Alan Quinlan: Lack of quality leaves Munster in danger of missing out on Champions Cup spot
Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30
This evening's meeting of Connacht and Ulster at the Sportsground is an intriguing battle. Here we have the team that has just defeated Toulouse home and away, against the form Irish side in the Pro12. What a barometer this is for Pat Lam to discover how much his side have improved.
It's five seasons since Connacht last beat Ulster, and of their three provincial rivals, Ulster are the team that has dominated them over the years. There have been fleeting wins over Munster and Leinster in the past, but the boys from the north have mostly ruled over Connacht with an iron fist, especially at Ravenhill, where Connacht have never won.
I have been hugely impressed with Connacht this season, though. They have made the most of having the vast majority of their squad available while other teams struggled during the World Cup, and it is only in the midst of a shocking injury crisis that they have stuttered slightly in recent weeks with away defeats to Cardiff, and then Newcastle in the Challenge Cup.
But despite all their good form, I always regarded the Munster match and these next two games as the acid test of Lam's side. They impressed on the first day, beating Munster, and if they beat Ulster at home today they'll lead their rivals by nine or ten points, depending on the size of the win. Follow it up away to Leinster at the RDS with another win on New Year's Day and they'll be well on the way to claiming Champions Cup rugby.
But Ulster have found the crest of the wave again and are a really dangerous outfit. Under Les Kiss, they look rejuvenated. He is such a positive person and an excellent coach that it's very hard not to get dragged along with his optimism.
In the short involvement I had with him for Ireland you could really see his qualities and it's lifted Ulster in recent weeks.
I have been really impressed with them since he took charge. Between the time that he was announced and eventually took control, Ulster looked a bit rudderless as Neil Doak tried to keep things afloat.
To be fair to Doak, it was a thankless job knowing the new boss was soon on the way, but they are still in a good place in the Pro12 - despite some poor away form this season.
I had completely written off their chances in the Champions Cup on the back of that opening-round defeat to Saracens at Kingspan Stadium, but that double win over Toulouse means they are right back in the thick of it now.
If they can bring their current form with them they have a really good chance of beating Saracens over there in January and avenging that opening-round defeat - that would really set them up for a quarter-final spot.
Most of their form players are in the backs: Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey are as good a quartet as you'll see anywhere and you have to wonder if it's a coincidence that none of them were at the World Cup?
They've been well rested, have had a solid pre-season together and have been playing regularly.
For sure the loss of Iain Henderson is a massive blow for Ulster and I can see Connacht taking them on up front as a result. Ulster have plenty of injury concerns, Gilroy is already ruled out, and they will have to rest a couple of faces after Europe, so maybe that's the chink of light that Connacht can grasp on to.
It looks like the injury problems are clearing a bit out west, though, and the fitness of key performers couldn't come at a more crucial time for Lam's side.
Maybe that enforced rest of a couple of their better players can prove the difference today, but make no mistake, a win for Connacht in this one will really tell us that they've arrived.
The lads in Leinster and Munster will both have an extra day to play with after Christmas Day with their families, but you'd imagine that neither camp will be looking forward to this game.
Four defeats in a row equals Munster's worst run of results in the professional era, while a fourth Champions Cup defeat of the season for Leinster means they are down and out of Europe. What must the morale be like in both camps?
Looking at the Munster game against Leicester I really felt sorry for them. They tried their hearts out, put in huge effort in defence, created chances, but ultimately they were just not good to finish those off and take the win.
I lost count of the chances that they frittered away at Welford Road. They'd put in massive effort to get into a good position, but once the time came to pull the trigger they seemed to freeze. Support lines were often absent, passes went astray or kicks at goal were missed.
It really has been a horrendous month or so for Anthony Foley and his team, all of which started with that defeat to Connacht. They have been physically second best in a lot of the games since then and it's hard to watch it. The crowd are on their backs, their confidence is shot, and I'm a bit fearful of tomorrow.
If ever there was a team that has been backed into a corner, it is this Munster outfit. I'm positive we'll see a huge reaction and a monumental effort from them, but without the quality of performance I worry that that backlash won't be enough.
Leinster, too, have their issues, but any club team in the world would struggle to beat that Toulon side. In the last two weeks Leinster have put it up to them, but have fallen a small bit short both times. There is nothing to be ashamed of there.
Just look at the number of experienced internationals in their team, but the damage was done to their Champions Cup aspirations with defeat to Wasps in round one.
They probably have more depth in their squad than Munster and I think they could well win in Thomond Park. As a Munster supporter, former player and native, I really hope I'm wrong.
I will be really keen to see what kind of teams are named for these two weeks of inter-pro games, to see if the player welfare programme denies us the sight of the strongest sides facing each other. How the coaches balance that equation could have a huge impact on these games.
In previous seasons the big three would have regarded their clash with Connacht as a chance to rest a few faces, but that's no longer the case. This is a huge week for Lam's side and if they can take a win tonight, they'll be in great shape for 2016.
For Munster and Leinster, all of their eggs are in the Pro12 basket now and they need to maintain their positions in the top four and kick on from there.
It's unthinkable that either team could face a slide down the table and miss out on European qualification next season, but if their poor form continues that's a distinct possibility.