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5 talking points from a frenetic weekend of Heineken Cup action

Ulster are the only team in the competition with an unbeaten record while Munster’s late magic stunned Perpignan.

Dave Kilcoyne, JJ Hanrahan and Keith Earls soak up the applause in France.
Dave Kilcoyne, JJ Hanrahan and Keith Earls soak up the applause in France.
Image: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Will the real Leinster please stand up?

The breathtaking Leinster performance at Franklin’s Gardens took place on 7 December but already feels a life-time ago after last night’s flat offering at Lansdowne Road. For the second season running, Northampton lost heavily at home only to bounce back in stirring fashion.

The spark was missing from Leinster’s backline while Ken Pisi, George North and Jamie Elliot all made telling incisions. Leinster’s setpieces went well and they turned over as much ball as the English side but penalties and infringements cost them dearly. Matt O’Connor’s side are well placed to advance to the knock-out stages but missed a huge opportunity to seal top spot in Pool 1.

Connacht need to bring Heineken Cup fight into the Pro12

The flu virus that cost Pat Lam at least three frontline players and forced him to field another five players that were under the weather was most unfortunate. Connacht captain Craig Clarke admitted, post-match, that Toulouse were in such good form that a fully fit home side would have struggled to keep up.

imageRobbie Henshaw and Eoin Griffin dejected after the game. INPHO/James Crombie

The team have a day off on Monday can look back on a memorable week in which they shocked the four-time Heineken Cup champions and bravely clung on for 37 minutes before the floodgates opened. Team captain Craig Clarke spoke of bottling the performance away to Toulouse and uncorking it in the league. Next weekend’s visit of Newport Gwent Dragons is now the most important game Connacht will play all year.

Ulster won’t panic

There’s nothing easy about playing under a blanker of fog, but Mark Anscombe’s side managed to stay the course and trust their instincts when other senses became less useful.

Ulster learned the lessons of defeat to Northampton last season and vowed to play cup rugby from here on in. It worked a treat. This was a textbook display of how to win a game first and then, in the final quarter, worry about a bonus point.

Jared Payne’s 77th minute score brought the northern province their 10th point in a week and that leaves them sitting pretty as the top-seeded team in Europe before the final two rounds.

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The Munster faces change, but the spirit does not

‘Stand up and fight lads until you hear the bell’‘, it’s one thing to sing it, quite another to live it.

Munster looked dead and buried in Perpignan. Even after winning a turnover scrum, the ball was shoveled backwards and the red jerseys looked to be scrambling. The whole south of this island longed for O’Gara, but it was the man they see as his successor – albeit a completely different kind of player – who came up with the goods in a fraction of the phases ROG needed.

Rob Penney credited the “high numbers” for the winning move. Denis Hurley (who won redemption for a defensive error on the Tomasso Benvenuti try), Tommy O’Donnell and then; the man, the Currow legend… J….J… Hanrahan*.

image

*It feels like a name that should be said with slow reverence.

Clermont and Toulon remain the top contenders

Scarlets poked the bear against Clermont as they bounced back from an early Naipolioni Nalaga try to lead 13-10 at the break. The beaten finalists from last season recovered their senses at the break to score three unanswered tries and leave the Welsh fans in stunned silence.

Exeter put up a similar fight against the reigning champions, Toulon, but were eventually brushed aside as Xavier Chiocci and substitute Jonny Wilkinson crashed over for tries. Both French sides have lost a game in the pool stages but will certainly be in the mix during the knock-out stages.

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‘It was just beautiful to watch’ – Rob Penney on Munster’s latest heroics

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