Belfast Telegraph

Stunning weekend of rugby shows Champions Cup still shines bright

 

By Tony Ward

I saw it suggested in midweek that the European Cup, or European Champions Cup as it is now known, has lost its mojo. On the basis of the opening weekend's fare, such an observation comes from a different planet.

And if the opening series was good then what followed in Round Two was better. The only downside is the six-week break until the back-to-back games in December.

What we witnessed on Saturday in Glasgow was a superb Leinster performance and a statement of intent followed a few hours later in Limerick by one of guts and disciplined organisation from Munster.

I was privileged along with the best part of 20,000 others to be in Thomond on another special night for Munster rugby.

The game kicked off at 5.30 - yet it was 7.0 to the minute on the stadium clock when the irrepressible Conor Murray registered the game's opening score.

If there has ever been a more exciting scoreless hour's play up to that then I haven't seen it.

It was a game short on discernible strategy but one bubbling with energy. The physicality and commitment from both sides was bordering on the brutish but, as Rassie Erasmus articulated best in the aftermath, this was all about heart.

Outside of Test rugby I cannot think of any other competition in the global game that consistently engenders the same type of selflessness for the collective cause or, to borrow again from Erasmus, "for the badge". The lack of discipline so clearly in evidence at the Aviva and in Castres over the previous two matches was marked by its absence on this must-win occasion.

And for that immense credit must go to Jacques Nienaber in his brief as defensive coach. The enthusiasm in his parallel role as sideline 'medic' and link between coaching box and players is infectious.

Dave Kilcoyne was nominated man of the match and had another enormous game. Between Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Kilcoyne, Joe Schmidt is spoilt for choice on the loosehead side of the scrum. The Munster number one was certainly in the frame as were so many others in red but for me yet again one player stood apart - Murray.

It's fair to say that Aaron Smith is acknowledged by most as the game's top scrum-half but pushed to pick an optimum XV right now I would find it impossible to leave the Munster pivot out.

He is the key cog in this developing machine. Murray is a class apart. His composure and ability to read a game, particularly off the ball, makes him the tactical leader, with respect to Peter O'Mahony and Billy Holland, in all but name.

His all-round game is helped too when keeping the box-kicking to its appropriate level.

And a word here in that context for Ian Keatley. Yes, he missed a penalty he might have nailed and one Garryowen in particular was overcooked but given the pressure he is under when replacing Tyler Bleyendaal, his contribution to this bold performance was immense. After missing that penalty which would have put Munster 10 ahead, he produced a brilliant daisy-cutter to the corner leading directly to Munster's match-winning try by Andrew Conway.

But this was a performance in which the sum of the parts equalled the win. The lineout is an area of concern but from Kilcoyne through to the outstanding Simon Zebo, plus the clear impact off the bench, this was a European night from times past with Rory Scannell and both wings Keith Earls and Darren Sweetnam in particular catching the eye.

For Leinster, the opening fortnight represents utopia in all but name. Ten points out of a maximum 10 with the bonus conceded to Montpellier the only blot - if it could be described as such.

At Scotstoun, they were tactically close to perfect with Johnny Sexton the inspiration. On current form, he is to Leinster what Murray is to Munster with Schmidt and Ireland the obvious beneficiaries.

Whether they are good enough yet to beat Saracens I'm not so sure but with Seán O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa, plus new arrival James Lowe set to challenge plus the current crop, specifically the young guns, in such encouraging form, the early omens are good.

On Saturday, Healy and Rhys Ruddock in particular put up their hands for November Test selection, while Seán Cronin, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery and Jack Conan again rubberstamped recent form.

Conan is a different type of No 8 to Jamie Heaslip with different attributes, but when it comes to work ethic the current incumbent is cut from the same cloth.

It truly is mind-boggling what Cullen and John Fogarty are going to do when Ruddock, O'Brien, Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Max Deegan, Conan and Heaslip are all fit and ready for selection.

No trophy in October but some mighty big steps taken.

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