Stuart Barnes: Irish provinces lead the way in the Heineken Cup
Stuart Barnes reflects on another superb Heineken Cup round where the Irish teams led the way.
Last Updated: 09/12/13 11:54am
Any residual rugby despair to be found in dark corners of the Emerald Isle was dismissed with a quartet of victories the like of which Ireland has never experienced in the pool stages of this competition.
Fact checking? I have not bothered with anything quite as tedious as I sit at the laptop on a Sunday night having arrived back from my brief two day sojourn in the East Midlands. Maybe the four Irish teams have all won in the same round before - but not with the same degree of sensationalism.
We witnessed the best performance of the Heineken Cup to date by some distance in Northampton and for those who were on the red button whilst Leicester and Montpellier were producing their own thrilling afternoon's action, the shock of the season and undoubtedly one of the shocks of Heineken Cup history was unfolding.
Sorry, I cannot tell you the story of the game; the minutiae of the match but I can type 'Toulouse were beaten at home by Connacht'.
There are seven words I never thought I would type and see in print. How they did it, it doesn't really matter.
Some matches are played with a view to the wider picture that lingers over the rugby horizon. That is the intelligent way Exeter approach the sport and despite a narrow defeat against Toulon in time it will reap rewards.
Other matches are about the eyeballs being out on stalks and the underdogs getting hold of the favourites and hanging on for life and glory.
I only saw the last one minute and thirty seconds of the match in amazement from my commentary position in Welford Road. Heads behind pressed closer and closer to the screen to see this stunning score line transformed into a result.
Later this week I will watch it but that's not the point. This sort of occasion, when Connacht, bottom of the Rabo 12, beat the four-time Heineken Cup winners who have won all their home games with a bonus point this season - until Sunday - is more a matter of something that passes down into myth.
For the gallant men of Galway and surrounds this is a mini Munster All Blacks moment. Pat Lam will sensibly talk of building on the win but the fans, both in the West of Ireland and those lucky enough to see a little slice of rugged rugby history in person in Toulouse, should raise a toast, another and then another twenty to their team.
This is what the game should be about.
One day earlier an altogether more established Irish side produced a stunning performance which will have caused consternation through Europe.
In the first round of the Heineken Cup, Leinster were impressively organised away to the Ospreys in Swansea. Impressive in a pragmatic manner but did the team miss the Joe Schmidt and Jonny Sexton factor?
The answer was a resounding 'no', on a perfect night for rugby that froze the hearts of Northampton supporters. The manner in which the Saints have played this season is the nearest thing to the pace and power required to make the step from domestic to European success.
Averaging 32 Premiership points a game at the Gardens they were expected to take Leinster all the way. Instead the match was over as a contest well before half time.
Yes, late changes that left Northampton minus a full back hurt them but the intelligence, accuracy and confidence with which Leinster took advantages of the weakness was hugely impressive.
Brian O' Driscoll was acutely clever from first to last and with a breakdown game that blew Northampton's much reputed breakdown game to pieces it was all too much for the English team that has to pick itself up before next Saturday night in the New Lansdowne Road.
Last year the Saints showed great resolve to rebound from a hammering at home to Ulster and take the Ulstermen's record a week later. The management can tell their team that they will be unlucky to catch Leinster in quite such form again but the order remains tall.
The three times champions in five years have the pool in a firm grip and are - on form - the team to beat. But remember how good Clermont appeared last season when they travelled to Leinster and demolished them in round four. The road remains a long one towards a fourth title but they are on the right road and flying down the fast lane for the moment.
Munster duly obliged with a bonus point win against a typically erratic Perpignan who didn't land a blow. One pass from James Hook for a last second try is a reminder that the Catalonian side can play but Munster will not fear them next weekend.
And finally Ulster; the only rivals to Leinster as the team of the tournament to date; they have backed up a home win against Leicester (where the bonus point for the visitors could yet prove important for a Leicester team not to be written off) with an away win in Montpellier and on Saturday a seven try rout in Treviso.
They are leaving nothing to doubt and hunting down the points to take them towards a home quarter final. Leicester is hanging onto their shirt tails and could make that round six encounter something special.
But for this weekend, the story is Irish. Two weeks ago a fast tempo game came so close to undoing the All Blacks. The Leinster team reproduced that sort of pace and dismantled Northampton. The others did what they had to do. In Connacht's case it was something they will be talking about for years to come.
It may all turn to ashes next week but if that is the case (and don't bet against a really tough contest although Toulouse will be a different beast) Sunday happened. Connacht, the often forgotten fourth estate of the Irish game beat Toulouse away.
The Heineken delivers again.
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Hi Stuart. Don't you think it would be interesting to have a type of Lions game at home versus the Southern Hemisphere teams once every four years or so, maybe during the end of year tour? It would be interesting that this could be held in a Lions year, when they have played a few games together earlier in the year, as well as give the home Lions fans a decent opportunity to see the Lions without having to travel to the other side of the world. Secondly, what is your world team for 2013? Thirdly, what is your refereeing team of 2013? Fourthly, do you not think that the refereeing has been below the standard that it needs to be this year? There have been a huge amount of dodgy calls, so maybe a global conference on the state and rules of refereeing needs to arranged once a year to ensure some consistency between Southern and Northern hemisphere refs. It can only be fairer for the players and the fans so that everyone can enjoy the game in the same way, without there being huge disparities in the way the game is reffed
STUART REPLIES: Jason, Plenty here; Re. The Lions. Be careful not to dilute the magic and remember the clubs pay the wages and cannot be expected to release their men ad infinitum.
World XV: Corbisiero Du Plessis Adam Jones Etzebeth Retallick Alberts Louw Read du Preez Cooper Savea Fofana C Smith B Smith Halfpenny.
Ref team: Owens Ref, Barnes and Joubert assistant referees and no, I think referees are consistent enough, it is the constant tinkering and emphasis they are told to concentrate upon that causes the problem. That and the different philospohies of coaches in the two hemispheres.
Stuart, What do Northampton need to do to get over that Leinster defeat? What damage mentally will that have on them for the rest of the season.
STUART REPLIES: Michael, Remind themselves how they turned around a hammering at home to Ulster twelve months ago into an away win; eliminate their errors and admit that their opposition were splendid and might just not play that well again all season. Such is the Barnes team talk Monday morning.
Evening Stuart, I know you may not want to discuss this but will Stuart Lancaster be concerned about England clubs not playing in Europe next year ahead of the world cup. I have always believed that the Heineken Cup is a step below Test rugby and surely that will hurt England's players not playing at this level?
STUART REPLIES: Stuart Lancaster will be hugely concerned about the non participation of the English clubs this. You won't hear Mark McCafferty say so but the PRL seems ready to damage England's campaign build up in the battle for control of the gam