Just in case the World Cup celebrations ever cool off, it is great to have the Heineken Cup up and running so that the rugby interest won't flag. There is no danger of that if Friday night's clash between Llanelli Scarlets and Northampton at Stradey Park is anything to go by. We went straight into the sort of full-blooded game we expect from this competition.
The Scarlets would have been delighted to kick off with a 14-9 victory but they will not be so happy that the Saints managed to nick a late bonus point. That may be valuable in a tight group that will probably go right down to the wire.
The experience should be a sharp reminder to Llanelli that they must make more of their opportunities and turn pressure into points. On a good, dry night for rugby they ran the ball thrillingly at times but fumbles frequently ruined great moves.
Added to that, Stephen Jones missed two kicks at goal that should have gone over. Stephen was complaining afterwards about the new ball they were using in the cup, so we must not be too hard on him.
We mustn't be too hard on Llanelli, either, because it would have been difficult adjusting to a higher standard. The Celtic League contains some good teams but overall it does not produce the level at which English clubs play week-to-week in the Zurich Premiership.
The way Llanelli raised the pace and intensity of their game was admirable and they started incredibly well with their forwards looking in great form, especially John Davies at prop and Scott Quinnell at No 8.
Davies was unlucky not to have been involved in the Welsh squad at the World Cup and we must all wonder how much Quinnell would have aided the cause Down Under. He was immense on Friday, so quick across the gain-line, and he did not have a close challenger as man of the match. Quinnell was on the scoresheet early on after a sniping dart by the scrum-half, Dwayne Peel, set the Scarlets' pack in motion and the No 8 piled over.
Had Llanelli been playing against Celtic opposition they would have proceeded to score a few tries but Northampton are always difficult Heineken Cup opposition. They defend so resolutely, play the percentages, go through the phases and generally make things difficult for their opponents.
They didn't start with their full World Cup contingent. Ben Cohen was the only one who began the match and he didn't quite look himself. The hooker Steve Thompson and the outside-half Paul Grayson came on in the second half, and made their presence felt, but Matt Dawson was kept up their sleeves.
Not that the former New Zealand scrum-half Mark Robinson looked in any desperate need of replacement. He nearly did some telling damage around the fringes, where Llanelli need to tighten their defences, and broke well in the second half.
But Llanelli are far more creative behind the scrum and some of their moves swept across Stradey very promisingly only for their 10,000 fans to bewail a succession of knock-ons. They badly missed the injured Leigh Davies and I fear they might have to sacrifice Salesi Finau on the wing. They have an urgent need for finishing wingers, and Garan Evans and Mark Jones fill that requirement. When they did create space, the support wasn't there to finish the move.
Evans made one or two excellent runs that turned defence into attack but they merely raised hopes that were to end in frustration. Llanelli have lost so many vital Heineken Cup ties by narrow margins when they could have won that there were nervous moments when Northampton cranked up their efforts late in the game. Saints had to be satisfied with the Grayson penalty that gained their bonus.
Both these sides will improve as the tournament develops and neither will be easy to beat. Certainly, Gareth Jenkins' chances of landing the Welsh coach's job will have been done no harm by Friday's performance. The Welsh Rugby Union's selection panel for Steve Hansen's replacement is now in place and Jenkins must be the front runner.
He has some keen rivals in Mike Ruddock of the Dragons and Lyn Jones of the Warriors, but Welsh rugby might benefit more if they continue to work with their regions.
Jenkins has proved his ability to get results at the highest club level during 15 years in which Llanelli have been the leading Welsh side, reaching two European semi-finals and five quarter-finals in seven attempts.
He is ready for the big step up while Paul Moriarty and Nigel Davies can take over the reins at Stradey.Reuse content