So now, after just two weeks, there are only seven teams left unbeaten and some of the Pools are being to look tasty. Toulouse are still France’s finest, whilst Harlequins hold the flag for St George. Munster and Leinster are still there for the ‘oul sod’, but the Welsh continue their great start with all three still unbeaten – even if it took a 50m last minute kick from 20-year old substitute Matthew Morgan on his Heineken Cup debut to keep Ospreys afloat in Italy against Treviso.
The Mole was entertained by the (televised) displays on Friday night. Scarlets are looking as well coached as Joe Schmidt’s Leinster and were good value for their four-try demolition of Northampton. Cardiff, even if they are looking for a Head Coach, are doing just fine thank you very much and in the absence of DavidYoung, seem to know precisely how to win the big games – something they have been unable to accomplish in the past 7 years.
Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh produced the best result of the night sharing 95 (48-47) points with Racing Metro 92 and coming from 20 points down with 15 minutes left on the clock to snatch a victory which should encourage the Murrayfield faithful (is that an oxymoron?) to at least give the place a chance when they return for back to back encounters against Cardiff in December. Somewhat annoyingly for the fans of Edinburgh – and Bradley – there was no TV coverage of this game, which makes the Mole wonder why the Broadcasters insist on so many Friday night fixtures.
Saturday afternoon’s glory belonged to Ronan and Conor. O’Shea of the Kingdom is doing a mighty good impression of a Head Coach at present despite the protests of others that he is not a Coach, just a Rugby Director. Harlequins’ best ever sequence of 12 games without defeat is almost Man U-like in its execution. He and his club may have avoided the spotlight until now but with the implosion of two of the English media favourites, Saracens and Northampton, over the weekend, Conor should expect the media pressure to build ferociously over the next three weeks. Leicester, after all, is neither in London nor close to the media – in any sense.
ROG on the other hand has the media trained by now: he is the arch-puppeteer, and they’re his marionettes. POC told them last week that ROG would like to end every match like a conductor with his own score. So ROG repeated the performance for them, just to show it was no fluke! What a performer, what confidence, what ability! If he was playing in the NFL, ROG would by now be a worldwide legend. As it is, he has to do with being a worldwide legend in the English-speaking, rugby-playing, former Empire and surprise, surprise, none of them are surprised.
The rugby world has bought into the Munster story and ROG is an integral part of that story, so extracts from Sky Sports, Fox Sports, or Channel 7 have been carried on BBC 24, CNN and Bloomberg sports clips throughout the weekend just to let the world know that even though the financial system may be down and democracy may be under threat, Munster are still in business!
Poor Jim Mallinder: Johnson successor-elect one Monday, lucky to keep his club job the following Monday. On this side of the pond, we sometimes underestimate the power of the English media. But let there be no doubt, just as they can anoint their favourites, so they can execute them and Sunday’s headlines and op-eds did just that for Mallinder.
Much less fuss about Saracens and yet theirs was the biggest let-down of the weekend. With quality throughout their team and a very good work-ethic within their staff, they travelled to a Biarritz bereft of any confidence and allowed them re-discover it within a ten minute spell. Certainly Harinordoquy was superb as always but without Yash and with an ageing pack and hardly competent half-backs, Saracens should have picked the bones of this one before half-time. That they didn’t should make for some dog-fight in the back to back encounters with Ospreys in December. The winners should come from these two, but Saracens have let the bigger opportunity slip.
The Mole expected a much more proficient performance from Montpelier against Bath. Yes it is their first Heineken Cup year, but their opening performance against Leinster should have given them the confidence to continue their recovery from a poor start to the season. Having hammered their way back into contention at the Rec at 13-16 down with 20 minutes to go, they blew the game with a number of basic errors in attack against a hardly-breathing Bath team who were on their knees. Leinster won’t be sorry at the result but this was a clear case of another that got away from the better team, which seems to be the story of this Heineken Cup competition so far.
And so to the local boys. A hugely competent Leinster performance for 41 minutes against Glasgow. 40 of those minutes were in the first half and the other one was the final play of the game, which saw the home team keep their RDS scoring record intact (they have scored in every half since they have played in the RDS). Joe Schmidt will have been very pleased with the performances of many of his newer players, O’Malley, Toner, Cronin and White did all that was asked of them. But Declan Kidney, in attendance with colleagues Gert Small and Les Kiss, will have been even more pleased with the performances of Kearney, Darcy and Heaslip, all of whom seemed back to their best form after some lack-lustre days recently.
Stand up for the Ulstermen wasn’t heard as often in Welford Road as the previous week in Ravenhill. But the effort deserved it, even if they did not get any result from their endeavours. Despite the score-line, the Mole considered this to be one of the best performances from the Red Hand for a few years.
Leicester were at their defensive best on Saturday and had to be. Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble both looked sharp and willing to work hard. Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry also worked like Trojans and Dan Tuohy and the two big South Africans Wanneberg & Muller played like they were in Newlands in dark green jerseys. Rory Best also continued his rich RWC seam of form. But no result and no points is a harsh result and a harsh reality that Brian McGloughlin will have to come to terms with.
Finally, the aristocrats invaded Connacht. Toulouse arrived with due humility and demonstrated they are the side everyone in Europe respects, if not fears. Without ever really exploding into top gear, they squeezed Connacht and a 9,000 crowd into first silence and then almost despair. A tough lesson for Elwood but some of his players like McCarthy and Muldoon, despite the numbers on their birth certs, both gave clear messages to the Irish management that all they need is the requisite game time at this level and they can be very effective operators.
All in all not as exciting a weekend as the opener, but a very satisfactory on for the Welsh and two main Irish contenders. Bradley and Gareth Evans should have an interesting fortnight ahead.