From embarrassment to ecstasy
December 16, 2013
The Saints enjoyed celebrating their win over Leinster in Dublin on Saturday evening © PA
There were some thrilling matches in the Heineken Cup this weekend, some dire games and a couple of last-gasp triumphs. Monday Maul looks back at the talking points.
Oh when the Saints...
It was a 42-point turnaround for Jim Mallinder's men. Last week they were an embarrassment, seven days on and they got it tactically spot on to defeat Leinster in Dublin. Mallinder and his coaching staff went 'all-in'; they gambled and got it right. The decision to repeatedly kick for the corner rather than taking the points, on the face of it, seemed a bold and potentially naive tactical choice. But it threw Leinster off their game.
The Heineken Cup giants aren't used to seeing a team attack them, let alone attempt to shake their foundations. But the Saints managed to do it. A Heineken Cup is probably one step too far for this set of Saints players, they are still getting used to fresh faces and coping with injuries, but there is plenty to feel positive about. The back-row outplayed Leinster, who missed Sean O'Brien, while the unfamiliar centre partnership of George North and Luther Burrell gave Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy plenty to think about.
The teams who never know when they're beaten
What is it about Munster and the Heineken Cup? Two seasons ago, they won two matches with the last kick of the game against Northampton and then Castres, but that was when Ronan O'Gara still ran out for the men from Ireland. But despite a fair number of their Heineken Cup-winning heroes embarking on careers away from the field, there is still that love affair with the competition.
Last week Munster brushed aside Perpignan but a week on, they were in danger of losing the return match in the Stade Aime Giral. But of course, with Munster, more than others, a game is never over until the referee blows that long extended blast on the whistle. JJ Hanrahan clearly had this in mind as he sidestepped his way to the Perpignan try line to snatch the game for Munster.
And then on Sunday, the Tigers were facing a defeat in France against Montpellier. But then up stepped Marcos Ayerza with great hands to put Niki Goneva over. He narrowed the angle by sprinting nearer to the posts to allow Ryan Lamb to kick the winning conversion. Rugby can be a cruel but exhilarating sport.
Another weekend and another set of games where the Italians' shortcomings were brutally exposed. Saracens put 64 points on Zebre, Bath scored 63 against Mogliano, Bayonne hit Viadana for 80 while Newcastle and Ulster both travelled to Italy and came back with victories. The Top 14 and Premiership teams made light work of the games and they are increasingly becoming an opposed training exercise rather than a test.
The return of Chris Ashton?
Mark McCall doesn't give out praise easily, it takes a lot to impress him. But Ashton had a field day against Zebre, who admittedly put up a feeble resistance to Saracens. He could have scored four, according to McCall, and eventually got the score he deserved in the closing stages of the match.
"I thought he [Chris Ashton] did well in the autumn and he enjoys coming back to the club. We know how good he is," said McCall. "He has always been good for us and he was good again today. I think he gets scrutinised more than other players and people look for small incidents rather than looking at his strengths.
"He gets a different kind of scrutiny than everyone else which is unfair. He was superb today, he was superb last week and he's been good for a period of time and people look to criticise him for small mistakes.
English players need Heineken Cup intensity
There has been plenty of talk this week about whether English players will suffer for lack of European rugby. There is no doubt over this, they will. Northampton's match against Leinster was played with a Test-match intensity while others had a chance to play against top-quality opposition. There is still no substitute for the Heineken Cup in domestic northern hemisphere rugby, as Tom May highlighted on Friday for ESPNscrum.
Racing Metro are a shadow of the team they should be. They have quality from one through to 15 but have been terrible in both of their games against Harlequins. This is not meant to take anything away from Quins, they have played well, but Metro had no cohesion on Sunday and put in an error-ridden performance - all this from a team that included Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, Jonathan Sexton alongside internationals from Argentina and France. It's simply not good enough and Quins should have won by more.
"We were the better team, with emphasis on team, and that's what made the big difference," Conor O'Shea said afterwards. "Racing had four Lions who started the third Test against Australia out there. Money can help, but it takes time."
Cipriani the dominant England fly-half
The form English No.10 at the moment? Danny Cipriani. He is playing superbly for Sale and if he continues in this vein of form then it will be difficult for Lancaster to ignore his claims come the Six Nations. Against Oyonnax he scored twice and finished with a haul of 28 points, a performance that impressed Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan.
"Can he [Cipriani] get back into the England side? He certainly has the ability to do so," McGeechan wrote in his column for the Sunday Telegraph. "At 26, he is still not too old. If he has got that real desire to do things for the right reasons, I certainly wouldn't discount his being back in the England picture."
Clermont flying under the radar
A four-try win at Parc Y Scarlets is not to be sniffed at. Slowly but surely Clermont are finding some momentum on the European stage after an opening round defeat to Racing Metro. Unlike their Parisian rivals, their array of stars are playing as a collective unit and seem to have a touch of luck on their side.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.