Thursday, January 25, 2007

Heineken Cup Review: Hard Road Ahead

The announcement of the Irish squad today for the first Six Nations match against Wales on Sunday week draws a natural line under Heineken Cup matters and focuses attention on the springtime soirée about to ensue. Albeit the provinces plod on with Magners League fixtures in the midst of the international hoopla, the top players are, of course, spirited away to be rubbed nightly in papaya and honey balm, wrapped in silk sheets then rocked to sleep by the sound of lute lullabies.

Before all that a timely moment, then, to survey their exploits thus far in the Grand Papa of club competitions. And my, what a confused and conflicting scene we are presented with, full of giddy backslapping one moment then fear and loathing the next.
This season's pool stages seemed bipolar in nature, all three of the Irish provinces vascillating from Marlon Brando to Marlon from Emmerdale within six matches.

There was obviously enough good stuff in there to help (on top of the Autumn international successes) put a jaunty spring in our World Cup year step.

Ulster's demolition of Toulouse in the first round seemed to point to great things, suggesting that a Third Way was about to present itself between the red and blue of Ireland's hitherto dominant ideologies.

With Ulster's 1999 success in the tournament generally accompanied with an asterisk - "note: no English teams participated in this season's competition" - was this, with a tough pack steered by General Humphreys at outhalf and youthful promise in the backs, the province staking a rightful claim to contender status?

Leinster's drop dead gorgeous attacking potential was demonstrated against Gloucester at home, then fulfilled against Edinburgh at Donnybrook, a fantastic display of a 15-man game, admittedly against a team whose interest in the fixture was mild, and certainly not prolonged.

But it was the gutsy win in Agen that augured best for Leinster, a courageous and hard-fought victory which seemed to suggest that the flibbertigibbets were all grown up, thanks to the introduction by Keogh and Hogan of foul-humoured Munsterness into the pack.

Munster, we said, were 'savvy'. 'Experienced'. 'Nous' was mentioned. So too 'smarts'. The smuggling of a win from Welford Road was the best moment, a triumph of nerve in the face of alarming reversals in the scrum which would only be properly punished at the end of the pool stages.

The word 'Ulster' now accompanies in many dictionaries of modern usage, the phrase 'flattering to deceive'. The trip to Llanelli was seen as the reckoning, the revelation of whether Ulster were anything but home-town heroes.

Defeat at Stradey Park, in a game in which the province never got a foothold, was deflating, and the rest of the group offered only ignominy: a loss to the Welsh side at Fortress Ravenhill, and the fact that the fight between an Ulster supporter and Trevor Brennan was the only meaningful contest in which the province were involved on the last day.

For Leinster, a silly, maddening loss to Edinburgh suggested a lack of focus, but the loss to Gloucester was more depressing. A foul night in January did not help, but the sense of lack of control was all-pervasive, the conditions preventing Leinster from maximising, as they usually do, their inferior percentage of possession. The questions will not go away.

Still, we can live with Leinster's foibles, due to familiarity. The decimation of the Munster set-piece in defeat by Leicester at Thomond Park (the shock of it! Losing at Thomond, and on a good, dirty oul night too!) was the most worrying sight of all, even if it had been coming. Leicester tossed the Munster pack around like a plastic bag in a gale, the scrum especially being ransacked.

Away quarter-finals, the old question marks arising, Biarritz determined, Leicester rejuvenated, Llanelli flying....will the trophy so bumped and boozed around the south-west this last eight months or so be leaving our shores?

With the Six Nations to come first, clairvoyancy for the Heineken Cup is ill-advised until the body count is in. The absence of an O'Gara or a Contepomi (admittedly not playing in the Six Nations) would be almost terminal for either side.

Still I expect at least one of them to win their way to a semi-final, and will state that it is not beyond both. Munster do not have a great record in Wales, that day in May notwithstanding, but will not fear Llanelli. And Wasps is not the worst draw for Leinster either, whatever about the obstacle posed by their blitz defence.

But they're both strong opponents, and at home. With potential semi-finals away also, an Irish win this year would be even more hard-wrought than the momentous one of 2006.

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Anonymous Alan S said...

Well said Tom. The original story had Leinster away to Leicester; any ideas why this changed? Not that I'm complaining, I reckon Wasps are very takeable, far more so than the Tigers and I remain convinced that no Welsh side, club or country, is a good as they would have you believe. It is of course a great achievment to come back from 30 points down against Toulouse but what were Llanelli doing that far behind in the first place?

10:14 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Going into the last day, Leicester were third seeds, Leinster sixth (i.e., the lowest placed group winners) and would therefore play each other. Wasps were second seeds at this point.

Llanelli's win moved them to second seeds, pushing Wasps into third and into Leinster's loving arms.

Absolutely agree that Leinster would have had no chance against Leicester. Leave them to Munster and the marketing men's dream: Revinge for T'omond, boy!

7:56 p.m.  

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