European Cup Rugby: Opening round…

The first round of the European Cup took place this weekend with mixed results for the Irish provinces. Ulster and Connacht were hammered by Bath and Bordeaux in Bath and Galway respectively, and Munster could only draw with Bayonne in Thomond Park. Leinster redeemed themselves and Irish rugby, to a degree, with a fighting win against La Rochelle in La Rochelle.

Given that Leinster had lost their last three matches against La Rochelle in the semi-final and last two finals of the European Cup, this was a statement win for them. Lose again, and the aura of Leinster as one of the top two sides in Europe would start to fade. Their whole season would have continued under a shadow of vulnerability.

But all four matches also highlighted the crisis in the tight five, and particularly at prop in Irish rugby which I have written about here before. Put simply, Ulster, despite the recruitment Kitshoff and the return of Henderson were hammered up front. Connacht fared no better against a Bordeaux XXIII containing no less than three monster tightheads.

Munster also struggled to impose themselves up front, despite sterling performances by Beirne and Ahern and are increasingly dependent of an ever more potent backline for their scores. Leinster were forced to rely on Porter and Ala’alatoa for virtually the full 80 minutes, such is their lack of confidence in their bench props, Healy, and Clarkson.

With Furlong again injured, and a long way from his best form during and since the World Cup, the Irish rugby team is looking increasingly vulnerable up front. Porter can’t be expected to do it all on his own every match, and Ala’alatoa is barely test class.

There are some bright spots, however. Ahern is playing so well at 6 for Munster, he could make the Ireland squad regardless of whether O’Mahony retires from international rugby. Joe McCarthy, a slightly surprise pick ahead of Kleyn and Treadwell for the World Cup is emerging as a real force in the tight for Leinster. Prendergast is tearing up trees for Connacht in a beaten pack. But where are the stronger props coming through?

When you look at the top teams in England and Europe, they generally have two test class tightheads and looseheads in their squads for the big matches. Bath had English test player Will Stewart and South African test player Thomas Do Toit at tighthead, and Ben Obano and Shoeman at Loosehead. Bordeaux had 150 Kg tight heads Faletea, Tameifuna, and Sadie in their squad. Even (relative) French minnows, Bayonne, had some big bruisers in their pack. Leinster came up against old 150 Kg adversaries Uini Atonio and Will Skelton, plus world cup props Joel Sclavi and Wardi and the monstrous Georges-Henri Colombe.

In fairness, Leinster hung in there, but they had nothing in reserve. Cian Healy is 36 and academy loosehead Jack Boyle has had to do a lot of their heavy lifting this season. Clarkson can barely hold his own against poor URC sides. Better technique can sometimes balance the scales, but your technique would want to be an order of magnitude better if your 110 Kg body is pitched against a 150 Kg prop, as was the case for Buckley against Faletea.

There were other faults in the Irish performances, of course. Leinster’s kicking was often aimless, and they consistently lost aerial battles against Dulin. Sheer willpower and fighting spirit got them across the line helped by another promising performance by substitute 10 Frawley who kicked a 60-metre penalty in heavy rain at the death. He had a following wind, but the kick looked like it had 10 metres to spare. Jacque Nienaber’s influence seemed apparent in Will Connor’s selection ahead of Van der Flier and in a magnificent defensive effort by the entire Leinster team which denied La Rochelle even a single try.

Ulster, Connacht, and Munster all struggled in the second half. Ulster led 14-8 at the break but shipped 29 points without reply in the second half. This has become a recurring pattern in their performances. Connacht were behind 5-12 at the break, but also shipped another 29 points without reply in the second half. Munster led 14-3 at half time and had the wind at their backs for the second half. Despite this, they scored only another penalty while Bayonne scored two excellent converted tries.

I put it down to the sheer exhaustion occasioned by struggling to maintain parity against bigger packs, although in Ulster’s case, there must also be a question mark against their esprit the corps. It is hard to see where their season can go from here with Dan MacFarland in charge. He has run out of excuses.

Round 2 next weekend doesn’t get any easier. Connacht face Saracens away, no doubt smarting after their defeat against the Bulls in Pretoria. Leinster play Sale Sharks who beat Stade Francais 28-5 in the first round. Ulster face Racing 92 who lost 28-31 to Harlequins in their Paris La Defense Arena redoubt and face elimination if they lose again. Munster face an Exeter side who have just beaten Toulon in Toulon.

There is a lively debate going on in the Connacht Supporters Group Facebook page with some claiming that their defeat was just because some of their players didn’t show up on the day. They appear to be in denial that the Champion’s Cup is a step up in class and that what is good enough for a mid-table placing in the URC isn’t good enough to beat the really top teams in the European Cup.

The top club teams in Europe can generally field at least 20 test class players, including two full front rows. Rugby is a XXIII man sport now, your bench has to be almost as strong as your starting XV, and that is after you make allowances for some injuries in the squad. Leinster will be an anomaly if they win it this year with such a weak roster of props, particularly if someone like Furlong or Porter is injured. And the other Irish provinces will struggle if they continue to get beaten up up front.

Nucifora has been commendably reticent in allowing the Irish provinces to import big test props from abroad in the hope of giving more opportunities to Ireland qualified talent. Most of the big clubs in England, Scotland and France seem to be relying on South African and Pacific Island monsters. But there comes a time when a weakness in one part of your game gets to be exploited to such a degree than all other parts of your game start to suffer.

Ulster have been allowed to recruit Kitshoff, and Munster have recruited Ireland qualified Oli Jager from Crusaders. But there are a whole generation of Irish props who have kept the ship afloat for years but who are getting close to their sell by date – Healy, Kilcoyne, Archer, Ryan, Buckley, Moore, and even Bealham and Furlong – with few signs of a new test class cohort of props coming through to augment and ultimately replace them. Academy props Jack Boyle and Scott Wilson show promise but are a long way from competing with test class players yet.

Something has to be done if the scrum, maul, and tight forward play generally are not to become the Achilles heel of Irish rugby!

 

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