Those wonderful men from Galway
December 9, 2013
Connacht celebrate their hugely deserved win over Toulouse © Getty Images
The Heineken Cup proved once again just why it is the best domestic rugby competition in the world at the weekend and Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points.
The Irish teams rise for a big occasion
On Saturday, European rugby witnessed something truly special at Franklin's Gardens. Leinster had less possession and territory than the Saints but were ruthless. Luke Fitzgerald scored a hat-trick showing the same sort of form when Leinster ran rampant against Bath in December 2011 while Brian O'Driscoll and Sean Cronin were also superb. Later in the day, Ulster made light work of Treviso as they ran in seven tries.
Come Sunday, Munster put five tries on French opponents Perpignan. On the face of it, it was an impressive feat but you feel there is more to come from the men in red. Keith Earls post-match said there was "another 30% in us", a worrying statement for the rest of Europe.
And then came Connacht. In what is the biggest result in their history, they turned over the four-times Heineken Cup champions Toulouse in France 16-14. For a team who have experienced little joy in Europe's top tournament, it will be a landmark achievement for the men from Galway.
Return of the king
Brian O'Driscoll, not needed by the British & Irish Lions, but still a fantastic rugby player. He had Saturday's game at Franklin's Gardens on a string. He was the Jim Henson of the East Midlands. Not only did he tee up Fitzgerald's first two scores, he also grabbed one in the second-half with his seeming dumbfounded reaction, sat amazed on the turf, likely to be one of the images of the season. In what will be his last season, O'Driscoll, although the bumps and bruises may hurt a little more than they used to, is still one of the game's greats in current ability and not just reputation.
Victory for the heart over the wallet
Harlequins; they started the season slowly and lost their two opening Heineken Cup matches but were brilliant in Nantes against Racing Metro. At the centre of everything they did well was Nick Easter. He is flourishing in his new spot further into the scrum in the second-row and thoroughly deserved his try. Nick Evans was also brilliant but what is perhaps most impressive about Quins was the fact they had 21 English players in the squad - good news for Stuart Lancaster.
It was a victory for the heart over the wallet as despite Racing Metro's array of stars brought together from every corner in the world, they lacked a spine against Harlequins. When faced with a 17-3 deficit at half-time, you felt there was no way back for the Parisian side.
No fear for England on the flanks
Someone's misfortune is another's opportunity. With Ben Foden, Marland Yarde and Christian Wade all crocked, Stuart Lancaster may draft in some fresh faces when he confirms his squad for the Six Nations. While Chris Ashton performed well against Zebre, it was the performances of three others who may have caught the England coach's eye.
Miles Benjamin endured a miserable start to his Tigers career as he missed the whole of last season through injury. But against Montpellier, his two tries were world class. The first effort came as he jumped through tackles to score and the second showed his electric pace. And then there's Jonny May. Fiercely talented, May helped tee up Martyn Thomas' second score thanks to a 50-metre run. Exeter's Jack Nowell also put in a mature performance against Toulon and gave his team essential go-forward. It's not all doom and gloom for England.
It was a dismal weekend to be a fan of Italian rugby. On Saturday, Zebre fell to Saracens, Bath pummelled Mogliano and Ulster hammered Treviso. Yes, Cavalieri Prato won, but had they lost to Lusitanos XV then it would have been a huge shock. And then on Sunday the Newcastle Falcons completed the clean sweep of woe as they beat Calvisano at Kingston Park. At the beginning of the season Franco Smith told ESPN it was time for the Italians to do more on the European stage than securing the odd shock win here and there. It seems such a wish is still a fair old way from becoming a reality.
The struggling Amlin Challenge Cup
Has Europe's second-tier competition ever had such a low profile? While the continent's best teams were bashing lumps out of each other, all in glorious HD, the Amlin Challenge Cup is crawling on in the shadow of the Heineken Cup. But have you heard much about it? Not really. It gets little television and media coverage and until the superfluous Heineken Cup sides enter the knockout stages to inject some real competition, it seems little more than an annoyance to the larger sides in the tournament.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.