Tony Ward: Paddy Jackson applying serious pressure on Johnny Sexton for Ireland jersey
Published 22/12/2015 | 02:30
Where there's life there's hope and despite two defeats from three it is Leinster alone definitively out of this season's European Champions Cup.
For Ulster on the back of a superb win in Toulouse and for Munster by way of a much more substantial losing performance at Welford Road, the lure of the premier competition at least extends into the new year.
Champion teams soak up pressure and come back even stronger when the chips are down - think Kilkenny over Galway in this year's All-Ireland final, and for the Cats back in September read Toulon now. It cost a fair heap of Euro to put the Toulon All Stars in place but it shows.
And whatever else Bernard Laporte, Diego Dominguez and the rest of the coaching team on the Cote D'Azur may be accused of, it sure ain't variety. They replace like with like. Big powerful men like Mamuka Gorgodze and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe replace big powerful men as route one rugby reinforces route one rugby.
Of course they have the wherewithal to apply the icing, specifically through Drew Mitchell and Bryan Habana, but if ever the age old adage of 'forwards winning games leaving backs to determine the damage' applied it is through this expensively assembled freak machine now.
I hope they don't make it four in a row but if they do so what? Even if they win it for the next ten years does it really matter in terms of achievement?
Call me old school here but I just don't get it. That said in order to compete we are going to have to up the financial ante to a manageable degree with the proposed route to that ambition well flogged at this stage.
But back to the finer detail of this latest encounter. For 40 minutes at the Aviva on Saturday, Leinster played with a vibrancy previously lacking. They were much more positive, far more accurate, showing greater urgency with quicker line-speed and a much better tailored game-plan.
Kicking in behind, generally long and pressing high up the pitch proved extremely bountiful in that opening half.
Then came the squeeze as the mean machine sucked the life out of the three-time champions in that second period.
There are many ways to skin a cat but Toulon do relentless power through pure physicality better than any other unit on planet rugby.
It ain't pretty but it is undeniably successful and almost impossible to repel, other than meeting and beating like with like, but when the bench is even stronger than those they replace, what chance?
With Leinster now removed mathematically from this year's competition, I would like to see Leo Cullen give youth its fling in a measured and sensible way for Bath at home and Wasps on the road.
For Munster, the improvement from Thomond seven days before was every bit as marked. They deserved a losing bonus point, but even the art of ekeing something from nothing is lost on this still developing group.
Leicester were again their better and deserved the win but this time they had to graft so much harder for every point registered, while only for Telusa Veainu's try-saving tackle on Francis Saili, the contest might well have swung the other way.
Saili was again outstanding and really does look the business in midfield. I suspect a move to inside centre with Keith Earls alongside to face Leinster could be on the cards.
CJ Stander was again immense, while Andrew Conway to a much lesser degree had his moments.
Two of the front-row caught my eye throughout: James Cronin and Mike Sherry stamped their presence.
Niall Scannell is yet another good Munster hooker in the making and along with Dave Kilcoyne provides very real front-row impact off the bench.
Point being there is plenty of material there for Anthony Foley to develop. Conor Murray though still way below his best had a more meaningful input for the simple reason he box-kicked less.
As I expected, Ian Keatley showed much moral courage given his experience of the week before but still missed two vital penalties at crucial stages in the contest that he knows he should have nailed. I feel for him in his current plight but only he and he alone can work his way through.
The promising Rory Scannell and injury-stricken Tyler Bleyendaal make for obvious alternatives at ten but as of now a confident Keatley (and I emphasise that word confidence) is the most complete playmaker of the three.
Bear in mind he was deemed Ireland's number one out-half by Joe Schmidt in Rome for the Six Nations opener last February. He more than justified that selection on the day but has fallen off a long way since.
With Jonathan Sexton working his way through his own gremlins it is Paddy Jackson the form Irish Number 10 at this point in time.
Jackson was again at the heart of another uplifting performance for Ulster and Irish rugby. Thirty six points less in the difference a week on against Toulouse, but a performance every bit as substantial given the context made it another historic day for the men from the north.
Toulouse, much like Leinster and Munster, have drifted a long way from their deeds of the past yet to 'nil them' one week and then a week later beat them on their own patch takes some doing.
Saracens will walk the Pool but a place in the last eight is not beyond the bounds of possibility and that in itself would make for some achievement given the doom and gloom surrounding Irish rugby post-Argentina.
Either way I am delighted for Les Kiss; the difference his arrival is already making at the Kingspan is marked.