Sunday 25 June 2017

Jim Glennon: Poor quality of league allows Irish sides enjoy days in the sun

'Once again, Connacht raised themselves to a different level in terms of physicality, particularly in defence.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Once again, Connacht raised themselves to a different level in terms of physicality, particularly in defence.' Photo: Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

In previous years we would have entertained realistic hopes of spending the past week anticipating the presence of at least one Irish province in last night's Champions Cup final. Times have changed however, resulting in a blank week for the three provinces still standing ahead of their Pro12 semi-finals next weekend.

Last Saturday's clean sweep brought a good feeling to the finale of the regular league programme. Once again, Connacht raised themselves to a different level in terms of physicality, particularly in defence. The re-match with Glasgow will be a fascinating encounter. The comparison between Connacht and Leicester City is overplayed, but there is one interesting point worth making: many soccer pundits have commented that while Leicester deserve credit, the relatively poor performances of the traditional heavyweights was a significant factor in their unlikely success. In that context, the performances of the traditional heavyweights of Irish rugby are worth a look too.

Ulster go into the semi-final off the back of four successive wins, their longest Pro12 winning run of the season, a season which, at best, could be described as inconsistent. The positives, apart from the continued development of Paddy Jackson, have been the emergence of Stuart McCloskey and the ability of his midfield partner Luke Marshall to remain fit. As a trio, they represent a handful for any Pro 12 defence.

With Ruan Pienaar still controlling things from scrum-half, and a back-three of Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne, they have a talented and well-balanced back unit, even in the injury-enforced absence of Tommy Bowe.

Ulster have struggled to demonstrate their full range of capabilities against high-quality opposition, however, and they've struggled to achieve consistency of creativity, execution and composure under pressure,

In Les Kiss, though, they have a valuable asset. This is his debut season, one stalled by World Cup commitments with Ireland, and it's reasonable to expect greater consistency next term, but in a pack heavily reliant on anchorman Rory Best and the ball-carrying of Iain Henderson and the now injured Nick Williams, others have been markedly absent. Best and Henderson are both anything but ever-present, Williams is Cardiff-bound, and his replacement, Marcell Coetzee, is injured and not expected to be fit until the new year. Time for new faces to step up to the plate.

Their hosts next Friday are a difficult one to pin down. Leo Cullen's Leinster pipped Connacht to top the regular-season standings. For most of the season they appeared to play with a control and composure that enabled them to navigate the challenges of often mediocre opposition, producing only an occasional flash of sparkle.

There's a sense that they're in something of a limbo. They can deal with most in the Pro12 in their sleep, but the step-up to Europe has been too much. Their low seeding, a consequence of last season's poor league form under Matt O'Connor, dealt them a tough hand, and their European effort brought to mind an Allianz NFL Division 2 team trying to compete with the Dubs or Kerry in Croke Park in August - the power, pace and skill levels required were beyond them.

Johnny Sexton's recent comments on Leinster's falling standards are interesting, as is his apparent need to make them - every new group of players needs to take control of and put their own stamp on what is, for their duration, their set-up; failure to do so serves only to shorten their own duration.

Munster's travails have been something of a paradox. They've been difficult to watch but, when and where it mattered most, traditional core values eventually prevailed, with Anthony Foley's team plucking ten points from the wreckage at the death to ensure Champions Cup rugby again next season. Changes are undoubtedly afoot with Rassie Erasmus's imminent arrival. Munster have a job of work on their hands - for most of this season they were at their lowest ebb in recent memory. Questions linger over the quality of some signings, and over some key positions too, most notably out-half.

Connacht's achievements are already well chronicled but, to be entirely fair, it must also be said that it's against the backdrop of a relatively poor Pro12 in a World Cup season, where the standards of most have declined.

The challenge posed by the Welsh, save for Scarlets, has been poor, while just how much longer Glasgow will be competing at the top end of the league must be in question as their top players increasingly catch the attentions of the better-resourced franchises in England and France.

The challenges faced by the pro game in Ireland are well rehearsed at this stage. Success in a Europe as currently structured is difficult to imagine. While it's reasonable to expect our share of the league semi-finalists again next season, will that be enough to sate the appetites of fans?

Still, regardless of the lack of quality of most of those outside the top four, we have two fascinating match-ups to look forward to next weekend. The best four sides in the league remain standing, having slogged through the winter; hopefully they, and all of us, will get to enjoy a day or two in the sun over the next fortnight.

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