Totes Amazeballs and then some.
What a weekend for Irish rugby with Munster beating a pretty ordinary and disinterested USAP handy in Thomond and Ulster serving up a 48-0 thrashing of the usually competitive Benneton Treviso despite playing well below their best. The shock of this and probably any tournament was Connacht, propping up the Rabo, travelling to Toulouse and beating European aristocracy in their own back yard. Astonishing doesn’t start to cover it. I’m not a gambling man but dear God I wish I had been last weekend.
However, for me, the performance of the weekend was Leinster. Showing decent, if unspectacular form in the Rabo they had been successful but below par up until this weekend. And then, as if to show everyone that the level of intensity displayed against the All Blacks can be repeated, the All-Irish line-up simply blew away the much-vaunted Northampton Saints. The midlanders’ faithful supporters have now witnessed Munster, Ulster and now Leinster leaving Franklin Gardens with the full five points: generous hosts indeed. The Munster and Ulster performances were good, and for the Nordies a potential turning point, but Leinster’s demolition was truly magnificent. The aggression of the ball carriers, exemplified by the rampant Rhys Ruddock and, for 40 minutes at least, Clermont bound Jean de Brian (say it isn’t so), the accuracy of the clear out and overall pace and intricacy with which they played the game was far too much for the Aviva Premiership’s second-placed team.
Whether they spread it wide or smashed it up around the fringes, Leinster were totally dominant. The quality of the tries was magnificent with none more so than Jamie Heaslip’s. Most pleasing, was that Madigan started and Leinster smashed it - fabulous news for Ireland. Despite being a huge fan of PJ, I love watching Madigan play. He has magic hands and it is amazing how effective his accurate bullet passes can be at unlocking defences. Having three stand-offs at the top of their game (and Keatley and Steenson not far behind) can only be good for Ireland.
With Warren Gatland in the studio, it was hugely satisfying that O’Driscoll was on such top form. Fair play to the coach of the year, he didn’t squirm too much when talking about the great one. Most pleasing though was Luke Fitzgerald’s excellent hat-trick. Hopefully this will have been some form of catharsis after his injury struggles and I really hope he gets an extended injury-free run to reclaim his Irish jersey.
At Ravenhill, Ulster despatched a surprisingly ordinary Treviso without getting into top gear. Whilst the Ulstermen played some nice rugby, off-loading well and notching up 7 tries, they will know that they can’t make so many errors against one of the top sides and still win. The highlights of the match were Tom Court’s annihilation of Cittadini in the scrum, some magnificent running by fit-again Jared Payne, who seems to mesmerise defenders as he glides towards them with ball in both hands, and another barn-storming performance from Darren Cave. Having put his head above the parapet by claiming that the Irish selectors had, unfairly, overlooked him and other Ulster players, he would have looked a complete prat if he had followed that up with an ordinary performance. To his credit, he walked the walk, continuing his rich vein of form. He is as good as (almost) anyone at defending the 13 channel and has fabulous hands: he gave the scoring pass for 4 out of Ulster’s 7 tries, and at least 3 of those were off-loads of the highest quality. The only shame was that Henshaw, Lukey Fitz and a certain other Blackrock old boy all had stunning games too.
At Thomond Park, Perpignan lived up to the classic French stereotype and were put away comfortably by a Munster side that also have plenty of room for improvement. That said, Earls was very sharp on his return from injury and Johne Murphy was as good as I have seen him. Worryingly, Connor Murray departed early after twisting his knee whilst being cleared out from a ruck. He left the stadium in a knee brace and let’s hope that it was only precautionary as we need him for the 6 Nations.
If Murray doesn’t make it, Joe Schmidt could do a lot worse than call up Kieran Marmion who scored Connacht’s try in their miracle win at Stade Ernest Wallon. It was remarkable, and hugely encouraging, that the Westerners, containing a plethora of youthful Irish talent in Henshaw, Healy, Griffin, McSharry and Griffin defended so heroically against a Toulouse side containing Poitrenaud, Huget, Fritz and Gear, not to mention Picamoles and Dusautoir. I wish I had been able to see the face of the odious and frankly idiotic Stephen Jones, who derided Connacht as a ‘park team’, as his main argument against the Heineken Cup was so brutally dismantled.
So it was a historic weekend for Irish rugby as the provinces secured 19 out of a possible 20 points on offer. Ulster are in control of their group and Munster are on track to qualify the hard way once again. Leinster have emphatically reminded everyone that they are the team to beat. And Connacht – brave, magnificent, lion-hearted Connacht – have stuck two fingers up to the loathsome sugar daddies of English rugby and showed them what real sport is all about.