Now that the dust has settled on the first fortnight of European combat, six Guinness PRO12 teams can be found leading the way in both competitions, writes Peter Jackson.
Munster Rugby, Connacht Rugby and Leinster Rugby top three of the five pools in the Champions’ Cup. It’s the same story in the Challenge Cup where Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh head the early charge for places in the quarter-finals.
Teams from the Guinness PRO12 have won more matches in the two opening rounds than those from the Premiership and Top 14 – seven victories in the European Champions Cup, one more than the French teams and two more than the English.
The win-loss ratio is more striking still in the Challenge Cup. In that tournament Guinness PRO12 teams have won seven of their 10 ties compared to six out of twelve for the Aviva Premiership and five out of 14 for the Top 14.
How the three Leagues have fared in Europe can be gauged as follows:
Guinness PRO12: Played 13, Won 7, Drawn 0, Lost 6.
Top 14: Played 13, Won 6, Drawn 1, Lost 6.
Premiership: Played 12, Won 5, Drawn 1, Lost 6.
Guinness PRO12: Played 10, Won 7, Drawn 0, Lost 3.
Premiership: Played 12, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 6.
Top 14: Played 14, Won 5, Drawn 0, Lost 9.
Guinness PRO12: Played 23, Won 14, Drawn 0, Lost 9.
Premiership: Played 24, Won 11, Drawn 1, Lost 12.
Top 14: Played 27, Won 11, Drawn 1, Lost 15.
Of the six pool leaders from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, five are unbeaten. Only Leinster have lost, last Sunday in Montpellier where Isa Nacewa’s last-minute try and conversion secured the losing bonus point which was all the triple former champions needed to head a pool which includes Castres and Northampton Saints.
Who knows, it may yet make all the difference when the final reckoning is made in the New Year. These are, of course, early days with some formidable obstacles to be faced during the next block of Champions’ Cup matches in December.
Munster will go into their back-to-back ties against Leicester Tigers hoping to welcome their old English rivals to Thomond Park by starting where they finished against the Warriors last weekend.
In what amounted to as near perfect a collective tribute to Anthony Foley as Munster could possibly have mustered in the circumstances, they overwhelmed Glasgow Warriors from start to finish. The Scots had won in Limerick before but without being subjected to the irresistible force of a team in communion with the 26,000 or so packed into the citadel.
Connacht might have been happy once upon a time to make up the numbers in Europe’s elite event but not any longer. Nine points out of ten, a return worthy of their status as Guinness PRO12 champions, puts them up in good shape for a mighty confrontation with Wasps before Christmas.
Scarlets go from giving Saracens a run for their money in the last round to facing their predecessors as European champions, Toulon, in the next one. Ulster, back on an even keel thanks to Paddy Jackson’s eleventh-hour drop goal against Exeter in Belfast, will be back there in Round Three for the first of their two ties against surely the best club yet to conquer Europe, Clermont Auvergne.
The Warriors, off to Paris in the next round for a reunion with Racing 92 and Dan Carter, go into the second Big Weekend of the Guinness PRO12 on Friday evening back on home territory at Scotstoun. Their opponents, Benetton Treviso, make the trip with one win to their name this season, at home to the Dragons last month.
Another Scottish-Italian duel will be taking place simultaneously at BT Murrayfield. Edinburgh Rugby, fresh from a thrilling single-point win over Harlequins built on trumping the Londoners’ five tries with six of their own, will expect to make it four wins in a row against Zebre Rugby.
Despite a near miss at Rodney Parade in the second week of the season and a nearer one at home to the Blues a fortnight later, Zebre have not won since an emphatic try-bonus success against Newport-Gwent Dragons last May.
Ulster open Friday’s quartet of matches half-an-hour earlier than the other three in what ought to be the biggest duel of the Big Weekend – Munster at home. The current leaders will be geared up for a sell-out 18,000, a thousand or so more than witnessed the Exeter match last Saturday night.
The second all-Irish affair takes place at the RDS in Dublin on Saturday afternoon – Leinster against Connacht kicking off at 5.15pm. Had Leinster not known of Stacey Ili before last weekend, they certainly do now, the New Zealander having scored a hat-trick on debut against Zebre last week.
Another wing who has marked his European baptism in the same storybook fashion will surely be featuring on the other side of the Irish Sea in Saturday’s Ospreys-Dragons Welsh derby in Swansea.
Keelan Giles, an 18-year-old local boy who made a name for himself at under-20 level for Wales last season, is in line to make his Guinness PRO12 debut for the Ospreys with a career record in senior rugby of five tries from two matches – two against Newcastle in the first round of the Challenge Cup, three against Lyon in the second last Saturday.
Summoned to New Zealand by Wales last summer as injury cover without being pressed into emergency action, Giles has been invited to train with the national squad ahead of their four-match autumn series. No less a judge than Shane Williams considers him to be ‘the genuine article.’
Ospreys could reclaim their place at the top of the table come Saturday night. With just a point separating the top four, the same can be said of Warriors and Leinster.
It’s all so close that Munster in fifth place could overtake Ulster should they repeat their win in Belfast at the start of the year when three goals from Ian Keatley eclipsed Louis Ludik’s converted try before a crowd of more than 17,000.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final