Derby clashes set to ignite the provinces
ALTHOUGH the provinces had six rounds of Pro12 action under their belts going into last weekend, there was a definite sense of the season cranking up a notch with the return to action of the bulk of Ireland's World Cup squad.
It goes up another gear this weekend when World Cup bonding exercises will be placed to one side as the league provides the platform for Ireland's provinces to renew ancient rivalries. Leinster-Munster at a near-full Lansdowne Road will inevitably attract top billing, but the meeting of Ulster and Connacht is also extremely significant for Ireland management, and then it is full steam ahead into another Heineken Cup odyssey which, for the first time, incorporates all four provinces.
We talked on Saturday about the provincial role in Irish rugby's recovery from the World Cup hangover, so how did it go?
The 'old guard'
There is always the danger of comedown issues for players returning from the intensity and exposure of the World Cup but, by and large, the readjustment process went quite smoothly.
Since Ireland's quarter-final exit, there has been talk of moving on the older brigade (far too previous for what should always be a gradual process) but Ireland's established 'old guard' still has plenty to offer -- as was demonstrated last weekend.
Paul O'Connell relished the old-school nature of Munster's dogged win over Aironi at a weather-lashed Musgrave Park, to the point where he picked up the Man-of-the-Match award. Denis Leamy was lively and forceful in the back-row and Ronan O'Gara, despite a couple of shaky moments, gave an exhibition of quality place-kicking in difficult conditions to smother the Italian challenge.
For Leinster, Leo Cullen had an effective outing, reflecting his thirst for game-time after a back-up role in New Zealand, Mike Ross put in a good shift to set up a run of matches into the Heineken Cup and Isaac Boss impressed.
Andrew Trimble, although hardly old at 27, qualifies for this category having been on the international scene since 2005, and was Ulster's most potent attacker on a disappointing day in Llanelli, carrying on from his impressive form since August.
The selections of Dominic Ryan and Peter O'Mahony in the No 7 jerseys for Leinster and Munster, respectively, was an encouraging development in the move to broaden the base in this problem area and both did well.
The Edinburgh back-row was talked up before their Murrayfield meeting with Joe Schmidt's side but Ryan put himself about to good effect, winning several turnovers in the process. O'Mahony, never a player to shirk the physical side of the game, took some severe punishment against Aironi but kept causing problems for the visitors.
Sean O'Brien and Shane Jennings are expected to return for Leinster this week, but it would be great to see Ryan and O'Mahony have a 'seven-off' at Lansdowne Road on Friday.
Connacht closing in
They may have blown it with a four-minute 'brain-fart' just after half-time, but Saturday's six-point defeat by Cardiff carried some notable plus-points for Connacht. Eric Elwood's side built their 17-6 half-time lead very impressively as their pack fronted up to the visitors, with a regular flow of decent line-out possession, while Frank Murphy kept things moving from scrum-half.
They also responded impressively to their 14-point surrender show while the Sportsground, with the new stand being likened to Gloucester's famous Shed, looked like a proper rugby venue and one that generated an admirable atmosphere. If Connacht can keep their concentration for the full 80, they have a real shot at victory over Ulster this weekend, as well as causing upsets in Europe.
Sexton back ON SONG
It was a tough World Cup for Jonny Sexton, who seemed to struggle with his confidence as O'Gara reclaimed the No 10 jersey that the Leinster man appeared to have locked down with his performance against England last March.
Sexton looked like a player who needed to return to the environment where he made his name and, less than 24 hours after a compelling return to Leinster colours that produced a match-winning 23 points, he was at Templeville Road watching his old St Mary's club-mates. St Mary's won as well, a good weekend all round for Sexton.
There were no major injury concerns to report after the weekend, welcome news for Ireland coach Declan Kidney who was dogged by injury issues before and during the World Cup. Tomas O'Leary suffered a minor head injury that is not causing any serious concern while Sexton had a slight cramp and, barring long-term casualties, Munster and Leinster are expected to have full squads to choose from for this Friday's clash.
From Kidney's point of view, there were encouraging individual performances to dwell on, led by Munster scrum-half Conor Murray, who re-emphasised why he rose from British and Irish Cup obscurity to become Ireland's top No 9 in a matter of months.
Mike McCarthy missed out on World Cup selection but, along with O'Connell, was the pick of the weekend second-rows (an area where Ireland need depth) while Donnacha Ryan also went well there for Munster. The Connacht scrum had its issues against the Blues but they were mostly on the tight-head side as loose-head Brett Wilkinson gave further notice of his capacity to move up the ladder this season.
And finally, Luke Fitzgerald (plagued by 'Star Wars' headlines his whole career) looks to have rediscovered 'the force' after a difficult year as he continued a strong start to his season.
With a clutch of Irish internationals on their books, Ulster need to build on last season's improvements but fluffed their lines badly in Wales. They picked up a losing bonus point but lost to a far-from-vintage Scarlets outfit in the type of fixture they should be winning to demonstrate signs of genuine progress.
Given their tough Heineken Cup group, Brian McLaughlin needed to see more and Connacht will fancy their chances this weekend.
On a related point, Ulster lost the back-row battle against the Scarlets while their best open-side Willie Faloon was inspiring Ballynahinch to a comprehensive victory over UCC in the AIL. Faloon needs to be brought back in at No 7, quickly.
Wilkinson and Ross aside, it was an ordinary weekend for the Irish propping fraternity. Munster started two South Africans and Leinster one, while Ulster's Irish pair of Tom Court and Paddy McAllister struggled in Parc y Scarlets.
There needs to be a focus on running from depth and an overall adoption of the offloading game by the provinces this season -- but last weekend did not excite in that regard.
As expected, Leinster were the most inventive while the weather hindered the efforts of the Munster backline, which never looked consistently threatening. This weekend's derbies need to provide some encouraging signs in the attacking department rather than a reversion to the same-old, same-old.