Friday, December 08, 2006

Heineken Stakes High For Irish Sides

Is it any wonder that the profile of rugby in Ireland seems to be inflating nearly as exponentially as my stomach is likely to over the coming weeks of mince pie and savoury party snack heaven.

Not only does the everyone-loves-a-winner factor mean that our strutting, gunslinging national team are the nation's darlings du jour, but also the scheduling of two crucial rounds of Heineken Cup group matches for just after the November internationals means that the sport's box office stars will continue to occupy our thoughts for another few weeks.

There will be more Heineken Cup in January, before the boozy city-break bonhomie of the Six Nations kicks in for six weeks, and then the concluding stages of the Europe's premier competition bring you up to May.

This means that rugby will be at the forefront of the minds of those fickle, low-attention- spanned scoundrels, the General Public, for a good eight months - not including the much dreaded summer tour to Argentina. Not bad going in the bustling marketplace that hawkers of top class sport inhabit.

What did rugby folk do before the Heineken Cup? Traipse around mucky club fields of a winter Saturday, shuffle along to an interpro or two, offering it up as penance for the indulgence of the springtime international debauchery to come. We live in no-guilt times now, of course, and can debase ourselves almost every weekend if we wish.

Anyhow, Munster are unlikely to debase themselves in these group stages at least, starting them as they have in the firm, businesslike manner of champions. They were inches away from losing against Leicester - the distance by which Ronan O'Gara's monstrous last gasp hoof cleared the bar - but seemed, even as they went behind in the game, to retain control of their destiny, rather like in the manner England manouevred their winning drop goal situation in the 2003 World Cup final.

That might be understating how close they came to losing, as, had Shane Jennings not offered dissent on the awarding of the crucial penalty, then the kick would have been out of even O'Gara's reach. Still, you'd kind of had fancied them to stick it in the corner and rumble over for a winner anyway.

Where Munster are now is confirmed in the stats: if they defeat Cardiff on Sunday they will match Leicester's record of 11 tournament wins in a row and go past the Tigers' record of 5 consecutive Heineken away wins. And then there are the 30 home wins on the trot.

Cardiff should be a tough one, although the Blues will have to deal with a whole different Munster proposition from that which they defeated in the Magners League in September. They will attack Munster with ball in hand from the breakdown through Martyn Williams and burly scrum half Mike Philips. Munster have more than enough class for this one however.

Leinster and Ulster are not bobbing along anywhere near as gracefully as Munster; both of them face must win games this weekend.

London Irish are already the makeweights in Ulster's tough group, and victory at the Madejski on Saturday will be seen as a prerequisite if hopes of a quarter final place are not unfounded. Not only that, but in this group every bonus point is a prisoner, and Ulster have to pick one up somewhere to make up for that spurned in the opening day win over Toulouse.

A big performance is needed and, with the ego-boost of international honours many of their players now have, they should have the confidence to it against an exiles side out of the running already.

Leinster too have no margin for error, against Agen. That frustrating defeat in Edinburgh felt like an unexpected stumble, but one that Leinster are all too capable of. They lack that drive and unity of purpose which Munster have, a deficit of practical know-how.

You can pretty much guarantee that Saturday's game at Lansdowne (the latest "last game" in the old ground, this time being the final Heineken Cup match - Christ, would someone knock the place down already) will be open and high scoring, given the presence on Agen's team of the exuberant Fijian winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca and on Leinster's of Ireland's dashing blades of the backline.

The good thing is, the more open the game, the better for Leinster, capable as they are of out-running most teams. The absence of out-half Felipe Contepomi, however, is bound to diminish them, and you worry for them a bit if they fall behind or find themselves misfiring creatively.

Will they be able to battle out a win? They'll have to.

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Blogger Fence said...

I wouldn't be too sure about the free flowing Leinster game, the weather may play a role, I'm sure I heard somewhere that it'll be more gales and wet and windy conditions.

Hopefully not, but that is what looks likely.

3:32 p.m.  
Anonymous Cahony said...

I hadn't heard of Munster's opportunity to catch up with Leicester's records for wins on the bounce and away wins in the competition, would be a nice record to hold.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Rupeni against Leicester, he's a 'colourful' character at best, but he can bring great flair to a match. I wonder what the new signing in the front row from the NPC is going to be like for Leinster also...

5:32 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Good point on the weather, so I ducked into the RTE weather page:

Dry in many areas tomorrow, with bright spells and some scattered showers. Patchy rain spreading from the Atlantic later in the day or after dark. Rather cold again. Top temperatures 6 to 9 degrees."

So not too apocalyptic then. But hey, this is Ireland after all, so......

10:34 p.m.  
Blogger Fence said...

Glad there wasn't any gale force winds after all, not great rugby, but a win nevertheless.

And a vomiting captain, what more could you want?

3:41 p.m.  

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