Irishmen take up the challenge

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The Independent Online

Irish rugby, smarting from last weekend's unexpected Six Nations' thrashing at Murrayfield, completed a spectacular return to form yesterday with hard-fought Heineken Cup victories for Ulster and Munster. Leading the way for the two provinces were the men vying for the Ireland No 10 shirt – Ronan O'Gara and David Humphreys.

O'Gara, who was badly off target against Scotland, landed six penalties, a drop goal and a conversion to Jason Holland's first-half try as Munster saw off the challenge of Castres 28-23 in Pool Four at Thomond Park, Limerick.

The Lions' fly-half turned the tables on his opposite number Gregor Townsend, the Castres and Scotland fly-half, with a brilliant display of kicking which proved the difference between two evenly matched sides. The French, who led 14-10 at the break, kept in touch throughout thanks to six penalties by their scrum-half Romain Teulet and a try from their full-back Ugo Mola

Humphreys, who has been forced to play second fiddle to O'Gara at international level over the past couple of seasons, also helped himself to 23 points as Ulster battled to a 33-28 success away to Benetton Treviso in Pool Two.

The visitors' tries came from the wing James Topping and the flanker Andy Ward while a third Ireland cap – the former Orrell and Richmond full-back Simon Mason – kept the home side in touch with seven penalties and a conversion to a try by the Italian wing Massimiliano Perziano.

Yesterday's results completed a clean sweep for the four Irish provinces following Leinster's home win over Toulouse in the Heineken Cup and Connacht's victory against Narbonne in the Parker Pen European Shield on Friday evening. They also continued a rich vein of success which has enabled them all to claim home quarter-final ties in the new Celtic League.

Saracens and Gloucester chalked up satisfying home victories in the Shield against tough French opponents yesterday. The 30-year-old South African fly-half Luke Smith was the key figure as Saracens saw off Bordeaux-Begles 34-14 at Vicarage Road in Pool Eight. In addition to kicking four conversions and two penalties, Smith also ran in two tries while Sarries' other touchdowns came from the prop Luke Harbut and former Ireland wing Darragh O'Mahony. Almost as influential for Gloucester was their French fly-half Ludovic Mercier, who slotted four penalties, two conversions and a drop goal in their 34-15 eclipse of La Rochelle in Pool Seven. Tries by Junior Paramore, Chris Fortey and Joe Ewens completed the scoring.

Sale underlined their impressive start to the season with 93-0 romp over Roma at Heywood Road in Pool Four. Their Samoan No 8, Apollo Perelini, rattled up a hat-trick of tries as the home side breached their opponents' line 14 times during the match.

Italian sides fared little better elsewhere in the competition with Neath, for whom Lee Jarvis kicked eight penalties and a conversion, defeating Viadana 41-14 and Caerphilly enjoying a rare victory, 40-30, at home to GR.A.N. Parma. Florin Dara crossed three times as Dinamo Bucharest won 49-17 in Bologna, but L'Aquila prevented an Italian whitewash by beating Valladolid of Spain 25-14.

Today in the Heineken Cup, the former All Blacks lock Ian Jones will make his Wasps debut against Stade Français at Loftus Road. Jones is set to be joined in the home pack by the England flanker Joe Worsley, who has made a remarkably swift recovery from the torn scrotum he suffered against Harlequins last weekend.

Worcester continue to lead National League One by a point following their 21-3 win at London Welsh, but second-placed Rotherham kept up the pressure by hammering neighbours Otley 55-6. Exeter moved up to third after winning 21-6 at Moseley but Henley remain anchored at the bottom of the table after losing 26-24 at home to Bracknell.

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