“...as RC Toulon could not fulfil the fixture, the committee decided under the terms of EPCR’s COVID-19 protocol that Leinster will progress to the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals”
So no Leinster match to write up this week - having complained in my pod preview with Keego about the pesky 5:30pm Friday kickoff time, in the end I would have given anything to be watching the boys in blue play at that time!
Was the conclusion tough on the Top 14 side? Probably, since they were allowed to make the journey to Dublin before the decision was taken - not many would be happy with that, especially when you can’t at least get a few liquid refreshments at famed imbibing emporia in the Irish capital for your trouble.
And another question - will this cancellation serve as a help or a hindrance to Leinster’s quest for a fifth star? Two equally valid schools of thought - on the one hand you could say that to be guaranteed a spot in the last eight with no injuries is as ideal a scenario as you can get, while on the other, to be going to Sandy Park having defeated the likes of Eben Etsebeth and Charles Ollivon is the better frame of mind to have. I guess we won’t know for sure until we actually kick off against the reigning champions.
But of course the biggest question everyone in the rugby universe is asking is this...what will happen to the Monday Harpin match writeup now??? Well instead of around 2000 words on the one match, how about up to 500 on each of five big matches I watched over what turned out to be an amazing weekend regardless.
This tops the list because the draw for next weekend’s quarterfinals had already been made and Leinster were destined to travel to the winners. And although the champion Chiefs were clear favourites going into this, they were more than a little bit stunned by two early Lyon tries courtesy of Coulliloud and Mignot.
But what has made this Rob Baxter project so successful over the years on their journey from Championship also-rans to European kings has been their ability to rely on their painstaking accuracy from close range, and a bit like Leinster, no matter how far they may fall behind in the early stages, you can’t really judge how the match is going to go until they’ve had a chance to display their pick and go prowess.
And with a little help from a Vivien Devisme yellow card in the 25th minute, they eventually got the recovery rolling with quick tries from Jonny Hill and Tom O’Flaherty, and with DeVoto and Ewers striking either side of the break, it was clear that only one side was ever going to come out of this knockout contest.
By the final quarter it became apparent to Lyon that they needed to prioritise their chase for a playoff berth in the Top 14 and the big trip to La Rochelle that awaits them next. A penalty try plus arguably the pick of the bunch from Olly Woodburn put the icing on the cake for Exeter while Cretin got a crumb of consolation right at the death.
This set up the quarterfinal between Exeter and Leinster everyone had been hoping for and needless to say we’ll have plenty to say about that as the week goes on.
Apparently the new format for the Women’s Six Nations, which has them split into two pools of 3 as opposed to the traditional “round robin”, is only for this season. While I’m anything but a traditionalist when it comes to rugby union, this is probably a good thing.
However one aspect of this year’s competition I wouldn’t mind seeing retained is the fact that it takes place at a different time of year to the men’s version. IMHO they should at least keep it for a couple of seasons when the crowds return to give it a chance for proper exposure in its own right, much like the Women’s World Cup.
From an Irish point of view, the draw could not have worked out better. Being in a three-team pool means of course you miss out on one of the rounds and with our bye falling in the opening weekend, it means we get to watch our two opponents at the same time to help with preparation. Also, seeing how this match in Vannes in the Brittany region turned out, it doesn’t hurt that we have the French at home either, even with an empty stadium.
I don’t think anyone would have argued even before this opening weekend that England and France were firm favourites to reach the final. Nor would they dispute the fact that it’s mostly because those nations have professional leagues that they enjoy such dominance at this level. And even though the entire Welsh squad plays for clubs in the English system, it wasn’t long before the difference between these two sides was made clear.
While I want to be as diplomatic as a can describing how this match went, I also want to be accurate. Simply put, whenever Wales had the ball it was only a matter of time before their hosts took it back off them and when possession was the other way round, only a French mistake was going to prevent it becoming a try.
This was clear right from the kickoff as on the first French attack they advanced on every carry and moved the Welsh defence around with ease until a criminal gap left between two pillars allowed winger Caroline Boujard to go through the middle and score.
By the time 15 minutes had gone, Boujard had her hat-trick and the third try was easily the pick of them as the move included some sensational offloading and quick hands throughout the French team. The dominance continued and if anything the decision to have scrum half Pauline Bourdon go for three points when a penalty was awarded was meant to give the side a much needed breather after putting so much work for half an hour. Eventually on 34 minutes a lineout close to the Welsh line quickly became a maul which then became the bonus point try courtesy of hooker Agathe Sochat.
To be fair to the Welsh, after the break their defending started to improve (though you could also argue there was a hint of French complacency as well) and it took a charge from number 8 Emeline Gros off the base of a scrum to get over the line for try number 5 in the 53rd minute. From there they coasted home with Gros getting a second before Boulard and Touye brought up the half century on the scoreboard.
So going back to the Irish perspective, the task for Adam Griggs, Ciara Griffin & co is clear. Over the next two weeks we will find out exactly where they sit in comparison to these two sides. First we must face what is bound to be a Welsh backlash next weekend at Cardiff Arms Park as they try to fix all that went wrong on Saturday evening and then we host the French in what is bound to be a stern test to say the very least.
Both matches will be screened live on RTÉ2 (with all non-Irish matches on RTÉ Player) so be sure to watch and give the girls all the support you can via social media.
#WomensSixNations— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) April 4, 2021
🤩 Just 𝗢𝗡𝗘 week out! 🙌🟢#IrishRugby #ShoulderToShoulder #WALvIRE pic.twitter.com/QaXG9HHbiK
Definitely the kind of margin but certainly not the amount of scoring nor indeed the excitement I was expecting from this clash of champions past at Thomond Park.
Toulouse were on fire at the start and it took a series of three infringements in quick succession leading to a Chris Farrell yellow to prevent an early try. Much like the previous weekend, Munster’s opponents failed to build a lead despite enjoying early dominance but unlike the previous weekend, Munster actually managed to cross the line and a pair of Keith Earls tries helped them to a seven point advantage at the break.
But you always knew Toulouse weren’t done and they began the second half in determined mood, with Lebel going over in the corner to nick back the lead. Munster did peg them back when Gavin Coombes took a tap n go penalty to power over himself from 5m out, but first Marchand and then a quality move finished by Duponte put the Top 14 side out of sight. Duponte and Coombes nabbed second tries for themselves at the death but it was all over as a contest at that stage.
Wayne Barnes did play a part as referee it has to be said - discipline was a major issue for both sides. Farrell in the first few minutes and Castets in the last were the only to be sent to the naughty step and how the match would have gone if the other, arguably more obvious yellow card offences were punished throughout the match.
I know the last thing Munster fans want to hear from a Leinster one is something along the lines of “they fought bravely but just weren’t good enough” but what else can I say when that is what I felt happened. With a more favourable draw they definitely could have made the final four this season but it has been clear the past couple of weeks that they lack what it takes to get past the top sides.
As for Toulouse, they must travel again but still on French soil this time (though I suppose even that’s not certain with all that’s going on) as they now face a quarterfinal next weekend against Clérmont that promises to be another classic.
It was a sensational start for the Westies as a Sean O’Brien break up the wing put Marmion through for a try after just 7 minutes. But for the rest of the first half they were to struggle with possession and after Charlie Clare powered over the line to open the Tigers’ account, Guy Porter and Matias Moroni both capitalised on turnovers to help them establish a comfortable lead by the break.
Tries from Eoghan Masterson and Alex Wooton brought Connacht right back into it and with 2 points between them going into the final quarter it looked like anyone’s contest but Leicester were always able to count on their pack to get them a score when required and Charlie Clare all but replicated his early try to leave the visitors back needing more than a score.
Paul Boyle pulled another back but late strikes from Whitcombe and Weise left the final margin what it was. Definitely not the outcome Andy Friend would have wanted especially after a week of so many changes in the coaching ticket. Now they must look to the Rainbow Cup for their remaining rugby of the season.
Not sure if the Ulster fans will thank me much for this, but on this display I reckon they have put their hands as serious contenders to win this season’s Challenge Cup.
Of course it should be pointed out that Harlequins did field a much depleted squad and given they lie fourth in the Premiership with seven matches left you can hardly blame them for prioritising that competition. But to simply say Ulster won because Quins didn’t care would be completely ignoring the progress of the match.
As the saying goes, you can “only play what’s in front of you” and with a full strength lineup that definitely would have made a decent stab at qualifying for another Pro14 final had the original format been retained, the Ulstermen were extremely clinical both with and without the ball in the opening half an hour to establish a 23-0 lead with tries from McCloskey, Herring and Reidy.
We had seen tries flying in from all angles throughout the weekend and in many cases no amount of lead was safe so when Jordi Murphy shipped a needless yellow card and Tom Lawday pulled a try back in the 32nd minute, nobody thought this was in the bank until Michael Lowry pinned his ears back to sprint half the length of the field Road Runner style to get them back on track.
From that point the Quins were beaten into submission and it was only a question of how much bigger the margin was going to get. Herring, Burns, Mathewson and Reidy all struck in the second half to pad the scoreline even further and overall nobody should take anything away from this success.
Although Ulster must now travel to another Premiership side in next weekend’s quarterfinals, with Northampton also fighting for a top 4 spot and a big match against Bristol to come, if Dan McFarland can keep up the levels of focus within his squad there’s every chance they can be in that semifinal draw.
So a weekend that started with the disappointment of being denied Leinstertainment, it turned out to be a decent one overall, at least when it came to scoring. I did wonder at one point which hemisphere I was watching because I’m pretty sure the majority of defensive coaches won’t be too happy during the DVD sessions, but for the non-purists there was much to savour.
All of which leaves us with four amazing quarterfinals in the Champions Cup. As I’m writing I see the Exeter v Leinster clash has rightly been given top billing with the Saturday 5:30 kickoff slot. Plenty to look forward to there, with best wishes also to Ulster.
Hopefully this European encounter will actually happen and if so, I’ll be previewing it on Friday right here on these pages. Also we’ll have our regular features throughout the week, with Front 5 every morning, another club rugby profile from Mark Strange on Wednesday, and of course the list of upcoming rugby on Irish TV which is due on Thursday.
Also this week is a special episode of the podcast where I ask an expert in both rugby and the law about everything that is involved in a disciplinary committee hearing - that should post on Tuesday afternoon so why not subscribe now so it lands right there in your feed. JLP