Tony Ward: Leinster are willing but unable - Like Munster, they need fans support
They say a good start is half the battle but that certainly didn't prove to be the case for Ireland's provinces at the weekend. The highs of Belfast and Galway on Friday were followed by some harsh lessons in Limerick and Toulon in the 48 trying hours that followed.
Ulster were always set to be in with a shout of beating Toulouse at the Kingspan. The original Heineken Cup greats, much like Munster and Leinster, have fallen on lean times relative to what went before.
That said, nobody could have foreseen the five-try drubbing inflicted by Team Ulster on one of the great nights in European rugby north of border.
For the first time in their European history Toulouse failed to score as Ulster produced a total performance on their home patch comparable with the halcyon days of 1999.
The question now is can they back it up in a few days' time at Stade Ernest-Wallon? As a shot in the arm for Irish rugby, the win and quality of it could scarcely be better timed and yet, given what followed, the jury is still out.
But Ulster can only look after their own corner and following the opening-night disaster against Saracens this 80 minutes provided the perfect antidote. It is probably unfair to pick out individuals but certainly Paddy Jackson, Stuart McCloskey, Ruan Pienaar, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Chris Henry and Rory Best were all on top of their games.
While I do not share the doomsday scenario many are predicting, nonetheless these are worrying times for Irish rugby. And we can't expect Joe Schmidt to wave a magic wand to solve our problems in February either.
Munster for 20 minutes were in control of their destiny in Limerick. They started as they had intended but lost their way badly just before the break. Indeed all three tries conceded were soft and certainly not what you associate with Munster on a big European night in Limerick.
For a group treading on very thin ice confidence-wise, it was the last thing they needed. With six minutes left on the clock and Leicester nine points to the good, the only thing that surprised me was their lack of ambition in going for the bonus. Instead they opted for the penalty to close the game out. Munster were a spent force at that stage.
And let's be clear here, it's not that the players don't want to do it but, as currently constituted, this is a very average Munster squad. For all the possession and all the movement side to side, they created precious little. And when they did create a line break - one by James Cronin (a potentially very good prop in the making) and the other through Andrew Conway - the inability to link and finish was every bit as disconcerting as the cheap tries conceded.
It is frustrating for everyone concerned, not least the fans. Yet again on Saturday for an evening kick-off to one of the classic European clashes the great old ground was a long way short of capacity.
The weather didn't help but the root of the problem goes much deeper than that. Munster were poor in terms of control at half-back with not just Ian Keatley but Conor Murray too a long way short of their best individually and as a unit. Yet I don't see an alternative pairing for the return match at Welford Road on Sunday.
Up front too, while dogged and committed to a fault, that old 'vice-grip' element is missing. The Munster forward factor is no longer what it was when European rugby's traditional big guns come calling. Minds are willing but bodies just aren't able. Having Tommy O'Donnell and Peter O'Mahony available will of course help but the 'injury defence' is lame as it applies to all clubs and all provinces at all times. When they return rest assured at least two others will then be out.
This is a transitional period for the three Champions Cup provinces and despite Friday night's tour de force that includes Ulster too.
Leinster, much like Munster 24 hours before, huffed and puffed against former champions still way below their best. For all that Toulon (with Steffon Armitage operating on a different level at the breakdown) won comfortably in so far as Leinster never looked like breaching the now standard home wall defence.
It's not pretty but is effective with the only gripe the money spent in assembling it. Leinster are willing but unable and on the back of that malaise are drifting somewhat aimlessly through matches. Leinster lack the precision and accuracy in execution - particularly behind the scrum - which for so long we took for granted.
The return with Toulon in the Aviva is now a dead rubber and despite tickets being sold I suspect many will pass on attending given the Blues' early exit. And sacking coaches is not the answer for both provinces. It is imperative now more than ever that the 16th man is seen to be just that in the coming weeks. The least Leo Cullen and Anthony Foley deserve is a fair crack of the whip and that means unconditional support through bad times as well as good.
And if Munster defended abysmally then Leinster's lack of discipline, particularly at the breakdown, culminating in eight turnovers, 15 penalties and three yellow cards, proved their undoing. As currently constituted, the Leinster backline frustrates every bit as much as the Munster equivalent. And if Robbie Henshaw has any sense he will stay put.
Signs are it could get a lot worse before it gets better and to that end I would make one mighty if obvious plea and that is that Cullen and Foley in particular give their young players a shot. Let's be clear what that entails. It doesn't mean going to the 'A' team or Academy and emptying the shelves but what it does mean is carefully selecting combinations that marry seasoned experience with youthful exuberance.
It's up to the coaching staff to do the sums but certainly the Aviva experience should be used productively with specifically the likes of Noel Reid, Garry Ringrose, Luke McGrath, Josh van der Flier and Marty Moore in mind.
Like most I deplore the principle of buying success, whether it is Chelsea, Toulon or whoever, but in order to compete going forward some element of private investment will be essential. Marquee signings such as a Dougie Howlett, a Rocky Elsom or a Ruan Pienaar still have huge roles to play both on the field and off.
That said, and I emphasise this point greatly, we still have an incredibly vibrant underage system of development in this country. It must never be taken for granted but still continues to give us a head start on the professional ladder. The call is for patience and perseverance.
Rugby success is cyclical. Toulon for all their riches still aren't out of reach by any means. They deserved to win on Sunday but, for all their current woes, Leinster again ran them close.
Beating them on Saturday may offer little in qualification terms but, as with Ulster over Toulouse, right now it matters even more to Irish rugby.