As this year’s Pool stages draws to a close, there was much to play for in another absorbing round of European fixtures….
Masterful Munster deliver devastating statement of intent
Given their history and pedigree in this competition, many people will have been foolish to write off Munster’s chances of European success this season. By the time Peter O’Mahony and co arrived at Kingsholm for another tough-looking assignment however, just four points separated Munster at the top from Gloucester at the bottom of Pool 2. In front of the ever-passionate and raucous Shed faithful, many expected a real battle however the Munster-men had other ideas and delivered one of the most complete performances of any side in this year’s competition.
With the visitor’s front-row piling into their opposite numbers in the scrum, and second-rows Kleyn and Beirne disrupting Gloucester line-out ball, the hosts had little chance to get any meaningful front-foot ball. Out amongst the backs, the tactical kicking of scrum-half Conor Murray was causing problems for the Gloucester back-three and it wasn’t long before the prodigiously talented Joey Carbery made the most of Munster’s first-half domination by scoring the opening try of the match and was quickly followed by a score on half-time from centre Rory Scannell which coupled with a brace of penalties from Carbery gave the visitors a very healthy 20-3 lead at the break.
The second-half may have resumed with the hosts responding with a try of their own but the match was quickly taken away from them with three tries in the space of twelve minutes from Munster, the first coming from wing Keith Earls, the second seeing Carbery set up winger Andrew Conway to score with a deliciously-executed grubber kick before the Irish fly-half intercepted a Gloucester pass and ran from his own half to score his second of the night and seal a convincing 41-15 bonus-point win.
With a 26-point haul to his name there could be no doubt that Munster’s No.10 was the star of the show, but across the board there were huge contributions from each Munster player with the pack working relentlessly hard to provide the platform from where the Munster backs showcased their skills in what was a highly efficient display from the Irish side. They may not be as highly-fancied as the likes of Saracens and Leinster, but should Munster get the job done next week and secure qualification they will be a formidable threat in the knock-out stages.
Sarries juggernaut rolls on as Goode delivers another nudge to England’s Eddie
Former European champions Saracens became the first side to qualify for this season’s knock-out stages as they secured a deserved 28-10 bonus-point win over in Lyon at the weekend. After Racing’s defeat in Ulster this weekend, Mark McCall’s men are the only side left in the competition with a 100% record after five matches and are highly likely to be the top seed for this year’s knockout stages.
A thoroughly-professional job by the Saracens players saw them through in France as they delivered another reminder of why they remain many people’s favourites for this season’s title. With two sides (Cardiff Blues & Lyon) in their pool with little recent experience of top-level European rugby, the English side have faced a somewhat smoother passage through than other contenders like Leinster and Racing but they have still maintained their high standards and in overcoming a dangerous-looking Glasgow side at Scotstoun in round one have shown they are capable of defeating top sides on the road.
Much like the rest of their season so far, full-back Alex Goode was one of the stars of the show in Lyon helping set up Ben Spencer’s try with a wonderful jinking run through the defence before he laid the ball on a plate for his scrum-half to run in for the score. England coach Eddie Jones’ refusal to select Goode in his England squads in recent times has left many fans and pundits alike dumbfounded, especially when the 21-times capped full-back is in the form of his life. At the age of thirty and with Jones having paid little attention to him in his time in charge, some might say Goode’s ship has sailed by when it comes to representing his country but with England having some problems finding a suitable option in the 15 jersey they could do a lot worse than giving Goode another crack in the upcoming Six Nations.
Entertaining Edinburgh in pole position after humbling of former champs
At the start of the campaign not many would have had Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh down as quarter-finalists but with one round of fixtures to go the Scottish side lead the way in a Pool containing former champions Toulon and big-spenders Montpellier. Ever since coming agonisingly close to upsetting Montpellier in their own back-yard in round one, Edinburgh have been one of the teams of the tournament having responded to that narrow defeat in France by winning four on the bounce.
That most recent win will surely go down as one of the greatest in their recent history as they shook the Stade Felix-Mayol to its core with a wonderful display of attacking inventive rugby that was just too much for Toulon to handle. Young Scottish stars Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham impressed throughout the match and were duly rewarded for their performances with tries, but it was big Fijian No.8 Bill Mata who was the star of the show with his second-half break and exquisite offload (seriously if you haven’t seen it get on YouTube fast!) setting up James Johnstone for the match-winning score.
There is still some work to do with a rematch with Montpellier at Murrayfield in round six set to decide who finishes top of the pool and secures that all-important home quarter-final, but Cockerill’s side have already achieved great things in this season’s competition and many neutrals will be excited to see if they can maintain this swashbuckling form and go even further in Europe.
By Jon Davies