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European Rugby – Where Do They All Stand?

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Dual blogged on I’m Talkin’ Here

So two rounds down and already some possible contenders have bitten the dust. Two rounds never technically eliminates you from any tournament, but a whole heap of miracles and shock wins are generally required to get you back on track after poor opening games. For the Irish only one of the provinces find themselves facing down this situation, Ulster, whilst the other three are looking fairly solid on the table albeit with much work to do before double-headers in December.

Munster’s brute force win over Saracens was as good a sequel as any after the last minute wonder against Sale the week before. Not that I will give it more than a sentence here, but yes CJ Stander took a bit of a dive for the yellow card but it was a yellow offence regardless so no big deal there. Munster had too much for the Londoners and with back to back games against Clermont to come any momentum is good momentum.

Going into the half at three a piece is a good reflection on how measured the teams were against each other before Dave Kilcoyne’s try finished off the visitors. You can always argue how crucial a yellow card is or isn’t to a game but when both sides are neck and neck up to the incident and both are seemingly waiting for that spark, the yellow itself becomes that spark. Munster took advantage of their situation.

The pool is anything but sewn up of course, not by a long shot, and some of Ian Keatley’s misses will be cause for concern going forward, but for a team that showed themselves to be so patchy in the league, two from two and the fashion in which they’ve achieved it is above and beyond what form would have suggested three weeks ago.

Munster 14 – 3 Saracens

Prospects – Semi Finals

Ulster didn’t have anything like the reason to celebrate that Munster had as Le Galacticos rolled into town on Saturday. Toulon were always going to be a handful, made even worse by the experience Ulster are missing, but I don’t think anyone expected the Ulstermen to be bossed off the pitch quite as much as they were on home soil, especially when Toulon once more underperformed massively.

Ulster came out of the traps, showing five good minutes of sustained pressure. But there is a curious trend developing lately, mostly with Irish teams up against French opponents, that five minutes at the start of the game is well within their capabilities and that, whether or not a try has been scored, there’s somewhat of a “job done” attitude toward it all when the French inevitably come charging back at them, try line to try line. I’m not saying for one second that five minutes is all these teams decide to give them, but there may be some fodder there for the sports psychologies out there. Some examples are the Irish national team against France for all of their recent Six Nations meetings and friendlies, barring the obvious one earlier this year, Munster versus Racing Metro two years ago in their Heineken Cup opener, Leinster against Montpellier two years ago and now Ulster against Toulon.

Not once did the Ulstermen reach their initial level of aggression once the first foray was done. They were up against a Toulon side that were as ripe for the picking, everywhere but the breakdown, as a Toulon side can be. But still they couldn’t find the answer. With a return fixture against Le Galacticos to come next year, after a back to back against Scarlets that will be anything but easy, you could nearly say Ulster have themselves out of the competition. Never before has a team lost two games without at least two bonus points and progressed to win the tournament. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Ulster this season can be the team to change that.

Ulster 13 – 23 Toulon

Prospects – Bowing out

Connacht went to the far extreme from their annihilation of La Rochelle on Saturday, though with the French dismantling of their Top 14 counterparts Bayonne in the pool’s other fixture things all look fairly level with a slight tilt in Connacht’s favour.

You could look to the eight changes Pat Lam undertook before Saturday as a reason for the failings of the Westerners in the immediate sense, but with very little changes made in the run up to this game it would always be tough for the guys who suddenly find themselves starting all of a sudden, such is the improved but still evident lack of depth in Connacht. Lam has made the right call however, with five Irish call ups set to deplete his squad and the November period being a crucial time to climb back up the Pro 12 leader board.

Nothing to worry about and a less than merry Christmas ahead of Bayonne one would think.

Exeter 33 – 13 Connacht

Prospects: It’s theirs to win if they want it enough

Last but not least came Matt O’Connor and Leinster with a point to prove. Look, we do expect too much of them. Like Munster, past success has turned them into a mythical figure of whom greatness is expected constantly. That said, they have the strongest player pool, even with their injuries, of all the Irish teams. This was proven to some degree then against Castres in something that slightly resembled Leinster of old – win by any means necessary.

Most heartening for Matt O’Connor will be the lack of injuries, but also a solid outing from Luke Fitzgerald. He didn’t set the world alight, never would after that length of an absence, but he came off uninjured and most importantly cannot be credited with a single defensive lapse. Welcome back Lukie, at a time when Leinster and Ireland could do with a wealth of wingers.

Leinster dug it out of the bottom barrel in the end, one severely uncharacteristic miss from Ian Madigan giving the blue faithful cause to be unsettled for a brief period and ultimately Leinster lasted the eighty, Castres didn’t. But Harlequins will, make no mistake. They were nilled in the league early on and with a two from two in the European game so far, as per usual December decides all.

Castres 16 – 21 Leinster

Prospects: Quarters, nothing more without a serious step up in gear

And just for fun, how are those quarter finals looking after two rounds?

Glasgow VS Clermont

Racing Metro VS Toulouse

Harlequins VS Leinster

Toulon VS Munster

Early days yet but still an interesting reflection that three Celtic teams and only one English team would be finding themselves in the knockouts at this point in the tournament. You would have to think that one of the biggest impacts on whether this new format hinders the Celts or not will be when the tighter scheduling of the knockouts kicks in.

Image courtesy of belfasttelegraph.co.uk

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