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Dublin: 9°C Monday 10 May 2021

English clubs dominant in Champions Cup as Ulster and Leinster left in trouble

It was a superb weekend for the Premiership sides in Europe.

WITH 10 WINS in their 11 Champions Cup games so far, the English clubs will approach Monday morning with a skip in their step.

It’s back to domestic matters for everyone over the next fortnight, but the likes of Wasps, Saracens, Northampton and Bath will look towards to the resumption of the European competition in mid-December with some excitement.

Alex Goode scores a try Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Reading too much into the results on the opening weekends is a risky business, but the fact that the aforementioned sides have also delivered superb performances to go along with their wins is ominous.

Ulster and Leinster, meanwhile, return to Pro12 duties with a cloud of pessimism hanging over them. Both provinces’ Champions Cup campaigns are in real trouble already, with Leo Cullen’s men in a particularly dire situation.

Les Kiss’ tenure with the northern province is only beginning but the manner in which they were totally outclassed by Saracens in Belfast on Friday night was an indicator of the task he has ahead of him as director of rugby.

Mark McCall – himself a former Ulster boss – oversaw a superb victory in difficult conditions, one that produced a bonus point. The major concern for Ulster was that they showed mental softness when opportunities presented themselves.

Twice the English side had men in the sin bin, but Ulster’s points return in those 20 minutes was zero. Never did home advantage seem to lift the Ulstermen, whose defence was disjointed and lost concentration at crucial points.

Saracens, in contrast, were ruthless and played with verve and power to underline their credentials as possible winners of this competition, something Bath perhaps didn’t totally manage to do against Leinster. Nonetheless, Mike Ford’s men opened their European account with victory after a late show of resilience.

Leinster improved on the display that saw them humbled by Wasps a week earlier, but they had a similar lack of edge to Ulster, their single try coming only after Cullen made a raft of substitutions to add energy.

Matt Banahan takes a high ball Bath fired over a late penalty to beat Leinster. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Bath’s clever rugby league-esque attack was by far the more dangerous, though it was their set-piece that was the winning of the game as Leinster’s pack crumbled under the pressure.

Pressurised European games are exactly that, but Leinster and Ulster both played with a total lack of joy. While Saracens, Northampton and especially Wasps genuinely appear to be enjoying every opportunity they get to handle the ball and test the opposition, the Irish provinces have been utterly lethargic.

Dai Young’s Wasps have been the best team in the opening two rounds, racking up notable scorelines against both Leinster and Toulon, the latter of which brought them a bonus point that was richly deserved.

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Their lively brand of counter-attacking, aggressive carrying and ambitious offloading rugby will win them many new fans, while their summer recruitment was superb. Adding Frank Halai, George Smith and Charles Piutau – for one season at least – was a masterstroke by the club.

The Ospreys were just about the only side to do the Pro12 proud in this Champions Cup weekend, the Welsh players clearly thrilled to take two points from their defeat in Clermont.

Still, that victory for the Top 14 side means that not a single Pro12 team won across the three days of Champions Cup action, something that those in Ireland, Scotland and Wales must hope does not turn into a trend.

Champions Glasgow’s failure to take anything from their defeat at home to a formidable Northampton was particularly worrying, and leaves Gregor Townsend’s in a similar position to Ulster and Leinster – an opening defeat on home soil means they are playing catch up now.

George Smith tackled by Jonathan Pelissie Wasps were superb against Toulon in Coventry. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All is not lost for the Irish provinces and their fellow Pro12 rivals of course, with four rounds (five for some) still to come, but the dominant displays of the big English sides means optimism is difficult to generate right now.

Toulon, despite their awful performance against Wasps, will recover and deliver far more when Leinster visit Stade Mayol on 13 December, particularly with Matt Giteau back and Ma’a Nonu possibly making his European debut.

Clermont will similarly grow in strength as the season progresses, and they showed their attacking wares with four tries against the Ospreys. Both French outfits will feature in the latter stages of the competition.

In the Challenge Cup, Connacht kept their strong run of form going with a 21-17 victory at home to Brive, although only those at the Sportsground had the pleasure of watching the non-televised game.

The injury toll was high for Pat Lam’s men, but they continue to provide a feel-good factor for Irish rugby. A pair of inter-provincial derbies await next weekend, meaning thoughts of Europe fade quickly.

When we return to Europe, there is major work ahead for the Irish provinces, but they may well be fighting a lost cause.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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