Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Dylan Hartley hogs the headlines
Last Updated: 13/12/16 6:03am
Stuart Barnes reflects on Dylan Hartley’s latest red card, a superb weekend for the Irish provinces and how the PRO12 is outperforming the Premiership in Europe.
1. He's back; Dirty Dylan is hogging the headlines. One senseless swinging arm into the toppling Sean O'Brien and the England captain is copping a mountain of flak.
It was extremely reckless, it was mindless. Both are facts. He deserved to see red but what he does for club and country seem to be divorced.
The only two reasons Eddie Jones should consider dropping his inspirational skipper after Friday's flip is if he believes he is again a liability in white, or he deems Dylan has done his job and put England back on track, in which case the furore would be a damned good excuse to select Jamie George. I have long been in the Saracen's camp but the players follow Hartley and Jones has enormous respect for his powers of leadership.
Thus far Eddie has done little wrong. If he thinks the act was another of those moments of madness that have littered his career and nothing more, then Hartley continuing as England captain is good enough for me.
2. Less than one day after an act of violence takes centre stage in round three of Europe, we were treated to one of the cleanest and least cynical games of rugby I can remember. The result was one of the finest pool games in the Cup's history as Ulster kept their qualification hopes alive, beating Clermont Auvergne 39-32.
Nine tries were scored and the majority can be attributed to stunning attacking skills, not defensive deficiency.
There were as many tries (five) as scrums in the first half and all those scrums were keenly and fairly contested. Wayne Barnes was full of praise for both sides. When teams want to use the scrums as an attacking weapon the endless resets mysteriously vanish.
Now I like to rant at a referee as much as any man but, next time you watch a game and become frustrated when the scrums start to collapse and the game loses its shape, stop and think whether it is the referee or the players and coaches who are to blame.
3. More on the match itself. Clermont played 70 seconds of perfect rugby, scored a gem of a try and looked likely to destroy Ulster. Yet Ulster hit back with five fine tries of their own before hanging on for the last quarter of the game (which was the only period Barnes had to take centre stage) for the win.
Paddy Jackson was magnificent in his management of the game. When you consider the quality of Kieran Marmion's performance 24 hours later in Coventry, Ireland are blessed with extremely capable cover for Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton. Luke Marshall picked some exquisite angles while Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana and Remi Lamerat promise much for the new-look French test midfield.
Five points for Ulster and two for Clermont that keep them in control of the pool. There were no losers at Ravenhill on Saturday when the biggest winners of all were the fans.
4. Despite the Connacht loss this was a superb weekend for the Irish provinces with heavy wins against once mighty Leicester and Northampton.
Was it only a year ago that I was picking up papers and reading how the tournament would be irredeemably damaged by the fact that the excessive income going into the game in France and England spelled the end for the Celtic nations?
Last year was too brief a period of time to make pronouncements but people did anyway. England are not going to have five quarter-finalists this year. Don't you just love hubris?
5. On a related topic how about the players Leinster are producing from their academy. They are churning out young talent at a faster rate than any club side in Europe.
Leo Cullen can be very proud of how the province has bounced back from last year with the help of a stunning crop of kids. Having nicked a bonus point in Montpellier they are my favourites to escape from a tricky pool.
6. It wasn't just Ireland flying the PRO12 flag at the weekend. Glasgow, in the doldrums on the domestic front, pulled off a staggering win against the French champions and last year's Champions Cup runners-up, Racing 92.
Without a point after two games and with away matches in Glasgow and Limerick to come, it looks bleak for the Parisians. The year after Stade Francais won the Top 14 they flopped the next season. Back-to-back achievements don't seem to be part of the Parisian climate.
7. What about the English clubs? I think the current situation is a fair reflection of the disappointing quality of the Premiership this season. England possesses one exceptional side and one very good one, thereafter the standards have slipped.
The PRO12 is a better competition after its own shocking standards last season, whereas the English equivalent is down on its levels from 12 months ago.
8. How long can Welford Road keep baling out the Tigers? Their humiliation in Limerick follows on the heels of an equally appalling hammering at the hands of Glasgow in the first round of the competition.
It is not impossible that Leicester will turn the 38-0 result around. They will be playing for pride, and maybe much more.
Emotional afternoons at home no longer hide the fact that Leicester are in some degree of trouble. Eminent voices within the club have stated that the growing discrepancy between the finances of some Premiership sides and the rest (the Tigers included in the rest category) mean the glory days could be behind them.
I suggest they have a long look at the cost-effective Leinster academy.
9. In awful conditions Saracens put 50 points on Sale. Granted Sale are not a European giant but 50 points in those conditions was some effort. They are the team to beat.
Yet they remain wary of Toulon. The French side weren't at full tilt against a decent Scarlets team but the combination of the great Ma'a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud looked quite something while Leigh Halfpenny was as sharp as I have seen him in some time.
10. Next week I head to Galway before calling the Clermont rematch with Ulster. While Connacht were well beaten on the scoreboard Wasps were a little flattered by the margin.
Connacht dominated the scrums and was the better team for reasonable portions of the game. Had they taken their chances as Ulster did a day earlier it would have been very close against the home team for whom Joe Launchbury was outstanding and Kurtley Beale made a memorable debut. Wasps are favourites but they may have to up their game in Galway.
Ulster won but are underdogs. Clermont showed their strength in depth in the final quarter and will be looking to cement their position at the top of this pool with one of those Clermont days we have seen so often in the Auvergne. The last time Ulster played there, they put in an heroic effort, more of the same will be needed on Sunday.