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Rugby Nerds Look Back On A Phenomenal Weekend Of Rugby

Rugby Nerds Look Back On A Phenomenal Weekend Of Rugby
By Rugby Nerds Updated

That weekend of rugby was so intense that we needed a 24-hour break before we could think seriously about it. After a deep breath, our vaunted Rugby Nerds have parsed an incredible weekend of rugby and look forward to an epic weekend on three days away.

Gavin Grace reflects on Connacht's incredible win over Biarritz

For my money, there's never been a night at the Sportsground like Friday, and no win more satisfying. The winners played the most attractive rugby, controlled possession and territory, made the smartest decisions and were not found wanting physically. That team was Connacht, and the loser was one of the sport's most storied clubs.

Among the most pleasing parts of Friday's win is that Biarritz can have no excuses. Connacht had the advantage of the home crowd, but not a home town referee. With little wind and no rain, it was Connacht rugby, but not Connacht weather! The win over Harlequins in January came after a siege-like performance in atrocious conditions, while Leinster were without many of their stars when they conceded five tries in Galway in September, but Friday's win had no such caveats. Connacht controlled the game, especially in the second half, without up to seven members of our strongest starting XV.

The ensuing celebrations were well-earned by the players and coaches, but also by the rugby community in Connacht, who deserve recognition. Next month marks ten years since 1200 people marched on the IRFU headquarters in Dublin in a last-gasp effort to prevent the powers that be from removing professional rugby from the West. People like myself, who were not there but have since shared in this side's journey owe each and every one of them a debt of gratitude. Officialdom nearly spelt the end of Connacht rugby, but now thousands attend every home game at a ground with a burgeoning reputation. We're still the fourth province, and may only be in the Heineken Cup because of Leinster's successes, but never again will we just be an also-ran.

In the last decade, structures that have been put in place at clubs and across the province and they're beginning to pay off. Seven starters and four substitutes on Friday were natives of Connacht or products of the club's academy. Youngsters have local heroes earning successes for their local team; long may that continue. The current crop had Eric Elwood and co. to look up to - but now he's ramped up our levels of success, and blooded a brilliant crop of youngsters with promise aplenty.


Marshalling the likes of Marmion and Henshaw, McSharry is an out-half built in the coach's own mould. You know how in some computer games you can get an extra life for certain accomplishments? I wish that were the case in life too because an evergreen Dan Parks in green is just what we need. His decision making is impeccable, his execution admirable and his off the ball contribution, clapping backs and shouting orders, advice and encouragement in equal is invaluable. His contribution can be felt on and off the pitch - it's paying off already for Connacht and one day it will for Ireland as well. He, and others, are helping the best youngsters from across the province reach their potential, while at the same time inspiring the next generation. We'll all owe gratitude to those 1200 protesters in time, because without them, none of this would be in place.

Friday isn't the end of the road for Connacht, or even the soon to depart Elwood. It may prove to be the high-point of his time in charge, but more than individual wins, his legacy is the increasing levels of respect our side have earned. The champions of both European competitions and a team which would soon become the champions of England have all lost in Galway in 2012. Hearing the Biarritz brass band play The Fields of Athenry in the game's dying minutes, in salute of our players and fans was unthinkable just years ago, but is a sign of how far we've come.



While that journey continues, now is a great time to take stock. The next stop is France, on Friday, and a return match where a stung Biarritz will aim for revenge but that's a matter for later in the week. Today, as Connacht players and coaches get back to work, the 6,600 fans there Friday night will return to our workplaces and schools and clubs with pride in our hearts. As a community, we've gone from near-extinction and irrelevance, to basking in this glorious high, and dreaming what might yet follow.

Andy McGeady's Heineken Cup The Good, The Bad and The Ugly from Heineken Cup Weekend 3:


The Good:

Connacht. The Westerners take their second scalp in the competition and this time nobody could blame the result on gales, monsoons or fairy rings. But the best part of it is Mike McCarthy's insistence that their win over Biarritz counts for nought unless they follow it up with more. An Irish public is getting much joy from a fourth outfit competing in the Heineken Cup, just as much as it must be driving the English and France rugby establishments crazy.

Ulster. Based on their form in both competitions this season the lads from Ravenhill will take some beating. Bossing the Northampton scrum takes serious doing and, after what must have been a hugely disappointing autumn series when he played not a single minute, Tom Court must have been a very happy camper on the flight home to Belfast. Johann Muller being ruled out for another eight weeks with a fractured arm is the only drawback from a performance that has put them in a strong position to secure a home quarter-final. Now they just need to ensure that Ravenhill will satisfy the ERC’s criteria in time to host such a event.


Irish Rugby. Players who had been discarded in some way by Declan Kidney roared back for their provinces in this past weekend's crunch European encounters, with Andrew Trimble, Kevin McLoughlin and the aforementioned Court top of the list. This sort of intense competition at provincial and international level is nothing but good for the health of Irish rugby.

Stade Marcel-Michelin. With its 18,030 capacity spread over three tiers that rise seemingly vertically into the Clermont-Ferrand sky, this little cauldron of a stadium is how all smaller capacity stadia should be designed. With its obvious prioritisation being the creation of an intense, intimidating atmosphere, it's the very antithesis of the Aviva and its silly North Stand.

The Bad:


It's Too Early For A Card. A scything Ian Madigan opens up the Clermont defence after an inside pass from Jamie Heaslip; a few plays later Leinster are surging towards the tryline only for former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu to go both off his feet and use his hands to steal the ball, illegally but successfully stopping the attack. It was outrageously cynical and a stone cold yellow; that Sivivatu stayed on the paddock might well be because it was still within in the first ten minutes of the match. Too often in rugby incidents of foul play are treated lightly if it's early in the game; from Rob Kearney's near-decapitation in Rome to Schalk Burger's gouging of Luke Fitzgerald in South Africa, an offence is an offence no matter what time the clock might show.

Saracens. The lads who put New Zealand to the sword looked a feeble bunch in Thomond. Of course, Munster didn't have to deal with a nasty bout of Norovirus (that's the winter vomiting bug, to you and me) during the week so perhaps playing against a fully fit team came as a bit of a shock.

The Darts of Mr. Richardt Strauss. Oh dear. Having come on for Sean Cronin, his understudy for Ireland's autumn internationals, Richardt Strauss proceeded to have a serious dose of the yips, throwing away two Leinster lineouts in the Clermont twenty-two late in the game and butchering a couple more. Scrummaging aside it was a less than auspicious cameo for the newest Ireland hooker and, with their trouble scoring tries in the Heineken Cup this season, it's one that Leinster might yet live to regret.


The Ugly:

Tip Tackle Trouble. A man down for the majority of their home match against Montpellier, Cardiff fought bravely on only to lose out on a losing bonus point with the last play of the game. The Welsh cause had not been helped by the first half red card picked up, stupidly, by their scrum half Lloyd Williams for a tip tackle on his opposite number Benoit Paillaugue. Incredibly, the Sky team covering the game insisted that it had been a "harsh" decision even when viewing replays that showed Paillaugue being tipped onto his head; this view was then reiterated afterwards. Sky's coverage of the Heineken Cup has often been better than their colleagues covering soccer's Premier League at treating the audience like adults and calling it like it is. Not in this instance.

Pascal Gauzere. The Thomond Park crowd blamed Gauzere, the greenhorn replacement for the originally-named Roman Poite, for the penalty-fest that was Saturday's 6pm match. There were 28 penalties, 18 against Munster, and the Munster faithful blamed him loudly. But it might not have been quite as the crowd thought. Gauzere had established himself early in the contest as a man who wasn't in control of the game and both teams, like a class of schoolboys with a lax teacher, took advantage, constantly lying over the ball and finding new and imaginative directions from which to enter the breakdown area for the rest of the evening. Gauzere then compounded this by getting several decisions blatantly wrong, for both teams, which fanned the flames of a naturally partisan crowd. The bottom line? The roots of the derision were not in the decisions themselves but rather in his loss of control. Pascal Gauzere's performance would have been booed equally loudly in Watford.

Shane Jennings.

Paddy Logan on Ulster's thrashing of Northampton:

Wow. I predicted a win for Ulster but knew that a successful raid on Franklins Gardens would be a real feather in the cap of this increasingly impressive Ulster outfit. But a five point dismantling of the premiership’s third best team in their own backyard was beyond even my wildest dreams. Better even that the Ravenhill humiliation of the Leicester Pussycats in January. Nights like that are supposed to be a rarity – not a regular event.

First up, an apology. In my preview I had suggested it was time for Paddy Wallace to make way for the prodigious Luke Marshall in my only deviation from Anscombe’s squad selection. Boy did the oft-maligned centre make a complete ass of this nerd. He gave one of his most impressive performances, teaming up with the outstanding Darren Cave to repel all attempts at penetration. One hit on Ken Pisi (25:16) in particular had Barnesy ooooooing in the commentary box.

Another apology, this time to John Afoa for having the insolence to suggest that he might be human. Not only did he cope with the much vaunted Soane Tonga’huia, he monstered him. On the other side of the scrum, the cruelly (and most unfairly) maligned Tom Court schooled Brian Mujati despite angles of scrummaging that defied Pythagoras, let alone the laws of rugby. After he’d been benched, there was a beautiful shot of Mujati with a bewildered look on his face – no doubt hoping that the ink had dried on his sizeable contract with Racing Metro. If I were responsible for recruiting at the Paris spendthrifts, I’d be making myself very scarce this week!

And so to the much-anticipated shoot out for the Lions No2 jersey between Rory Best and Dylan Hartley. Well, the contest turned out to be an embarrassingly one-sided affair. Best was magnificent. Not content with schooling his opponents in the scrum, he was all over the place: the stats credited him with an amazing (for a hooker) 15 tackles, a number of which were successful choke tackles leading to turnovers. So good was he that one could forgive the odd wobbly dart (although he was not the only Irish hooker to succumb at the weekend). Hartley was largely anonymous and resorted to his normal tactics for which he has been rightly cited. No doubt he’ll receive some lenience for his 'exemplary record', but I’d be surprised to see him run out at Ravers next Saturday.

The Ulster backrow was magnificent. Henry (19 tackles!) has established himself as one of the best 7's in Europe and is going to give Deccie a headache come the 6N.* Henderson continued on his stratospheric trajectory and Wilson was flawless – again. The Saints fans really must have been pig sick to see him in such form against his former employers.

The backs ruthlessly exploited the quality ball provided by the piano shifters up front. All were excellent but two stood out. Andrew Trimble, who through little fault of his own endured a disappointing November, was stunning (the only player to appear in both the ESPN and Planet Rugby teams of the week). He fully justified his coach’s decision to start him ahead of Gilroy. Trimby’s chasing was fantastic, on one occasion battering the catcher and then snaring the player to whom he off-loaded. He beat Lions hopeful Ben Foden to touch down PJ’s delicate chip and then showed fantastic vision to come off his wing to put Jared Payne away for his try.

Which of course brings us to our full-back. Rightly awarded man-of-the-match, Payne was perfect in every regard: fabulous lines; tactical kicking out of the top drawer that kept Northampton where we wanted them, an outrageous dummy to ghost past Foden for his own try and then a silky loop with Tommy Bowe to set up Tuohy’s bonus point try. The wait has certainly been worth it and it is really fantastic to see his outrageous talent being fulfilled after such a horrendous injury.

The statistics of this game are extraordinary: Northampton had 70% territory and possession and made 43 tackles to Ulster’s 141. Yet they only managed 6 points – a testament to Ulster’s discipline as much as Ryan Lamb’s inner demons. The quality of Ulster’s ball and their clinical ability to break the line and finish chances was the difference between the teams.

All in all, it was a magnificent performance to secure their thirteenth win of the season and maintain the 100% record. There’s a long way to go to turn this winning streak into silverware but the omens are good. For now, let’s enjoy the result for what it was – a fantastic night to add to Ulster’s grand tradition.

There was, of course, one piece of bad news: the injury to Johann Mueller, who will be out for 8 weeks. He is an immense player and will be missed but this Ulster side can now cope with the loss of key players as they have leaders all over the pitch.

One final apology. Whilst I’m feeling a little smug having correctly called the Ulster result and both the Munster (good performance) and Leinster (great performance) results, I could not have been more wrong with regards to the game in Galway. What a fantastic performance and I am thoroughly envious of anyone who was at the ground to witness Connacht’s stunning victory. If anyone could point me in the direction of some highlights, I’d really appreciate it.

*A headache made all the worse by the fact that the Munster and Leinster backrows were equally magnificent. Fair play to Heaslip who reacted to the gauntlets thrown by Wilson and Coughlan with a titanic performance in the Marcel Michelin.

Ronan Murphy reflects on Munster's hard-fought win over Saracens

Saturdays game at Thomond Park may not have been on for the purists but Munster can take satisfaction from going toe-to-toe with a physical side like Saracens and coming out on top. With little in the way of actual rugby going on, the arm wrestle that ensued was a test of the mettle of the new Munster. Munster aren't the physical force of old, able to bat down any challenges in their path, so coming away with a much needed win against a side backboned by South Africans was an important step in the team's development.

This was the most important game of the Penney reign so far.

Munster aren't the plucky underdogs just yet, not in Limerick anyway, but Saracens have a team full of quality and should have been really targeting this game to make their mark on the competition (a la Ulster did in Northampton the night previous). That they seemed happy to get out of town with the bonus point just goes to reiterate how relatively soft Pool 1 is. Still, Saracens will be confident of turning over that 6 point deficit on their home ground and with that in mind, Munster will need to head home with something to keep their hopes alive into the New Year.

This wasn't a victory pulled out of the ether but built on phenomenally hard work across the team, though special mention goes to two units. The hard tackling, hard carrying backrow out played their counterparts with Dave O'Callaghan putting in an immense shift on his HCup debut. The centres stopped everything dead that came their way and both made big carries and linebreaks. Next week, the hard work and physicality needs to be matched with more potent attack.

Connacht's victory on Friday night puts Munster very much in the frame for a runners-up spot in the quarter finals but leaves little or no wiggle room for the remaining three games. Getting 10-11 points from the remaining pool matches will see them in the mix.

The Good
The Breakdown: Munster have lost a grand total of 3 rucks in this year's Heineken Cup, exactly one per game. With Rob Penney's efforts to impose a faster, wider style on Munster, that's a pretty good base on which to build.

The Bad
Attack: With the physicality to the fore, some of the accuracy of Munster's game went out the window. To have any chance of success in the return fixture, Munster need to combine the ferocity of last weekend with some of the subtly they've shown in other games this season.

The Ugly:
The Ref: It takes a pretty special referee to make the Thomond Park crowd pine for Romain Poite but Pascal Gauzère certainly managed to get himself on the wrong side of the spectators.

It was a phenomenal weekend for Irish rugby: Leinster were a few wonky lineouts from taking down Clermont in France, Connacht did take down their French giant (and a favour to their compatriots for a second season running) and Ulster marked themselves out as serious contenders to win this competition.

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