French Power Destroys Irish Teams

3 05 2010

The Heineken Cup, which for the last 5 years has been almost exclusively the preserve of Irish provincial teams, has this year returned to France with an emphatic display of French forward power. On Saturday Leinster went down 26-16 to Toulouse and last night those Heineken Cup ever presents, Munster, lost 18-7 to Biarritz.

The Heineken Cup, along with the Six Nations, is a great barometer for where the power lies in northern hemisphere rugby. Throughout the Six Nations, the French team appeared to be playing rugby on a different level altogether to the other nations, and this trend has continued into Europe’s premier rugby competition.

In the lead up to the semi final games, despite them both being played in France, there was a temptation to back the potentiality of an all Irish final. The Irish sides after all have an amazing record in this competition, Munster in particular reaching the latter knock out stages every year for the past 12 years, and Leinster being the reigning champions. Unfortunately for both Irish sides, the problems that had first surfaced for the national team during the 6 Nations competition earlier this year, were highlighted here.

Essentially the Irish are struggling up front. For so long both sides, and Munster in particular, prided themselves on the strength of their respective packs and their ability to maul any opponents up front. Instead in both games it was the French who did the mauling. First to the break down and so dominant in the scrums it was embarrassing, both Toulouse and Biarritz broke Irish hearts. For Leinster, Cian Healy was destroyed upfront, Leo Cullen out jumped at the line out, and the back row out scrapped on the floor. Heaslip was the only honourable exception to this and ran hard all game.

For Munster, missing O’Connell proved key as the line out was lost time and again, and John Hayes showed how desperately lacking he is at the top levels of rugby. In the less rarefied atmosphere of Magners League games, he is probably able to hide his failings, however his performances for Ireland and now Munster show that time is up for this old warrior.

Behind the scrum Toulouse showed glimpses of the magic they demonstrated in their quarter final game. Their back line is filled with so many star names that it would be no surprise if Lievremont picked them en masse for France. Tellingly Leinster’s equally star studded array could not cut them open and O’Driscoll in particular looked flat playing almost like a flanker on occasions.

Munster’s kicking game failed to work despite an increasing array of bad kicks from Biarritz’s full back, Iain Balshaw. O’Gara, never the most imposing of fly halves, failed to take the game by the scruff of its neck, although it is true that with the Munster pack going backwards it would have taken something special for him to pull it off.

Looking to the final, the Compulsive Hooker cannot help but lean towards Toulouse as they look to have the complete package. After all, any side with Balshaw at 15 is doing extremely well to get to the final of the Heineken Cup!

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