LEINSTER’S most recent Heineken Cup wins were in spite of momentum sapped by a draining and unsuccessful spring campaigns, rather than through any confidence gained at Carton House.
In 2008, when Irish rugby was at its lowest ebb following a calamitous World Cup campaign, Munster rallied magnificently, winning the Heineken Cup and improbably restoring Ronan O’Gara to his best form. When Team Ireland hit the buffers, the provinces can be relied upon to save the day.
It seems a tough ask for them to do so this season. Munster look just about the biggest possible outsiders in a Heineken Cup knockout match since… well, since Cardiff travelled to Lansdowne Road last season, but it’s still a long shot. Having been fed a 50-burger by Edinburgh, it looks worryingly as if their season is on the verge of collapse.
The Pro12 playoffs are now out of sight, so everything for them hinges on Sunday’s game at the Stoop. Munster have struggled to get to grips with Penney’s straight-outta-Canterbury gameplan all season, but suddenly their defence looks the most concerning aspect of their play. In Glasgow, some of their “tackling” was lamentable, with the Warriors able to break the line with worrying ease.
It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Harlequins deliver a repeat of the dose. Munster will look to Paul O’Connell to inspire them to what seem like scarcely imaginable heights after Saturday night, but it’s too big a job for one man, especially when he’s just back from injury, even for one as great as Paul O’Connell.
The magnificent second-row can no longer rely on Ronan O’Gara to pilot his pack around the pitch. The veteran fly-half’s kicking game has all but collapsed over the past few months and Penney would be better off jettisoning the auld fella and taking his chances on Ian Keatley. Neither seems a convincing option, but you may as well go down swinging.
This all more or less leaves Ireland’s continuing interest in Europe hinging on Ulster. Last week, you wouldn’t have given them too much of a chance, as their team looked to be creaking badly, but their win in the RDS was hugely significant, not least in breaking a long-standing hoodoo which the boys in blue appear to have over them. Having muddled their way through the previous few rounds of the Pro12, they looked to find real purpose again, and secured what appeared an unlikely victory, but one they fully deserved.
The win should restore confidence. Few teams get much from Leinster’s home ground and all too often in the recent past — even during Ulster’s recent resurgence, it has appeared that they just didn’t have the belief to win against their rival. To do so will give them something very tangible on which to build a plan to win in Twickenham.
There was much to be encouraged about, not least the manner in which they worked Craig Gilroy into the game for frequent gains in yardage. Gilroy came off his wing repeatedly and was given high-quality ball off first phase with which to demonstrate his talent. After a difficult Six Nations, in which Ireland scarcely gave him anything to work with, he looked rejuvenated.
On his opposite wing, Andrew Trimble appears as hungry as he ever has, and has a point to prove.
Nick Williams has become surprisingly important as the season has gone on and it was his wrecking ball carries that got Ulster on the front foot on Saturday night. He’s about as subtle as a bludgeon, but hard to stop. Everyone knows what he’s going to do, but that doesn’t make him any easier to tackle.
Key to the whole thing looks to be the return to fitness of Chris Henry and Johann Muller. Without Muller, Ulster seem to lose direction and focus, especially in the lineout, while Chris Henry has been a contender for player of the tournament so far, and they just have nobody else with his canny awkwardness around the breakdown.
While Peter O’Mahony loves getting wound up, Chris Henry spends his time winding the opposition up with his borderline-legal nuisance value around the ruck area. He’s come to embody the spirit of this Ulster team.
Saracens are the sort of mob Irish fans find easy to loathe, with their cheap-and-nasty tannoy exploits and wilful determination to become a “global brand”, in spite of offering nothing whatsoever on the playing field that would be even remotely attractive to passing fans.
However, they’ll be a tough nut to crack. They run a smooth lineout, have a decent backrow, but their back play is woefully pedestrian, and doesn’t appear to be getting the best out of what are some pretty handy resources. Nonetheless they’ll be starting favourites, with home advantage in their favour, albeit slightly neutered by their choice of venue.
Sadly, the prospect of Ireland being unrepresented in the semi-finals is very real indeed. Were it to come to pass it would cap a miserable season for Irish rugby. The only upside might be that the IRFU might come to realise that there is no fixed quotient of good performances, a veritable “pie” that must be offered to the national team first, giving them the biggest slice, before being passed down to the provinces.
Ulster overachieved last season in getting to the final, but this year they have real designs on taking home the Cup, and look to have the belief to do it, as well as enormous desire to mark the season in honour of their passed comrade Nevin Spence. The time for great deeds has arrived.