Monthly Archives: December 2011

Leinster Lay Down Heineken Cup Marker

Match Report – Heineken Cup Round 4

Leinster 52-27 Bath

17th December @ Aviva Stadium

Leinster were far too strong for Bath at the Aviva. Photo via M+MD.

Leinster blew Bath away with a scintillating 60 minute performance in front of a 46,365 crowd at the Aviva. This performance clearly marks Leinster out as one of the favourites for the tournament. While the last 20 minutes of the game saw Leinster thoughts turn to their Christmas party, the display up until that point was as complete as it possibly could have been. Dominant set-piece, crisp handling, exhilarating pace and aggressive defence were all part of the package. With so many of the Leinster players in top form, Bath never had a hope.

The match was over as a contest within 30 minutes, as Leinster blitzed Bath early on. Rob Kearney gave the home side the lead after just 3 minutes. Jonathan Sexton’s penalty effort came off the post and Devin Toner was quickest to react, using his height to claim the bouncing ball. Leinster recycled and Eoin Reddan’s clever flick pass caught Bath unaware and allowed Kearney to dive over. Sexton added the conversion for a promising start.

Ex-England centre Olly Barkley got Bath back into the game with two penalties, but in between Sexton came up with a fantastic drop goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over for Leinster. Bath fullback Sam Vesty’s clearance kick was straight down Sexton’s throat and he had more than enough time on the ball to smack home the drop goal from 45 metres out.

Leo Cullen was sent to the sin-bin for a punch but that didn’t effect Leinster in the slightest. Their next try came from an unexpected source. 6′ 10″ second-row Toner dummied and then made a lovely one-handed offload to Kearney, who drew the last defender and put Luke Fitzgerald over for the try. It was a subtle, surprising piece of play from Toner, part of a strong display by the 25-year-old. Sexton was on target with the conversion to give Leinster a 17-6 lead.

Next to cross the tryline was Sexton himself after another passage of sumptuous Leinster play. Sexton used the Leinster trademark loop off Jennings to give McFadden the space to send Fitzgerald speeding down the left-hand touchline. He drew in the covering defender and Sexton was on his inside to take the scoring pass and stride over. Sexton converted his own try as Cullen returned to the pitch. Leinster has scored 14 unanswered points while their captain took a breather.

Sexton scored Leinster's 3rd try as well as kicking 16 points. Photo via M+MD.

Following half-time, Leinster picked up immediately from where they had left off. Directly from the kick-off, they shifted the ball from right to left, through the hands. A beautiful skip pass from McFadden allowed Kearney to use his footwork, fix the outside defender and hit Fitzgerald, just outside Leinster’s own 22. Fitzgerald did the rest as he beat two defenders and showed a tremendous burst of pace to go the length of the field. Once again, Sexton knocked over the conversion.

Scrumhalf Reddan got a deserved try ten minutes later as he sniped over from close range following strong carries from Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy. Sexton added the extras. Any hope of a Bath revival was extinguished as first Vesty and then Chris Billar were yellow-carded. Replacement back-row Rhys Ruddock got Leinster’s 6th try when he went through a weak tackle after Kearney had made the initial break. Sexton was on target with his conversion.

With a whole raft of changes to the Leinster team, their focus started to slip in the last quarter as Bath tried to restore some pride. All Blacks World Cup winner Stephen Donald went through Eoin O’Malley’s tackle to get Bath’s first score of the second half. Barkley nailed the conversion from out to the right. Bath second-row Dave Attwood crossed next for Bath, with Barkley again successful with the conversion.

Leinster briefly awoke as O’Malley cleverly took a quick lineout in the Bath 22, and Jamie Heaslip surged up the middle. Isaac Boss then hit fellow replacement Ian Madigan, who stepped inside a tackle to dot down. Isa Nacewa took over the kicking duties and duly slotted the easy conversion. The game ended with another try for Bath as they won the restart and eventually substitute Ben Williams went through some uninterested tackles to touch down. Barkley knocked over the conversion with the last act of the game.

The true measure of this Leinster side lies in the fact that they will be frustrated with their performance in the last quarter of this clash. If they can consistently match the levels they hit in the first 60 minutes at the Aviva then most teams will find it extremely difficult to stay with them. Leinster now have a comfortable 6 point lead at the top of Pool 3. If they maintain this form, you would have to fancy them to wrap things up when they travel to Glasgow on the second weekend of January.

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, E O’Malley, F McFadden (G D’Arcy, 53), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan, 59), E Reddan; H Van Der Merwe (C Healy, H-T), R Strauss (S Cronin, 53), M Ross (N White, 65), L Cullen (capt, K McLaughlin, 59), D Toner, S O’Brien (R Ruddock, 53), J Heaslip, S Jennings (I Boss, 78).

Bath: S Vesty; J Cuthbert (B Williams, 56), M Banahan, O Barkley, N Abendanon; S Donald (T Heathcote, 68), M Claassens (C Cook, 56); D Flatman, C Biller (R Batty, 67), D Wilson, D Attwood, R Caldwell, F Louw (capt), S Taylor (A Beattie, 53) G Mercer.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)


Photos courtesy:  M+MD

Heineken Cup Round 4 Previews

Aironi vs. Ulster @ Stadio Luigi Zaffanella

Saturday 17th December, 13.30 (Sky Sports 1, red button)

Johann Muller captains Ulster from the second-row again. Photo via Chris Jobling.

Ulster secured five points against Aironi last weekend as they ran in five tries in a 31-10 win. Brian McLaughlin and his side know that they will need to do the same in Italy if they are to fulfill their ambitions of progressing from the pool stage. Clermont travel to Leicester on Saturday in the other fixture from Pool 6. Leicester need to win that one if they want to stay in contention, and whichever way that result goes, Ulster will still be in a strong position to get out of the group, particularly if they secure a bonus point win in Italy.

But McLaughlin will have ensured his players’ focus is on the Aironi tie first and foremost. The Ulster team sees just one change. Tom Court comes back in after Paddy McAllister was given a chance to start last weekend. Nevin Spence has recovered from the rib injury sustained last Friday night in the win over Aironi and keeps his place in the centre alongside Darren Cave. Ruan Pienaar resumes his comeback from injury at scrumhalf.

Aironi have made several changes after their disappointing performance last weekend. Andrea Masi is back in the centre for the Italians and his experience will be a big boost. Ruggero Trevisan comes in at fullback while Giovanbattista Venditti takes the place of Italian international Matteo Pratichetti on the wing.. At flyhalf, Tito Tebaldi is replaced by Luciano Orquera, who was involved in the World Cup with Italy. Up front, the only change is an enforced one. Last weekend’s captain Carlo Del Fava is out but is replaced by another Italian international, Quintin Geldenhuys. Marco Bortolami takes over the captaincy.

This is an Aironi side who have lost 3 from 3 in the Heineken Cup as well as 9 from 10 in the PRO12 this season. Clearly, Ulster are not getting ahead of themselves in targeting the bonus point. Aironi have nothing but pride to play for, although that can be a massive motivation for Italian teams. Leicester failed to secure a bonus point on their trip to Italy in the first round of pool fixtures as they won 28-12. Ulster cannot afford to make the same mistake and the likes of Stephen Ferris and Rory Best will ensure they take the five points.

AIRONI: 15 Ruggero Trevisan, 14 Sinoti Sinoti, 13 Andrea Masi, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina; 5 Marco Bortolami (capt.), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Romano, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Fabio Staibano, 19 George Biagi, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Roberto Quartaroli.

ULSTER: 15 Adam D’Arcy; 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Nevin Spence, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Stefan Terblanche.

Gloucester vs. Connacht @ Kingsholm

Saturday 17th December, 15.40 (Sky Sports 1)

Connacht will need a big effort up front. Photo via Eoin Gardiner.

Connacht narrowly lost 14-10 to Gloucester in the first part of this double-header last Saturday in the Sportsground to record their 9th defeat in a row. It was certainly a missed opportunity to end their losing streak. Failure to win at Kingsholm would consign Eric Elwood’s team to further misery. In a letter to Connacht fans this week, hooker Ethienne Reynecke has admitted that he and his teammates are feeling the pressure of this streak, but are determined to turn things around.

Elwood has made 2 changes to the starting fifteen which lost last weekend. Eoin Griffin and Johnny O’Connor both return form injury to give Connacht a well-needed boost. Kyle Tonetti drops to the bench to accommodate Griffin’s return. Ray Ofisa is out with a knee injury so O’Connor comes in at openside. George Naoupu and David Gannon swap positions this week. On the bench, Dylan Rogers replaces Denis Buckley.

Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath has made five changes to his team. There are two new props in the shape of Dan Murphy and Rupert Harden. There’s also a fresh halfback pairing. Tim Taylor replaces Freddie Burns at outhalf while Nick Runciman is chosen ahead of Rory Lawson at scrumhalf. Mike Tindall has recovered from a groin injury and takes his place alongside Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in a physical-looking midfield.

If Connacht are to turn things around, they simply have to cut out some of the unforced errors they are making. Added composure in threatening attacking positions would go a long way to ensuring a victory in Gloucester. The set-piece will have to be tightened up too. Connacht lost 2 of their 6 scrums and 3 of their 9 lineouts last time out, and these percentages have to be improved upon. Apart from one heavy defeat at the hands of Toulouse, they have not been losing by big margins. Even slight improvements in a some of these areas mean Connacht will start to come out on rights side of these narrow winning margins. Hopefully, it will happen on Saturday at Kingsholm.

GLOUCESTER: 15 Olly Morgan, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, 11 James Simpson-Daniel, 10 Tim Taylor, 9 Nick Runciman, 1 Dan Murphy, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Rupert Harden, 4 Peter Buxton, 5 Jim Hamilton, 6 Brett Deacon, 7 Andy Hazell, 8 Luke Narraway (capt.).                                             Subs: 16 Matias Cortese, 17 Nick Wood, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Will James, 20 Akapusi Qera, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Jonny May.

CONNACHT: 15 Gavin Duffy, 14 Mark McCrea, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Frank Murphy,1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Ethienne Reynecke, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 George Naoupu, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 Dave Gannon, 7 Jonny O’Connor, 8 John Muldoon.
Subs: 16 Adrian Flavin, 17 Dylan Rogers, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Kyle Tonetti.

Leinster vs. Bath @ Aviva Stadium

Saturday 17th December, 18.00 (Sky Sports 1)

D'Arcy is on the bench for Leinster. Photo via M+MD.

Leinster came away from the Rec with a crucial away win last weekend. They sit top of Pool 3, and a win at the Aviva would bring them a step closer to a home quarter-final. Leinster will be keen to make up for what they felt was an incomplete performance on their part last time out. Try-scoring chances weren’t finished off in the 18-13 win, and they will surely be more clinical on Saturday evening.

Joe Schmidt has once again changed his starting fifteen, a luxury he is allowed due to the strength of his squad. Eoin O’Malley comes back into the centre, where he partners Fergus McFadden. That means Gordon D’Arcy has to be content with a place on the bench. Eoin Reddan is in at scrumhalf in place of Isaac Boss. In the pack, Devin Toner comes into the second-row with Damien Browne dropping out of the squad. Shane Jennings gets the nod over Kevin McLaughlin in the back-row. Once again, Cian Healy is confined to the bench where he is joined by Rhys Ruddock and Ian Madigan.

The only change in the Bath team sees Sam Vesty coming in for the injured Dan Hipkiss. That means last weekend’s try-scorer Matt Banahan moves into the centre and Nick Abendanon onto the wing. Vesty lines out at fullback. It will be no surprise to see Bath look to Banahan to make the hard yards in midfield. It will be a big challenge to O’Malley who lines up opposite the massive England  international, but he is well up to the task. All Blacks World Cup saviour Stephen Donald is at outhalf for Bath.

Leinster have sold over 45,000 tickets for this clash and it should be yet another enthralling Heineken Cup tie. Leinster should be buoyed by their win last weekend, and by the fact that they did cut Bath open at times. It’s just a case of finishing those chances. If Leinster do that then they should win this comfortably. If it’s still close with 2o minutes to go, Schmidt has a strong bench with which to change the game. Leinster to win.

LEINSTER: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Isa Nacewa, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Fergus McFadden, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 1 Heinke van der Merwe, 2 Richardt Strauss, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Leo Cullen (capt.), 5 Devin Toner, 6 Sean O’Brien, 7 Shane Jennings, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Kevin McLaughlin, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Gordon D’Arcy.

BATH: 15 Sam Vesty, 14 Jack Cuthbert, 13 Matt Banahan, 12 Olly Barkley, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Michael Claassens, 1 David Flatman, 2 Chris Biller, 3 David Wilson, 4 Dave Attwood, 5 Ryan Caldwell, 6 Francois Louw (capt.), 7 Guy Mercer, 8 Simon Taylor.
Subs: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Andy Beattie, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Tom Heathcote, 23 Ben Williams.

Munster vs. Scarlets @ Thomond Park

Sunday 18th December, 12.45 (Sky Sports 2)

Earls is back at 13 for Munster. Photo via Shane Horan.

Munster secured a vital 17-14 win last weekend in Wales and now look to complete the double over the Scarlets. That win last weekend showed Munster’s experience as well as the progression their pack has made this season. With BJ Botha’s signing, Munster have made their scrum a strength this season. While Munster may not be sparkling in winning, they have a 100% record from their first 3 matches in Pool 1, with two of those wins away from home.

Tony McGahan has been forced into at least one of the changes to the Munster team. Peter O’Mahony picked up a jaw injury against the Scarlets on Saturday, so Denis Leamy gets the start that his form off the bench in recent times probably deserves. Elsewhere, Donncha O’Callaghan will be relieved to finally start in the second-row. Donnacha Ryan drops to the bench. The most welcome change is the return of Keith Earls. Earls comes in at 13 in place of Will Chambers, who drops out of the match-day squad. Stephen Archer and Tommy O’Donnell are included on the bench.

While Earls is back for Munster, the Scarlets are still without their young star George North. Stephen Jones comes in at outhalf, meaning Rhys Priestland moves to fullback. Prop Iestyn  Thomas is ill so he is replaced by Gareth Davies. Lou Reed comes into the second-row in place of Sione Timani. Last weekend’s try-scorer Aaron Shingler is out with a toe injury, so Johnathan Edwards comes into the back-row

Tony McGahan will have ensured Munster do not fall foul of complacency after winning in Wales last week. The Scarlets really have nothing to lose in Limerick and that makes them very dangerous. They will realise that they left a lot of opportunities behind them last weekend and will be highly motivated to get revenge. They are fighting to get back into contention in a group that is far from decided. However, in front of their own fans, the experience of the likes of O’Connell and O’Gara should once again see Munster home.

SCARLETS: 15 Rhys Priestland, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jon Davies, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 1 Rhodri Jones, 2 Matthew Rees (capt.), 3 Rhys Thomas, 4 Lou Reed, 5 Damian Welch, 6 Rob McCusker, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Ben Morgan.                                                         Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Phil John, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Kieran Murphy, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Gareth Maule, 23 Viliame Iongi.

MUNSTER: 15 D Hurley, 14 J Murphy, 13 K Earls, 12 L Mafi, 11 S Zebo, 10 R O’Gara, 9 C Murray, 1 W du Preez, 2 D Varley, 3 BJ Botha, 4 D O’Callaghan, 5 P O’Connell (capt.), 6 D Leamy, 7 N Ronan, 8 J Coughlan.                                            Subs: 16 D Fogarty, 17 M Horan, 18 S Archer, 19 D Ryan, 20 T O’Donnell, 21 T O’Leary, 22 I Keatley, 23 D Barnes.

Photos courtesy:  Eoin Gardiner, Shane Horan, M+MD, Chris Jobling.

Four on Form

Paul O’Connell

O'Connell in action against Leinster last season. Photo via M+MD

The Munster captain was named Man of the Match as he helped his team to a vital win away to the Scarlets. It was another mammoth performance from the two-time Lions second-row. After the disappointment of missing much of last season through injury and suspension, O’Connell has been re-born this season. His energetic displays have belied the fact that the Irish international is now 32. The time O’Connell spent on the sidelines last season has been of benefit to both Munster and Ireland, as O’Connell is now more hungry and in-form than he has ever been.

Against the Scarlets, O’Connell’s performance was all-encompassing. He made 15 carries, the most of any player on the pitch. The closest to him was James Coughlan with 11. O’Connell constantly offered himself up to take the ball on, multiple times during certain passages of play. He was immaculate in the lineout, winning the 3 balls sent his way by Varley. O’Connell made five tackles from five attempts. This relatively low number can be explained by the fact that Munster retained possession for long periods of play, often through O’Connell’s carries.

O’Connell started this season with a brilliant World Cup for Ireland, resulting in being named as part of the tournament’s Dream Team. He has brought that form back from New Zealand and has been outstanding for Munster every time he has set foot on the pitch. Munster without O’Connell are a completely different proposition. If they can keep himself and O’Gara fit and firing for the remainder if the season then it will go a long way to ensuring they can compete at the top of the European game. Meanwhile, with Brian O’Driscoll ruled out of the Six Nations, Declan Kidney will be thrilled that O’Connell is looking better than ever.

Jonathan Sexton

Sexton's place-kicking has improved since the World Cup. Photo via Ross Wynne

Sexton scored all of Leinster’s points in their 18-13 win over Bath at the Rec on Sunday. Leinster weren’t their usual selves as they butchered at least three good try-scoring opportunities. Instead, they had to rely on the boot of Sexton as the outhalf held his nerve to kick two late penalties. Matt Banahan’s try had put Leinster 13-12 down, but Sexton made no mistake with two penalties in the last 8 minutes to win it for his side. With Ronan O’Gara getting so much credit for his late kicks in Munster’s Heineken Cup wins, Sexton must be applauded too.

At the World Cup, Sexton’s place-kicking was an issue as he missed 7 of 11 attempts from the tee in Ireland’s first two matches. O’Gara took over the duties from there, with Sexton relegated to the bench. However, since returning to Leinster, Sexton has been back to his best from the tee, and this has been just as important to Leinster as O’Gara’s drop goals have been for Munster. It was Sexton who secured a draw for Leinster away to Montpellier with the last kick of the game and a chorus of boos in his ears. And again last weekend, his kicks ensured the victory for Leinster away to Bath.

Sexton and O’Gara’s performances at the weekend highlighted the difference in style between the two outhalves. Sexton received possession on 34 occasions, kicking 5 times and carrying the ball himself 5 times. He passed 24 times, highlighting his qualities as a playmaker. In contrast, of the 32 times O’Gara got the ball, he kicked 12 times and passed 17 times. He carried on 3 occasions. Obviously these stats are effected by Leinster and Munster’s different game plans. Munster play a much tighter game while Leinster look to move the ball around far more often. Still, it is clear that Sexton offers a more expansive attacking game as well as a more robust defensive game. He made all 6 of his tackle attempts, while O’Gara missed 3 of his 7 attempts. It will be intriguing to see if Kidney retains O’Gara for the Six Nations, or finally gives Sexton an undisputed first-choice role at outhalf.

John Muldoon

While Connacht extended their losing streak with a 14-10 loss at home to Gloucester, Muldoon shone for western province. He put in an all-action performance that was not matched by some of his team-mates. Muldoon was full of aggression and hunger as he attempted to drag Connacht back into the game. Sporting a grizzly caveman style beard, his defensive qualities came to the fore as he played a huge role in keeping Gloucester to just one try. While Ray Ofisa wore the number 7 jersey for Connacht, it was Muldoon who performed more of the duties of an openside as he got through a mountain of work.

Muldoon made 13 tackles to finish the match with the highest tackle-count of any player on the pitch. He didn’t miss a single tackle all afternoon. Muldoon was also excellent at the breakdown, as he was involved in several turnovers for Connacht. The Irish international is intelligent in recognising when to actively pursue a turnover, something that the best back-rows in the world are all good at. One of Muldoon’s turnovers, in the last minute of play, allowed Connacht to go downfield in search of a winning score which they could not find. The turnover exemplified the attitude and desire Muldoon brought to the game.

Muldoon was also responsible for one of only two clean line breaks for Connacht. He claimed the restart after Gavin Duffy’s try and burst through the chasing Gloucester pack to put his team immediately back on the front foot. As is their wont, Connacht spoiled the good play with a knock-on.

At 28, Muldoon still has plenty of rugby left in the tank. With such strength in depth at back-row in Ireland presently, it will be very difficult for Muldoon to get a look in. If Connacht can start winning games it would certainly help Muldoon’s cause. All he can do is continue to put in displays like this one and hope his team-mates can match him.

Stephen Ferris

Ferris in action for Ireland. Photo via M+MD

While it might be getting a bit repetitive including Ferris in Four on Form for a third time, he simply cannot be ignored. Four on Form‘s aim is to highlight four Irish players who hit top form in each weekend’s action and there is no Irish player in better form than Ferris at the moment. He was named Man of the Match for the third time in five games as Ulster ran in five tries to beat Aironi 31-10 at Ravenhill  of Friday night.

Ferris was on the scoresheet yet again as he powered through a tackle in the left-hand corner to get Ulster off the mark in this match. Ferris’ power in contact has gone up a level since he missed must of last season through injury. Like O’Connell, Ferris has seemingly benefited from the time out and his hunger and determination are inspiring for Ulster. As well as his obvious strength on the ball, Ferris is a hard worker off it. That showed again as the Ireland blindside made 12 successful tackles in his 66 minutes on the pitch.

At this rate, Ferris is becoming a nightmare for opposition. Given any sort of space, he will almost always go through the first tackle with his combination of strength and pace. It’s hard to see any real weaknesses in Ferris’ game at present. He is even offloading out of tackles, with two good examples against Aironi. His 9 carries throughout the game were offset by 5 passes too. Ferris is showing that he is a complete back-row and both Brian McLaughlin and Declan Kidney will be  praying that he can stay injury-free.

Photos courtesy:  M+MD, Ross Wynne

Heineken Cup Round-Up

Photo via Ben Sutherland

Ulster 31-10 Aironi

Friday 9th December @ Ravenhill

Ulster did exactly what was needed as they ran in five tries to secure five points against Aironi in Pool 4. Stephen Ferris, Adam D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson scored the tries while Ian Humphreys added three conversions in another erratic kicking display. Ferris was Man of the Match again for Ulster. The Ireland flanker is in scintillating form at the moment with three tries in two matches.

Following this win, Ulster sit second in Pool 4. They will need another bonus point win next weekend when they travel to Italy for the return fixture with Aironi. While they did what was required at Ravenhill on Friday night, Ulster are aware that they will need to improve to get the five points at Stadio Luigi Zaffanella. Ulster are still well in contention in this pool and even if they don’t win the group they will be hopeful of going through to the quarter-finals as one of the best runners-up.

Here’s Pool 4 at the half-way stage:

Here’s footage of the Ulster tries, excluding the first from Ferris:

Connacht 10-14 Gloucester

Saturday 10th December @ The Sportsground

Connacht extended their losing streak to 9 games with this home loss to Gloucester in Pool 6. Read the full match report here. This game was certainly there for the taking for Eric Elwood’s side. Once again, errors at crucial times in the game cost Connacht as they came up short. An outstanding, inspirational display from ex-Ireland flanker John Muldoon was not matched by others.

Connacht travel to Gloucester next weekend for the return fixture and the fear now is that this run of losses will extend into double figures. It will take a mighty effort for the province to record what would be their first ever Heineken Cup win. Captain Gavin Duffy is aware of the scale of the challenge but remains hopeful that Connacht can end their losing streak.

Connacht are rock-bottom of Pool 6, and only Aironi have less points in the Heineken Cup after three matches. The potential to win games is there for Connacht. If they can start to take more of the chances they create and cut out just a portion of the errors they are making then a win will come.

Here’s a look at Pool 6 after three matches:

Scarlets 14-17 Munster

Saturday 10th December @ Parc y Scarlets

Munster secured their third win from three in Pool 1 with a hard-earned win away to the Scarlets. You can read the full match report here. This win leaves Munster sitting top of the pool and well-positioned to go on and claim a home quarter-final. The Scarlets come to Thomond Park in the return fixture next weekend.

Munster have home fixtures with the Scarlets and Castres and a visit to Northampton still to negotiate. It’s hard to see Munster losing in Thomond Park, and they are favourites to win the two home matches. The trip to Franklin Gardens will be a tough test, despite the fact that the Saints are now out of reckoning and and will presumably focus on the Aviva Premiership.

After the disappointment of failure to progress from the group stages in last year’s Heineken Cup, Munster look well-placed for a return to their traditional place in the knock-out stages of the tournament. The likes of O’Gara and O’Connell will make sure the squad take nothing for granted but will also be confident of topping the group.

Here’s how Pool 1 looks at the half-way stage:

Bath 13-18 Leinster 

Sunday 11th December @ The Rec

Jonathan Sexton’s accuracy from the tee was enough for Leinster to claim a valuable away win in Pool 3. The Irish province butchered a number of good try-scoring chances, but still came away from The Rec with a victory after Sexton kicked two late penalties to win the game. England international wing Matt Banahan scored the only try of the game for Bath. The home team enjoyed the majority of possession in the first half, but Leinster’s defence was solid.

Following yesterday’s game, Schmidt has urged his team to be more clinical in finishing the opportunities they create. Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien all made clean line breaks for Leinster but the defending champions failed to convert them into tries. Still, a win away from home in the Heineken Cup is a positive outcome, no matter how it is achieved.

Leinster are now top of the pool with two home games to come, as well as a trip to Glasgow. Joe Schmidt’s side should go on and top the group now for a home quarter-final. Glasgow look like Leinster’s biggest rivals for that top spot but the Scottish side still face trips to Montpellier and Bath. Once again, the senior members of Leinster’s squad will ensure complacency does no take root, but the Leinster squad is full of confidence and players in form.

Here’s how Pool 3 shapes up at the half-way point:

Here’s the highlights from the Leinster vs. Bath game:

Pool tables courtesy of ESPN Scrum.

Photo courtesy : Ben Sutherland

Munster’s Experience Sees Off Scarlets

Match Report 

Scarlets 14 – 17 Munster

10th December @ Parc y Scarlets

Zebo recovered from an ankle injury in time to play. He impressed on the ball. Photo via M+MD

Munster know how to win rugby matches. For the third time in three matches in the Heineken Cup, Munster did just enough to come away with a win. They have won those three matches by a combined margin of eight points. That is not to suggest for a second that Munster haven’t earned these three wins. Tony McGahan’s men take their chances when it counts and their superior experience once again told as they limited the Scarlets’ threat at Parc y Scarlets.

The Scarlets signalled that threat within the first 10 minutes of this match. Rhys Priestland was off target with his first penalty effort after only 3 minutes of play. But the Scarlets were still first onto the scoreboard after a poor pass from Will Chambers resulted in a Simon Zebo knock-on. Jonathan Davies hacked the spilled ball ahead and blindside Aaron Shingler gathered to touch down for the Welsh side. Priestland inexcusably hit the post with the conversion.

That meant five kickable points already left behind by the Wales outhalf. He was finally on target minutes later with a penalty just to the left of the posts to put his side into a promising-looking 8-0 lead. Munster came close to a quick response when Ronan O’Gara tried a cheeky cross-field kick to Denis Hurley from a penalty inside the Scarlets’ 22. The Welsh side scrambled and kicked out from their try line. Conor Murray countered and slipped Lifemi Mafi away down the left-hand touchline. BJ Botha and Wian du Preez made yards but then Paul O’Connell went off his feet as he rucked over Ronan and the opportunity was gone.

The Scarlets looked threatening at times as the half wore on. Scrumhalf Gareth Davies sniped cleverly around the fringes to break through the Munster defence at one stage, but Scott Williams knocked-on the recycled ball. Then Wales centre Jonathan Davies looked  to have released Liam Williams outside Simon Zebo but referee Romain Poite called play back for a forward pass.

Munster’s threat came mainly from the intelligent play of O’Gara and the pace of Zebo. O’Gara spotted scrumhalf Davies up in the Scarlets defensive line and put a chip into space for Zebo to gather. Liam Williams did well to stop the Munster winger before O’Gara put a second smart kick over the Scarlets, forcing Priestland to carry over his own try line.

From the subsequent scrum, Botha and the Munster pack put the squeeze on to win a penalty which O’Gara duly knocked over. Munster then came up with a brilliant passage of play to level the score. Hurley and O’Gara decided to counter from a Davies clearance. Hurley made a gorgeous one-handed offload out of the tackle to Johne Murphy, who drew Sean Lamont and sent Niall Ronan racing down the touchline. The ex-Leinster flanker stepped inside the despairing covering tackle of Davies to score in the corner. O’Gara’s conversion was wide to the right.

The game was opening up now and Zebo made a break directly from the restart. Coughlan then rose to claim an O’Gara garryowen inside the Scarlets half. The Scarlets were guilty of obstruction as Munster built a promising attack and O’Gara was on target with the penalty to leave McGahan’s team with an 11-8 lead at half-time.

The Scarlets came out of the blocks strongly in the second-half and appeared to be targeting O’Gara when they had the ball. Three times in quick succession, the Ireland legend was run over by Scarlets ball-carriers. Priestland leveled matters with a penalty from in front of the posts after Varley failed to release the tackled player.

Munster responded well to the Scarlets score again with a penalty of their own. Mafi, replacement Denis Leamy and du Preez all made yards before Scarlets captain Matthew Rees was lucky to escape a yellow for slowing the ball down. O’Gara made no mistake from under the uprights to put Munster back in front.

Priestland left more kickable points behind when he missed with a penalty effort out to the left of the posts. It was a poor kicking display from the World Cup star as he missed a total of eight points that would have made all the difference for the Scarlets.

O’Gara showed Priestland how it’s done with another penalty after the Munster scrum forced Scarlets tighthead Rhys Thomas into popping up. O’Gara’s penalty put Munster into a 17-11 lead with just under a quarter of the match remaining. The Scarlets continued their efforts to create something out wide but it often felt forced with the Munster defence in good shape.

Lifemi Mafi was pinged for side entry into a ruck and the experienced Welsh flyhalf Stephen Jones, on for Daniel Newton, reduced Munster’s lead with a penalty. The Scarlets were now back to 17-14 and with Priestland moved to fullback after the introduction of Jones, he started to threaten Munster with his pace.

Jones came on to kick a penalty for the Scarlets. Photo via Thedogsmother

With a sustained period of pressure inside the Munster 22, the Scarlets searched for a winning score. But the Irish province’s defence was superb and disciplined. Jones was the one to knock-on as Munster hit with ferocity. At the resulting scrum, the Munster pack produced a huge shunt to win a relieving penalty.

Tomas O’Leary came on and made two intelligent kicks to pin the Scarlets deep in their own half with time running out. The Welsh bravely tried to run out of their own 22 but knock-ons from Damien Welch and Priestland scuppered any chance of late glory.

This win leaves Munster on top of Pool 1. Crucially, two of their three wins have come away from home. While Munster may not be playing spectacular rugby, they are doing simple things well to win matches. Here, they retained ball well through tight phases, took their try-scoring chance well and O’Gara kicked four from five efforts. The relentless defensive effort limited the much-hyped Scarlets backline. Munster welcome the Scarlets to Thomond Park next weekend as they look to move closer to securing a quarter-final place. This pool is far from decided but Munster are well-postitioned and improving every week.

Photos courtesy:  M+MD, Thedogsmother