Tony Ward: Provinces just can't be leagues apart
Munster and Ulster need wins at home this weekend, while Connacht have to eke out a bonus
This time last year the game here was on the deck. After the World Cup and our ignominious exit to Argentina, it was as if our rugby Hindenburg had been deflated. Injuries to key players ultimately put a halt to our ambition but, if we're brutally honest, we were all guilty of raising the bar much too high in advance of a tournament mapped in Irish minds to the final or at least to an unprecedented semi-final.
Given injuries to established players in Paul O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Peter O'Mahony, plus suspension to Seán O'Brien, we will never know what might have happened had these five key players been available to face the Pumas but either way we were well beaten on the day and with that defeat the mood going back into Europe and the Pro12 was a damp squib following the pyrotechnics of Cardiff and London.
The one thing we did have ratified was the shallowness of our squad at that stage in development under Joe Schmidt. Probably more than any other nation with top-four aspirations, we relied heavily on the main pieces in our jigsaw making it through that World Cup injury-free. Sod's Law meant we were decimated to an extent that I'm not sure even New Zealand would have survived given the personnel and leadership qualities involved.
Twelve months on and we find ourselves in a completely different place. O'Connell is now retired and both Payne and Sexton are worryingly again injured, but with the most amazing run of results in our rugby-playing history and with a lorry-load of emerging talent coming through, the foundation is being put in place by Schmidt and his backroom staff for something very special.
Whether it's enough for our four provinces to challenge for Champions Cup success again I'm not so sure. Only time will tell on that one, but enough evidence from the summer in South Africa and the autumn series here and in Chicago to suggest a climb back to the Golden Generation is well and truly under way.
I hate what the money men have done through French and English clubs - particularly the former - in buying success, but to the doom and gloom merchants I repeat that Irish rugby will continue to compete provided the underage development system is retained as is. It needs no tweaking. We tinker at our peril.
What the Jack Charlton era did for us as a footballing nation in terms of interest and confidence (even if we loathed the 'put 'em under pressure' philosophy), has been matched in rugby by the success achieved by Declan Kidney, Eddie O'Sullivan, Schmidt and Michael Cheika, with the greatest batch of players of the professional era. Rugby, like football once did, is seeing the benefits now.
The number of kids influenced by the daring deeds of the O'Connell/O'Driscoll/O'Gara generation is manifesting itself by way of so many coming through. Kicking off last night in Northampton and continuing today and tomorrow in Limerick, Belfast and Coventry are European Champions Cup games to relish. They also embrace the Pro12 v English Premiership/Top 14 factor.
Just how big a gap exists between the different leagues will be revealed over this weekend and next given the now firmly established back-to-back element to the EPCR season. Thomond and the Kingspan will be packed to capacity for the visit of Leicester and Clermont.
Rassie Erasmus may be the new kid on the coaching block but I thought he got it right in midweek when pointing to the recent success of the national side benefiting the provinces.
Of course the English clubs, Northampton, Leicester and Wasps, will be expecting the same positive knock-on from the returning international elite so something's got to give. Put it all together and the buzz is tangible.
Outside of the Test arena it is the most exciting phase of the season by a mile and bear in mind that when these return fixtures are complete we are then into the festive derbies.
For Munster and Ulster, home wins are essential, irrespective of the quality of opposition in the Tigers and Clermont, while for Connacht, facing the most difficult assignment of all, a losing bonus (not that they will be thinking that way) is all but a requirement on the road if finishing second on the day.
Think Munster and just how often the losing bonus point when travelling opened the door to qualification come January.
I really hope the westerners can park the events of the last few days. I know it is what they do for a crust and they are individually professional and ambitious but they are also human. There is no need to rehash what has transpired although I still find it difficult to comprehend how this mid-contract move is about anything other than money and not for a minute do I begrudge Pat Lam the right to maximise that earning potential in what is a very fickle career and occupation.
What I find most disturbing is that either party to a contract can sign (as in this case) for an agreed duration yet trigger a six-month release if and when a better offer comes along. To use the most obvious cliché, it ain't worth the paper it's written on.
What's the point in having a contract and more relevantly are we now at the stage in rugby's evolution whereby players should seek the same get-out clause depending on the terms of the coach pursuing their signature? At the very least we're on the inside lane of the crazy highway seen in soccer.
I hope Connacht go out and blow the trauma of this week to smithereens.
Pat Lam has been fantastic for Connacht Rugby but this move now and the awful timing of it (and I'm sorry the six-month clause doesn't wash) has the potential to undermine so much of what has been achieved in this incredible run.
All four provincial coaches are hugely appreciative of what Schmidt has achieved and its positive impact on the players involved. Les Kiss has probably been the most damaged in terms of losing Andrew Trimble and, more particularly, Jared Payne to injury (the latter long-term), although Leo Cullen has also paid a hefty price in losing Jordi Murphy and Sexton but as both mentors know only too well, given their time involved as coach and player respectively, it comes with the territory.
Mention too of the decision taken by the Six Nations Council to run with the bonus-point system in existence in almost every major competition around the world. There have been objections in some quarters but for the life of me I don't know why. Anything that encourages expansive rugby in the search for tries has to be embraced.
When it comes to passion, call it tribalism, the Six Nations continues to be the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown and, with respect to Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, only the EPCR Champions Cup comes close.