Clark on Sport: October 7th, 2008

 
 

Since he last wrote, Michael Clark has seen Leinster lose to Connacht and Arsenal lose to Hull City. What is the world coming to?

Every October, Clark on Sport predicts that Leinster will win the Heineken Cup the following May. In the past, such optimism was undoubtedly due to a large dose of partisan wishful thinking but one could always make the case that a squad with a wealth of gifted players, a sound management team and an increasingly loyal and vocal support base would eventually reach the ‘Promised Land’ of European glory. Not now. You almost certainly didn’t hear it here first but it seems all but impossible that Leinster will lift the Heineken Cup in 2009. To lose 18-0 to Munster at home was bad enough but to lose to Connacht was truly beyond the Pale (literally).

I saw Leinster’s win over the Ospreys two weeks ago and was less than impressed despite the somewhat facile nature of the victory. The creativity in the back-line, so often the mainstay of Leinster’s successes in the past, was in very short supply. Line-breaks were a rarity and try opportunities did not present themselves despite the Blues’ dominance of possession. Brian O’Driscoll is a shadow of the great player he was and now seems to function almost exclusively as a defensive blocker. Gone is the inspirational swagger of old and gone too is the fear he used inspire in his opponents.

It would be churlish, however, to scapegoat the former captain as the only source of Leinster’s ills. The situation at out-half has yet to be satisfactorily resolved, especially in the wake of Isa Nacewa’s injury. Jonathan Sexton crashed and burned in the drubbing against Munster and I have no faith in Felipe Contemponi when he dons the Number 10 jersey. It’s not just the half-backs that are a cause for concern, if you now look at the Munster and Leinster squads, one has to conclude that the ‘Liginds’ are stronger in practically every position.

Leinster’s two defeats will do nothing for their confidence when they face up to the huge psychological challenge of their first Heineken Cup fixture next Saturday. Edinburgh is a pretty bad team… except when they play Leinster at the home of Scottish rugby.

Somehow, despite being one of the best teams in Europe over that time, Leinster have lost eight of their nine matches on the wide, windy open spaces of Murrayfield. Last season, a truly abject performance culminated in a shocking 27-10 defeat, which all but ended their qualification hopes.

Anything less than victory next weekend may well consign this season’s Heineken Cup campaign to an early grave. Wasps have had an even worse start to their season than Leinster had (if that’s possible) but they still have class players who will be ready to expose the psychological frailties of Michael Cheika’s men. Lions may well look and sound fierce but the tiny wasp can still deliver a powerful sting.

As for Munster, an easy passage through the group stages is a safe bet with only Clermont Auvergne likely to put up much resistance against the POC and ROG juggernaut. Tony McGahan has started well as coach and deserves credit for filling the boots of Declan Kidney with such aplomb. Munster are a much more attractive outfit than their stereotypical image suggests and now have a back-line which plays with commendable flair. Four wins from four in the Magners League is an ominous portent of ambition for the rest of Ireland and Europe to fear.

Ulster and Connacht secured important league wins last weekend but both will continue to struggle. Connacht will be absolutely delighted with the victory over Leinster, their first defeat of Irish opposition since 2005. Their realistic ambition should be to finish above Ulster in the Magners League, and with it securing passage to the Heineken Cup. The western province has been abominably treated by the rugby establishment for too long. Only through competing at the top level of European competition can Connacht secure their rugby-playing futures.

Ulster’s collapse relative to the other Provinces must be galling to the rugby faithful across the border. When I was young (many years ago), Ulster crushed the likes of Munster, Leinster and Connacht like bugs and formed the backbone of the Irish team. However the Heineken Cup victory in 1999, rather than ushering in a new era of northern dominance, seems to have served as the last sting of a dying wasp. The Red Hand may strike fear into opponents in Gaelic Football but on the rugby field, it seems that not even Cúchulainn himself could arrest the decline of Ulster rugby.

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The next time Clark on Sport predicts a succession of easy Arsenal victories, Arsene Wenger himself should seek divine vengeance. How a team can lose to Hull City on a Saturday, then crush Portuguese champions Porto on a Tuesday before escaping with a last-gasp draw against Sunderland the following Saturday is beyond me. The old frailties and inconsistency that have plagued Arsenal since the glorious unbeaten season of 2003/4 are still there as ever before. Now that Chelsea and Liverpool are already four points ahead of the Gunners, it may not be too soon before one has to rule Arsenal out of the Premiership race.

Liverpool, despite the occasional blip, really seem to have turned a corner and must fancy themselves for at least one item of silverware this season. Last Sunday’s victory over Manchester City from two goals down may well be the sign that the tide is about to turn in the North-West. Next May, it will be 19 years since Liverpool last conquered the top division. It seems improbable that they will bridge that gap this year but it cannot be long before England’s most successful club once again reaches the summit that their supporters feel is their birthright.

With Chelsea looking quietly powerful and Manchester Utd lurking in the background (for the moment), it seems that normal service may well be resuming for the ‘Big Four’. Yet, at the fringes, new powers are emerging and old powers are fighting for their footballing lives. Who would have thought that after seven games, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United would lie in the relegation zone? They’re both probably ‘too good to go down’ but nerves will jangle until the safety of 14th place is reached. As for surprises at the top…Hull City for the Champions League!

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