It was only over the weekend that the lunacy of the new Champions Cup format really dawned on me.
How could it possibly be considered reasonable to place each team in a pool with 11 others, and then only allow games against two opponents over four rounds to determine the progression to the knockout stages?
A league format is only fair when each side gets to play the other. That applied when it was the old format of four teams per pool, and it applies just as much now, with 12. To have teams battling for positions in the standings when everyone is playing different opponents is a mess, and from a logical point of view, it makes no sense.
Donal Lenihan wrote in these pages recently that he felt the European Cup was losing its mystique. It’s hard to disagree with him. Cutting the group stages from six games to four reduces the opportunity for supporters to get invested in the journey. The back-to-back games that we used to enjoy before Christmas always carried an edge, and the make-or-break nature of these fixtures often saw plenty of drama unfold for the Irish provinces over the years.
Hopefully it’s a short-lived experiment, and the optimism that vaccinations have brought can help facilitate a return to a more recognisable competition next year. As for now, despite my grievances with the format, we are being treated to some cracking rugby. There was an average of 54 points scored across the 12 games last weekend, albeit that was somewhat skewed by Leinster’s 13 try, 89 point demolition of Montpellier. Even allowing for that, there was no shortage of tries to enjoy.
One of those came from Leicester’s Hosea Saumaki in the 80th minute, with millimetres separating his foot from the touchline, Connacht from a memorable win, and the Irish provinces from their second European clean sweep of the season. The reactions towards referee Matthieu Raynal in the aftermath were understandable but ultimately, there was nothing to react to. The foot was simply never in touch.
Instead, the Connacht players will have to direct that frustration and emotion at themselves and one another. 18 points up after 49 minutes, the job looked done. Like they have done a number of times this season, however, they failed to keep turning the screw and allowed their opponents back into the game.
Leicester have won all but one game this season. Teams that are in the habit of winning will claw their way back into any game if they get the faintest scent of blood. It’s the same in any sport.
Connacht remind me of a darts player that can throw a nine darter in one leg and then throw 80s for all of the next. They have proven time and again that they can live with the best of the best, but they have a capacity for self-sabotage that has, so far, failed to be eradicated. They can take a lot of solace from the fact they only lost by an aggregate of seven points over two games against the most consistent side in Europe this year.
The omens are good and something very positive is building. Connacht are definitely my favourite Irish side to watch at the moment; not merely because of the attractive, ambitious style of rugby they play, but also because of the personnel that are involved, on and off the pitch. They are a tough, hard working and skillful bunch of lads that clearly believe in the project that Andy Friend is implementing. My old coach at Grenoble Dewald Senekal – now the forwards coach out west – always told me he wanted to coach in Ireland. Based on what we are seeing from the Connacht pack of late, he seems to be doing an excellent job.
If Jack Carty fails to get some meaningful game time in the Six Nations, it will leave much of the Irish rugby community scratching their heads. Conor Oliver has been a revelation this season and I’m sure I’m not the only current or former Munster player wondering how big a role he could currently be playing in red. The find of the season, however, has been 21-year-old Cian Prendergast, who is having a near-perfect start to his professional career.
The dynamic, rangy Kildare youngster has a Tadhg Beirne like stature: the proportions of a second row with the athleticism of a back row. As he gets older and his weight continues to increase, I think he’ll end up an international lock, but for now Connacht can continue to enjoy the energy and physicality he’s bringing to the number six jersey each week.
For the second week in a row, Munster managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Winning a game late on can often give more of a psychological boost than when you’re on top all day and the result is never in doubt. Against Ulster a week earlier, they battled hard to stay in the game with 14 men and took the lead with five minutes remaining. In Castres on Friday night it was even more dramatic, as Gavin Coombes stretched his long arm over the line to dot down on the stroke of 78 minutes.
I had foolishly called a bonus point win for Munster in my prediction for the game. Castres had nothing to play for and were sending out a team that didn’t feature many of their Top 14 starters. Nevertheless, it’s always a difficult place to go. Castres are a bit of an anomaly in France; they are probably the last remaining old school French club that is still competing at the top level.
Their supporters are proud of the fact they are perceived as being a bit dirty; proud of the fact other teams don’t like them; proud of the fact they play in your face, confrontational rugby that rarely sees the ball being thrown around. They have always taken a simple approach and it continues to serve them well. Sitting in third place and unbeaten at home in the Top 14, we should not underestimate the task that faced Munster, even if Castres are not the European foes they once were.
As I said, winning games late is brilliant for morale. But it’s not something you want to make too much of a habit of. Invariably, there will be nights when you run out of time. After two dramatic wins and sustained, widespread criticism of the quality of attacking rugby on show over the last four weeks, Sunday’s game against Wasps will be a great litmus test for where Munster are at.
Their opponents will be buoyed by a shock victory over French and European champions Toulouse, and they will come to Thomond Park with a chip on their shoulder after being embarrassed by a group of debutants in the Ricoh Arena in round one. It’s a crying shame that only 5,000 people will be there to witness what should be a very special occasion. All we can hope is that there’s a home fixture at full capacity to look forward to in the round of 16.
Ulster are almost the forgotten province at the moment, with so much focus on the chaos in Munster, and Connacht’s journey captivating neutrals far and wide. The northern province were business like again against Northampton and have positioned themselves perfectly for a favourable draw to start the knockout stages.
As for Leinster, well what can you say? Putting 89 points on the Clontarf seconds would be impressive.
Doing it to a club with the resources and talent of Montpellier is remarkable. Even if it was a weakened side they sent to Dublin. Like a lion that had been starved of meat for weeks, Leinster were completely ruthless in seizing their opportunity to batter, evade and outsmart their weary opponents after the disruption to their fixture list in recent weeks. With one round to go before we shift to the business end of the Champions Cup, we can say without doubt that Irish rugby is in a good place.