Heineken Cup brews tough tests for Irish

Munster and Leinster get off to slow start in European Cup as Ulster keep the Irish flag flying, writes Sam GeogheganIt has begun: the greatest club competition in world rugby commenced last weekend with its usual panache, splendour and unpredictability. The European Cup is back and, from an Irish perspective, it certainly hasn’t started the way it ended last season.Leinster and Munster, the two previous champions, lost their opening matches to London Irish and Northampton respectively, and after the brilliant year Irish rugby enjoyed last season, this opening weekend suggests that Leinster and Munster might not have it all their own way this time around.It was the clash of the titans at the RDS on Friday with Guinness Premiership leaders London Irish meeting Magners League pace-setters, and defending Heineken Cup champions, Leinster. The Exiles met Leinster’s speed and tenacity with their own mixture of free-flowing back play and the disruption of their opposition’s set pieces.Irish were unafraid of the prospect of the defending champions and came with a point to prove. Leinster seemed to lack a cutting edge after the mauling of Munster the previous week, and it was left to fly half Jonathan Sexton and Exile fullback Peter Hewat to exchange penalties to level the score, 6-6, at the interval. Then, with the scores tied 9-9, Irish were awarded a penalty which replacement, Ryan Lamb, kicked with consummate ease, administering a huge blow to Leinster’s chances of emulating last season’s success.Coach Michael Cheika needs to find a way to sort out Leinster’s set piece problems and ill-discipline, which ultimately cost them the game on Friday night with the concession of needless penalties, before their second match away to French side Brive on 17th of October.After seeing Leinster lose on Friday, how were Munster going to respond following the 30-0 drubbing at the hands of their close rivals last weekend? The heat was on – especially for Ronan O’Gara, who came up short against his competition for the Ireland number ten shirt, Jonathan Sexton, last week in Dublin.The display wasn’t one of the typical Munster resilience we are accustomed to witnessing, but it was a huge improvement on the dire performance in Ballsbridge last week. Following a shaky start from Munster and O’Gara, Paul Warwick’s opportunist drop-goal injected some belief into the red jersey and Munster levelled the score at 8-8 after good work from Keith Earls sent David Wallace in for the try.Although all eyes were firmly fixed on O’Gara, opposing number Shane Geragthy stole the show with his assured style of play. Geraghty’s class created all of Northampton’s three tries and in the end, he was the difference between the two sides as the Saints held on for a 31-27 victory.The forgotten province, Ulster, were the only Irish side to win on opening weekend – and an impressive victory it was too. Fly-half Ian Humphreys inspired his team to a 26-12 victory over English side Bath at Ravenhill on Friday night. Ulster scored two tries in the process and carried their impressive Magners League form into the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. Perhaps of the three sides, it might be Ireland’s first Heineken Cup winners of the north who stand the best chance of making an impact on the European stage this term.