallen within 2 minutes. Carty really should have nailed the conversion and Connacht then concede a silly penalty 5-3. Connacht attack again and Carty nails the gimme penalty. Another penalty gives the Lions field position and monster prop Ntlabakany can’t be stopped. 8-10. Connacht mount another brilliant wave of attacks and Delahunt scores. Carty nails it. 15-10 with only 15 minutes gone!
Connacht are playing absolutely class rugby and Blade scores again. Carty exceeds the all-time Connacht scoring record held by Eric Elwood with the conversion. 22-10. Connacht look like a class side. How come they are 11th. in the table? But Lions have come to play and score a fine try while Delahunt draws a yellow card 22-17. Connacht are not done yet,and score their bonus point try through O’Halloran. Carty gets his kicking boots on and nails the conversion. This has been an amazingly fast match, and I suspect the fitter side will win. 29-17 h/t
Connacht are succeeding in imposing their frenetically paced game plan on their opponents, who are probably more comfortable exploiting their strength in the tight. If Connacht can survive the rest of their yellow card period and continue to impose their style of play, the Lions simply won’t be able to live with them. They have had two thirds possession and territory, and know exactly what to do with it, working harder off the ball and changing the point of attack in mesmerizing fashion.
Caolin Blade again scores a brilliant early try 36-17, and Connacht are back to 15 men. What does Caolin Blade have to do to get into the Ireland squad? He is far faster and more of a running threat than Conor Murray. Connacht can’t win the collisions, but they are winning everything else. The ref, Paul Williams (NZ), is clear and authoritative in his decisions and communication, and hardly anyone even bothers to question them. The Murray brothers are owning the line out on either throw.
Connacht bring on their bench but don’t lose cohesion or momentum. Blade gets his hat-trick following a brilliant attack and is replaced by Marmion. Not a bad sub to have. 43 -17. But Connacht lose concentration and concede a soft try off a quickly taken close in penalty. I hope Connacht aren’t going to give a sucker an even break again. 43-24.
Considering the brilliant entertainment on offer, a crowd of 4,000 on a fine evening has to be disappointing and a threat to the Connacht business model. Blade gets a deserved MOTM award, and Connacht deny the Lions a losing or four try bonus point in their bonus point win. The South African commentators have to concede that Connacht, without any superstars, are the better coached team by far. The crisis which threatened to engulf Connacht rugby after the omission of Bundee Aki and the poor performance against Newcastle which lost them a home run in the Challenge cup tournament has been averted.
The 37 man Ireland squad are currently training in Portugal ahead of their opening 6 Nations match next Saturday away to Wales. Looking at the performances of the provincial sides in their absence, quite a few of them aren’t even guaranteed their places in their first choice provincial sides. Irish professional men’s rugby has never been in a better place in the lead up to the 6 Nations tournament.
Frank Schnittger is a former senior executive in a leading multinational in Dublin and London and has a Masters in Peace Studies from Trinity College. He has been a director of a number of charitable and voluntary organisations in the community development, education, holistic addiction treatment and restorative justice sectors. He is editor of the European Tribune and a moderator of the Irish Rugby Fan Forum.