Tony Ward: Niyi Adeolokun has pace and skill to be new Denis Hickie
Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30
If Sam Maguire's victory parade marks the official end to the GAA championships, then Munster rocking up against Leinster represents the real start to the rugby season - with the big European fare following hot on the derby's heels.
The inter-pro games were always special anyway, but there has been an extra edge to them since the French and English insisted on meritocracy in terms of Champions Cup qualification from the Pro12 (the sad joke that is the Italian situation aside).
Now, with only the top six getting to dine at Europe's top table (the seventh place goes to Treviso or Zebre), plus the scramble to reach the knockout phase of the Pro12 itself, the old Celtic League has real meaning.
On the flip-side, the French and English club owners have turned what was once a level playing field into one with sun, hill and wind favouring Top 14 and Premiership clubs - in both halves. The Champions Cup is badly in need of redress.
Still, that extra bite in the Pro12 is most welcome, and nowhere will that bite be more in evidence than in Lansdowne Road and the Sportsground this weekend.
The reigning champions entertaining the current leaders is big, but with respect to Connacht and Ulster, Saturday's Aviva showdown is our El Clasico and Old Firm rolled into one. If there is a bigger club game in world rugby then I don't know it.
With Ulster, Munster and Leinster setting the early pace in the Pro12 table, it's been a reasonable start for the provinces, in an undercooked sort of way.
The mantle of champions has been weighing heavily on Connacht shoulders but there were signs against Edinburgh that some of last season's winning form was re-emerging, with Peter Robb particularly impressive in the Robbie Henshaw role.
However, the Westerners have not yet managed to replace out-half AJ MacGinty and second-row Aly Muldowney to the same effect. Jack Carty and Ultan Dillane have what it takes to step into those big shoes, but the need is here and now.
Muldowney's role as a fluid link between backs and forwards is particularly missed.
On the plus side has been the form of Niyi Adeolokun and Kieran Marmion.
Winger Adeolokun is proving himself to be so much more than a 'mere' finisher with speed to burn. It's clear his confidence has grown, and he is roving off his wing and getting involved so much more.
He is not a Jonah Lomu in terms of physique but like All Black winger Nehe Milner-Skudder - currently injured - he has natural pace and evasive skills beyond coaching. He has a step and acceleration to leave defenders grasping at thin air.
Joe Schmidt cannot but be impressed; wing is an area where he is top-heavy with talent, but none with Adeolokun's out-and-out speed. Not since Denis Hickie in his prime have we seen such raw pace from an Irish winger.
Marmion, much like the team, has been a slow burner thus far, but his ability to pass, snipe and kick - in that order - makes him an ideal No 2 to Conor Murray at this point in time.
With Eoin Reddan now retired, Marmion offers that injection of tempo off the bench. His running offers such a threat from the base of the scrum, and the knock-on effect is huge, in terms of keeping the opposition honest and creating time and space for his out-half.
Regardless of what happens in the upcoming derbies, the Soldiers Field date with the All Blacks on November 5 looms large - and it's looking more daunting than ever.
On Saturday in Argentina, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen handed debits to Patrick Tuipulotu (23) and Anton Lienert-Brown (21) at lock and centre respectively. Both were brilliant as the All Blacks won 36-17.
Utility-back Damian McKenzie (also 21) had a baptism of fire off the bench in the final quarter, but watch him emerge as a future superstar.
Although they have still to face the Springboks and Wallabies on the road before turning attention to Ireland in Chicago, it's clear that the gap is widening between the No 1 nation in the world and the rest.
If we are to pull off that dream first win, there could hardly be a more difficult time.
A couple of refereeing issues arose at the weekend. In Pretoria, where South Africa beat Australia, Wayne Barnes was in control, but overlooked a lot of forward passes.
Like World Rugby, I am all for giving advantage to the attacking team, but some of the passing that is now deemed legal beggars belief.
Teams will push gain-line passing to the limit but some of the stuff from the Wallabies - particularly Quade Cooper - was farcical.
How match officials who supposedly played this game in their youth cannot judge by the angle of a player's body that a particular pass must be forward is beyond comprehension.
Forget the angle of the hands and the fingernails and all that forensic detail, and concentrate instead on basic body position and feel.
In a slightly different vein, former St Mary's schoolboy and Leinster Association referee Dudley Phillips came under the spotlight for a late match-winning penalty he awarded (for a professional foul) to Leinster's stand-in captain - and former St Mary's schoolboy - Jonathan Sexton.
I am not questioning Phillips' integrity but there is substance to the argument that (whatever the cost) you should have neutral match officials at all times.