Munster getting back to basics
THE competitive season has barely begun and, in terms of wider appeal, will not really kick in until Munster and Leinster meet in the redeveloped Lansdowne Road in little under a month's time.
With the GAA championships still a going concern and the national soccer team plotting their path to the European Championships, it has been hard for the Magners League to command broad attention. However, after just one round of the expanded competition, anticipation is building towards that October 2 clash after a largely encouraging opening weekend for Irish rugby.
Particularly in Munster. After last Saturday's well-constructed bonus-point victory over a dogged Aironi outfit in Cork, the analysis was upbeat among the various groups of supporters and old Munster warriors gathered around Musgrave Park -- although diluted somewhat by the perils of assuming too much, too soon.
Leinster have unquestionably been the dominant province in Irish rugby since Munster won the Heineken Cup in 2008. With a pack bolstered by returnees Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, allied to the increasing influence of the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Stan Wright, Leinster found the muscle to go with their magic out wide and it brought them to European glory in 2009.
It also allowed them to assume Munster's mantle as provincial flag-bearers and the southern province have lost their last four meetings with Leinster, the latest reverse coming in the Magners League play-off semi-final last May when forward dominance was again the launch-pad for Leinster's triumph at the RDS.
Rugby seems to be in a constant state of flux and the past few years have seen unprecedented southern-hemisphere tinkering with laws and interpretations in a bid to make the game more fluid and TV-friendly. However, certain traditional virtues continue to hold sway, namely the importance of a strong set-piece as a platform for progress.
Munster have acknowledged that their scrum and lineout play has been inconsistent over the past two seasons and it has hurt them in the bigger matches. However, there have been commendable moves to correct this issue over the summer and the early signs are encouraging, with the scrum an area of strength in pre-season and against a powerful Aironi unit last weekend.
Looking within the province for forward expertise by bringing Paul McCarthy and Anthony Foley into the senior coaching structure was both pragmatic and reassuring for supporters on a 'back to basics' front, while Niall O'Donovan's involvement in the 'A' set-up means access to another coach with a proven Munster pedigree.
And, although this season was always going to be particularly challenging consistency-wise, given the protection policy for Ireland internationals in the run-up to the World Cup, Munster look to have the strongest squad in terms of depth of the four provinces.
Tony McGahan's starting XV against Aironi was without 13 players who have been regular first-choices over the last two seasons yet it still had an extremely solid look to it, with the return from injury of Felix Jones, Donnacha Ryan and Denis Leamy particularly invigorating.
And with the scrum reasserting itself, all of a sudden there is a host of front-rows jostling to get on the park. With an extra prop allowed on the bench for league fixtures this season, McGahan was able to swap Wian du Preez, Damien Varley and Tony Buckley for Marcus Horan, Denis Fogarty and John Hayes with no discernible reduction in set-piece dominance.
That is a pretty healthy situation when you consider that hooker Jerry Flannery has to return from injury and that McCarthy also has the highly rated tight-head Peter Borlase to work with as well as promising props Dave Ryan and Stephen Archer.
Leinster's depth was also put to the test for their trip to Glasgow and the results were less convincing, with lack of experience costing them in their disappointing defeat at Firhill. They could be forgiven for casting envious looks to the west where three ex-Leinster players -- Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr and Jamie Hagan -- seem ready to reap the benefits of two seasons of exposure with Connacht and played significant parts in a superb victory over the Dragons.
Ulster have deepened their squad by tapping into Afrikaner ambition and theirs was a morale-boosting start also but needs to be backed up in Aironi this weekend. Munster and Connacht join them on the road, travelling to Edinburgh and the Scarlets respectively, but last weekend's performances suggest both those challenges can be surmounted.
The further availability of Ireland players for round two increases the anticipation and Leinster, in particular, need to manage their resources wisely as the Cardiff Blues are a serious prospect this season and will travel to the RDS high on confidence following their win over Edinburgh.
It is far too early to suggest that there has been a shift in the balance of power back towards the south -- we will not know that for certain until October -- but initial indications are that the return to core values in Munster has them heading in the right direction and confidence should be high -- a powerful scrum tends to have that effect.
Meanwhile, Connacht's new No 8 Ezra Taylor has been ruled out of the trip to Llanelli next weekend after suffering a knee ligament injury during the 40-17 win over the Dragons.