Jim Glennon: We may be the big fish in Pro12 but our pond is very shallow
Unknown to all but the die-hards, the Pro12 continued apace during the last number of weeks through the Six Nations and its re-emergence into the limelight immediately after the Championship's conclusion probably came as a surprise to some.
Munster had little more than an opposed training session on Friday night, but Ulster were less fortunate in a fruitless and potentially expensive excursion to Glasgow.
With no Irish involvement in the Champions Cup knock-outs to look forward to, the Pro12 as the sole focus at season's end is something to which we are quite unaccustomed; Connacht's Challenge Cup quarter-final may be an interesting side-show but, make no mistake, their primary focus is the league.
Top four play-off places are the be all and end all for each of the provinces and, of the quartet, it was Munster whose chances were most in jeopardy ahead of this weekend. Difficult days in the south as the crucial period looms, starting with Leinster in Dublin next weekend, but they will be buoyed by their outing against Zebre, and also by Anthony Foley's contract renewal, coupled with the creation of a new position of Director of Rugby, yet to be filled.
Zebre's visit to Thomond on Friday, was never going to be anything more than a run-out affording a low-risk opportunity to re-integrate the returning internationals. A bonus point win was practically guaranteed, but just how much they can take from a 47-0 game is difficult to say. apart that is from the return of their Ireland players. The entire contingent of Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander, Tommy O'Donnell, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo saw game time, all returning in confident mood.
Their importance to Munster can't be underestimated. While the team looked sharp at times on Friday, there were some elements of their play in need of honing and, coming from behind in terms of league points as they are, a significantly increased tempo as the weather improves and the games open up is imperative if their goal is to be achieved.
Ulster's challenge in Scotstoun was of an altogether different nature. A poor and underperforming Leinster had made the same trip last week and, while Gregor Townsend's title-holders haven't hit the heights of last season, they are now finally generating some momentum and remain a tough nut to crack, particularly at home.
Having experienced less international disruption than most others, Glasgow included, Ulster's confidence would have been high; that they failed to bring home even a losers' bonus point will rankle, and may prove expensive. But they have only themselves to blame, failing to exploit a 17-9 lead early in the second half.
The return of Iain Henderson for a full 80 minutes was a major boost. Aside from his obvious ability and contribution, his presence brings an increased confidence to colleagues, and while his first appearance since December was always going to be a big ask, his fitness and availability for the season's run-in, and Ireland's June tour to South Africa, is crucial.
For all the benefits of having Henderson back in the mix, it was Ulster's execution which let them down. A first-half one-handed offload by Craig Gilroy which went to ground when the more orthodox two-handed effort would have sufficed comes to mind as an example of many; the early loss through injury of promising second-row Alan O'Connor was a disruptive blow too.
Their failure to deliver, and it's manner, represents a double-whammy from which they'll do well to recover. They now lie fifth of the six teams chasing the play-off spots and, with Glasgow looking good again, Connacht's visit to Belfast could be season-defining.
The absence from Europe's latter stages has left the Pro12 as the only show in town and a happy coincidence has provided the most competitive run-in the competition has seen, complete with Connacht's Leicester City-like run of results. Don't be deceived though, the competition - never a runaway success - is in deep trouble structurally.
A wonderful occasion and atmosphere in Galway aside, the quality of pitches, officiating, and, all too often, play on the pitch simply doesn't compare with those of the English and French counterpart competitions - Pro12 will always be the loser in the event of a clash for the uncommitted television spectator. In addition, and whatever parochial satisfaction we may enjoy, near-monopoly of the top of the table by one country is every bit as unhealthy as a similar situation at the bottom for another.
Celtic big fish we may very well be, but in a pool of relative minnows.
Sunday Indo Sport