As part of our regular RaboDirect Pro12 and Heineken Cup features, we select the best 15 players, in their positions, from the weekend’s action.
Connacht were deserved winners over Leinster at the Sportsground, Ulster were phenomenal against Cardiff Blues but Munster failed in their attempts to do a Welsh double before Saturday’s date against Joe Schmidt’s men at the Aviva.
Here is TheScore.ie PRO12 Team of the Week:
Full-back: Jared Payne (Ulster)
Tough call on Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw, who continues to grow in stature, but Payne’s excellent start to the season shows no sign of letting up. His superb solo effort try in the second-half summed up the innovative and self-assured attacking play Payne has brought to the full-back position in the opening fixtures.
Right wing: Tommy Bowe (Ulster)
Guilty of some over-eagerness in the opening 15 minutes of Ulster’s match but he settled in very well, linked up nicely with Payne on a couple of occasions and ran in two fantastic tries. Quite a return for the prodigal son. Tiernan O’Halloran pushed Bowe close and scored a fine try late in the first half for Connacht but was sin-binned on 63 minutes.
Outside Centre: Keith Earls (Munster)
Munster may have been defeated in Wales but Earls was a danger throughout and forged a good centre partnership with Casey Laulala. Crucial try-saving tackle in the second-half, too, from the Limerick man. Michael Allen from Ulster was the other obvious candidate and showed great determination to record an early try against the Blues but went off injured immediately afterwards.
Inside Centre: Dave McSharry (Connacht)
The Connacht backs came alive on Friday night and there was a lightning-quick strike from McSharry that summed it up. He took a pass on the charge from Dan Parks and thundered straight through a stunned Leinster defence. Defended well when needed and linked up well with Eoin Griffin.
Left wing: Fetu’u Vainikolo (Connacht)
The Tongan did not have the best of times with Connacht last season but is now a regular starter. He re-payed the coaching staff for their faith with an electric burst down the left wing to score a super try. His bullish runs and clever kicks pinned Leinster back in the second half. Simon Zebo, for Munster, was also a threat in his match and fielded high balls well and Andrew Trimble got a late try for Ulster.
Out-half: Dan Parks (Connacht)
It was not all perfect from Parks on Friday but his confidence shone through and his presence at out-half inspired his backline colleagues. His clever passing stood out more than his place-kicking and drop goal attempts. Paddy Jackson did a good job in Cardiff, Ian Madigan was part of an underwhelming Leinster effort and Ronan O’Gara landed his kicks but did little else.
Scrum-half: Paul Marshall (Ulster)
Kieran Marmion came close to pipping the Ulsterman here but, just like his dart for the tryline in Galway, here narrowly misses out. Marshall kept Ulster humming all night and played a key role in first-half tries for Allen and Nick Williams.
Tommy Bowe scored two tries in his first game back for Ulster. (©INPHO/Huw Evans)
Loosehead prop: Tom Court (Ulster)
Was part of an Ulster front row that caused Cardiff to quiver and caused enough chaos in the loose to allow the backs to target the gaps. Continues to show for the ball in all areas of the pitch, sometimes to better effect than others. Denis Buckley had a good first half but was replaced by Brett Wilkinson early in the second, as was Botha for Munster.
Hooker: Adrian Flavin (Connacht)
Leinster’s Tom Sexton put in some good defensive grapples to prevent Connacht scores but Flavin, who earned his 100th league cap for the province aginst Glasgow recently, was lively during his 57 minute shift. Nigel Brady was solid, again, for Mark Anscombe’s side in Cardiff.
Tighthead prop: John Afoa (Ulster)
The New Zealand prop is as devastating in broken play as he is in the coal-face of rucks and scrums. Played a vital role as a wrecking ball before Williams’ first half try and went close to scoring himself on a couple of occasions. Connacht’s Nathan White gave his former side, Leinster, some worries as he led from the front.
Lock (4): Devin Toner (Leinster)
Toner was called into action earlier than expected when Quinn Roux succumbed to a shoulder injury and had a decent game. Has a good chance of playing against Munster on Saturday. Michael Swift won the Pro12 man-of-the-match for Connacht but flirted with the sin-bin and conceded a couple of penalties.
Lock (5): Mike McCarthy (Connacht)
McCarthy loves the evening kick-offs in Galway and was at his bustling best on Friday. His graft all game personified that of his team and was crucial in a winning cause.
Blindside flanker: Iain Henderson (Ulster)
Henderson was called up to Declan Kidney’s Ireland training squad last week and justified that decision with another excellent showing in Wales. His strength at the breakdown was immense and evoked comparisons with Sean O’Brien.
Openside flanker: Johnny O’Connor (Connacht)
Chris Henry was very good in Cardiff for Ulster but O’Connor’s energy and willingness to throw himself in where it hurt was thrilling to watch. His Ireland days may be beyond him but he showed another battling flanker, Leinster’s Shane Jennings, how to do it out west.
Number 8: Nick Williams (Ulster)
George Nauopu, who was imperious and try-scoring for Connacht, is harshly omitted but Williams was a joy to watch. He bulldozed his way to a first half try and found himself on the left wing for another in the second. His meaty hand-offs put more than one Blues’ player on their backside. STAR PERFORMER*.