ercrugby.com columnist Peter Jackson delivers his review of the first round of action in the 15th season of the Heineken Cup
As the Royal Dublin Society arena began to rock in acclamation of the champions, Bob Casey called his London Irish troops to attention in the dressing-room for a last-minute reminder of why they had come. What he said set the tone for an opening weekend momentous even by Heineken Cup standards, one topped off by an unsung English centre who sounds as though he ought to appear by permission of the Forestry Commission, Leicester saviour Billy Twelvetrees.
No sooner had Treviso achieved a giant-killing of almost miraculous proportion by slaying French champions Perpignan than Munster had joined Leinster in a losing double after a stupendous duel at Northampton. Within 24 hours of the holders falling foul of one of their own in Casey, their predecessors as European champions were retreating from Franklin's Gardens cursing the day Joe Geraghty left his native Castlebar to find work on a building site in the Midlands.
The ancestral home in Mayo may not be that far from The Fields of Athenry but never in his wildest dreams, or worst nightmares, could the departing teenager have imagined that his migration would pave the way for the youngest of his siblings to make the Munster anthem sound like a lament. Shane Geraghty, born in Coventry 23 years ago, turned Ireland down in favour of England and on Saturday night he delivered the most complete performance by an English fly half since Jonny Wilkinson in his pomp pre-World Cup 2003.
There is an electrifying quality about Geraghty the line-breaker which sets him apart from Wilkinson and the shocks felt by
Munster from the Anglo-Irishman's high voltage skills will have left England manager Martin Johnson to decide who plays ten and who plays twelve against Australia next month. While Danny Cipriani sparkled last year in a one-sided Test against a poor Ireland team, the all-dancing Geraghty outwitted and ultimately outpointed the smartest, meanest bunch of all despite missing three shots at goal.
His was a display which Phil Bennett and the rest of the old Welsh wizards would have been proud to call their own.
Leinster and Munster losing their opening pool matches had happened once in ten years before a weekend when London Irish, the club Geraghty left in the summer, set the ball rolling with a thumping reaffirmation of the tournament's capacity for the unexpected. Dublin, no slouches in the business of knocking big cheeses off lofty pedestals, had not seen a more
spectacular example during the 43 years since Lord Nelson fell off his in O'Connell Street.
Casey had inspired his team to knock Leinster off theirs before they left the dressing-room. 'I know how good you are,' he told them. 'I know how the whole club's been building up over the last few years for a night like this. This is a massive test but it's also the big chance we've all been waiting for. Now you have to show all those people out there how good you really are. So have no fears and when it's all over just make sure of one thing -- that none of us has any regrets.'
Just as Richard 'Tricky Dickie' Nixon once promised there would be no 'white wash at the White House' over Watergate, so Big Bob had implored the form team of the Guinness Premiership to make a solemn declaration that there would be no balls' up at Ballsbridge. The fact that they had averaged three tries a match over the course of a turgid opening month when others like Leicester, Sale and Harlequins had barely managed one between them stamped Casey & co. as a cut above the rest.
Even so, Leinster tended to be a class apart as Wasps, the last Premiership team to venture into their citadel, had found to their
considerable embarrassment. This time last year they had been roasted by six tries in falling 30 points short, facts which might have led the challengers to think they had been cast for a rugby version of a biblical parable -- Big Bob in the Lions' den.
There would be Lions, new and old, wherever he looked -- Lions on both wings (Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan), Lions in the centre (Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy), Lions in the back row (Jamie Heaslip), Lions in the second row (Nathan Hines) and Lions on the bench (Rob Kearney, Malcolm O'Kelly). It never occurred to Leinster that, as a native of the priestly Maynooth, their long-departed lock might have had an inside track on how to cause an unholy ruck.
Now the RDS has seen some strange events in its time, surely none stranger than the American tennis team pitching up there in 1983 with John McEnroe, then the reigning Wimbledon champion, for a Davis Cup mismatch against Ireland. Friday night's was always going to be a serious contest guaranteeing the one certainty that this time there would be an Irish winner, of sorts.
Few imagined that the defending champions would end up taking full count, outpointed, ironically enough, not simply because of a collective discipline but a second row pair showing the whole of Europe why theirs is the most profitable line-out operation in the English game.
Casey, who left his native province seven years ago after failing to gain a regular place, runs it in tandem with Nick Kennedy, his junior partner who turned down an invitation to throw his lot in with Ireland long before England had got round to picking him for their A team.
The recruiting agents had discovered that Kennedy's paternal grandmother came from Co. Limerick. 'It was nice to get the call and it would have made my Nan very happy,' Kennedy said. 'But it wasn't for me.' By the end of the night the Leinster line-out had surrendered five of their own throws. The last one created enough pandemonium for Mike Ross to be caught offside and substitute stand-off Ryan Lamb to fire the decisive long-range penalty 52 seconds from time. To their credit,
Leinster took it on the chin, acknowledging that they had been the authors of their own downfall and refusing to blame the French referee for not allowing them to finish the night with a penalty in front of the posts for a perceived high tackle.
The setback leaves Leinster no margin for error during any of their five remaining pool matches, starting in Brive on Saturday. As
for Munster, desperately close to winning from a long way behind, it could be argued that they are set fair for another final. If recent history repeats itself, then do not bet against them filling at least half the Stade de France come the final on May 22 next year.
Losing the first pool match on English soil is hardly to be recommended but it has never failed to do Munster anything less than a power of good. In October 2005, they kicked off by losing to Sale in Stockport and did the same two years later against Wasps in Coventry. They ended each season carrying the Heineken Cup home from Cardiff long after every English contender had been counted out.