Compelling period in prospect for provincial hopefuls
It's crunch time in Europe with Munster facing the biggest test, writes Jim Glennon
There was a time when post-Christmas rugby was given over to speculation about the make-up of the Irish team for the forthcoming Five Nations and debate about who would be in contention at the final trial games.
All that rugby followers could look forward to were these trials and the first of the Five Nations matches at the end of the month.
The tournament was the only televised rugby of the year, it always filled the mid-afternoon slot on a Saturday with the exception of a game in Paris every couple of years which kicked off at 1.30.
Nowadays, there is absolutely no let up in fixtures and focus. Christmas is about the provincial derbies, played in front of capacity crowds. They are important games to all four provinces for rotating squads in the midst of a hectic club schedule through December and January of Magners League and Heineken Cup games.
Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster are all jockeying for prominent league positions; they want to collect maximum points as early as possible in the season.
The aim of those lucky enough to manage a successful team is to create room for manoeuvre at the end of the season with a view to easing the pressure on their manpower when the more significant games come around. In turn, this ensures that there is serious competition in the squad going on throughout the year.
Currently, Leinster and Munster find themselves in very good positions to qualify for the top four of the Magners League, but Ulster have some serious work to do if they are to join them. Connacht are involved in their seemingly perennial struggle for respectability in the lower tier of the league.
Munster are sitting pretty at the top of the Magners League and after last night's outing, they are now looking to secure their 13th successive qualification for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup with two tough games in the coming weeks.
They have climbed many mountains over that period and now have a massive task ahead of them in Toulon next Sunday. Many the waste basket has been in receipt of prematurely prepared obituaries for this Munster team, my own included, as it seems that imminent doom is one of their greatest motivations.
Knock-out rugby runs deep in the Munster psyche and that is what they are facing over the next couple of weeks, particularly in Toulon. Their creaking scrum will be in for the mother of all challenges; the French side, with All Black Carl Hayman on board, will take no prisoners.
The contribution of Paul O'Connell, Munster's own talisman, will be crucial, not only to the forward battle but to the ultimate outcome as well.
I for one won't be writing them off just yet and Toulon will do so at their peril.
Leinster on the other hand have the cushion of an away win already in the bag and are the best placed of the Irish teams to progress. Their challenge is to regain their pre-Christmas levels of intensity as there have been signs of slippage over the last few weeks, notably against Connacht and the Ospreys.
But I suspect that can be put down to player rotation and necessary physiological adjustment between the competitions.
They definitely shouldn't take anything for granted when they face Saracens, as against Racing Metro the English side demonstrated what they can do on the road.
Saracens also have a score to settle with Leinster since their win at Wembley. That victory obviously stuck in Brendan Venter's craw and as a result we can expect a serious backlash. But there is a big prize for Leinster: a win will put them in pole position for the coveted home quarter-final.
Joe Schmidt's backline selection will be fascinating. The scrum, as far as I'm concerned, is still a work in progress, not withstanding Greg Feek's impressive input to date. Once again, it will be targeted next week.
Ulster have a lot to do in the Magners League, but have qualification for the knock-outs in the Heineken Cup for the first time since winning the competition in 1999 in their own hands. To do so, they will need big contributions from Rory Best and Stephen Ferris. Both are just returning from injury, but I don't think either will be found wanting.
On the other hand, they will also need significantly increased input from their high-cost, but low-value South African contingent.
They need a big performance from scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, he will need to "stand up for the Ulster boys". The South Africans need to perform individually and collectively to a level they haven't reached before.
Ultimately, Ulster need to win and deprive Biarritz next Saturday of a bonus point. It is a realistic goal, well within their collective compass and it would leave them needing an imminently achievable bonus-point win in Aironi the following week. If they can pull off both results, it will ensure their safe passage to the sacred land.
All in all from a rugby perspective, there is a great January in prospect, a far cry indeed from the days of final trials and big-five deliberations.
Sunday Indo Sport