Provinces need internationals to excel in crucial Champions Cup weekend

AFTER THE HIGHS of November, last weekend’s Champions Cup action was a rude elbow to the ribs for two of Ireland’s provincial sides.

Ulster drove to the bonus-point win that keeps their slim hopes of progress into the knock-out stages alive, but Leinster and, particularly, Munster left themselves in troublesome situations with defeat.

Curiously, it was several of the same players that helped Joe Schmidt’s Ireland to three wins from three last month who struggled in that pair of losses.

Peter O’Mahony was subdued by his own standards for Munster in Thomond Park, repeatedly being hammered behind the gainline as Clermont targeted the southern province’s captain with their aggressive linespeed.

In the second row, Paul O’Connell would have been frustrated by the French side’s ability to disrupt his line-out, while the 35-year-old also had some issues in dealing with referee Wayne Barnes.

Conor Murray had a handful of uncharacteristically inaccurate kicks, while Dave Foley’s involvements were limited compared to the norm. That said, Tommy O’Donnell and Felix Jones were two of the top performers, although their Ireland involvements in November were perhaps more frustrating that others’.

Mike Ross had a demanding outing against Joe Marler in London. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

For Leinster, Eoin Reddan was loose in his normally superb skillset, while Mike Ross had a difficult time at the shoulders of Joe Marler and Dave Ward, even if the Harlequins front row’s scrummaging angles were highly questionable.

Rob Kearney at fullback failed to smoothly link up with the rest of his backline, including a quiet Gordon D’Arcy. Number eight and captain Jamie Heaslip had as high a workload as ever, but didn’t quite win the gainline as often as he would have targeted.

That these high-profile players were noticeable for their relative lack of impact speaks volumes for their general importance to Leinster and Munster. Many of the aforementioned figures were superb during the wins in rounds one and two of the European competition.

The impression post-November had been that Ireland’s top internationals would carry some of the momentum of Schmidt’s success back into their provincial set-ups, particularly with many having benefited from a weekend’s recovery before reintegrating.

Is that the best way to re-involve these players in the future? Might a disjointed Leinster have prospered if their internationals had been involved versus the Ospreys, building and rebuilding important combinations before a vital Pool 2 tie?

Whatever about potential lessons after a disappointing weekend for some of Ireland’s best players, swift redemption is on offer over the coming days. Leinster host ‘Quins at Lansdowne Road on Saturday [KO 19.45], while Munster face the unenviable task of beating Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin on Sunday [KO 15.15].

Murray put in some uncharacteristicly poor kicks at Thomond Park. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Ulster, meanwhile, travel to Wales in search of another bonus-point win over the Scarlets [Sunday, KO 17.15]. The northern province will be heavily reliant on Ireland internationals such as Tommy Bowe and Darren Cave, who both shone last weekend.

For Munster, it’s make-or-break, and what a time it would be for O’Connell to deliver one of the inspiring second-row performances he is so capable of. Captain O’Mahony’s breakdown excellence will be needed against a Clermont side who are likely to kick the ball less than the 29 times they did at Thomond Park.

Matt O’Connor’s Leinster side showed an increased ambition with ball in hand in London on Sunday, but lacked the ruthlessness to exploit favourable attacking situations. How the Australian head coach will hope that Heaslip, Reddan, Ian Madigan and Kearney click.

If that happens the tries may start to flow again.

November is only a memory at this stage; Ireland’s internationals need to forget about Joe’s world. Anything other than wins for Ulster, Munster and Leinster this weekend, and all three Irish provinces could find their European seasons ultimately over.

Their international leaders need to spearhead the charge.

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