Kidney hoping for home comforts
Irish rugby may be in a Six Nations jam after defeat to England, but Declan Kidney and company will look to the bread and butter of Pro12 action to launch a revival against Scotland and beyond.
THE international championship may be grabbing all the headlines, but domestic action continues and its influence on the national team remains inescapable.
As Wales and France send a variety of players back to privately-owned clubs to be potentially 'flogged' on another weekend, Ireland's frontline players will be rested, but with the injuries mounting, a variety of back-up options are seeking to shine for the provinces this weekend.
It is a difficult balancing act for the provinces, seeking to perform without their best players, being directed by the IRFU as to the selection of certain players while then being expected to be in prime position to challenge when European competition resumes in April.
In an ideal world, Munster coach Rob Penney would not play Ronan O'Gara this weekend as he seeks to build a squad for a future that patently does not include the veteran.
Instead, Kidney has ordered that O'Gara play; the IRFU pay Penney's wages and are the predominant investors in Munster, so them's the rules.
Meanwhile, fringe out-half candidates from the other provinces will be jostling for position this weekend as they chase a bench berth in Murrayfield or, perhaps, even more.
But the bottom line for the leading provinces will be maintaining their push for the play-offs and priming themselves for their European challenges.
Despite almost weekly outpourings of angst down south, Munster are yet again Heineken Cup quarter-finalists and are primed to make a dash for the Pro12 play-offs, despite a series of injuries to key players and hand-wringing from the cognoscenti about "playing style."
Paul O'Connell (above) remains the chief casualty; he played two full Heineken Cup games, but ongoing back problems eventually forced him to submit to surgery. May recover for Heineken Cup quarter-final trip to Harlequins.
Rising star Simon Zebo's chances are not so bright after breaking his foot in Ireland's defeat last weekend. Recurring back-row injuries have hampered continuity and consistency in that area.
What they need to do
Munster have a really difficult run-in, with half of their games against sides above them in the table, and successive trips to west Wales and Italy in the next fortnight will reveal much about their play-off hopes. Consistency of performance, particularly in the set-piece, is key. When Munster have struggled under Penney, it has had nothing to do with style – it was simply because they have just played poorly and selected unwisely.
Seeing both midfield recruits Casey Laulala and James Downey bomb hasn't helped their cause.
A mighty scrap for the last play-off berth. If the Heineken Cup quarter-final was at Twickenham, they'd have a chance against Harlequins. Not at the Stoop though.
In racing parlance, Ulster have showed blistering early pace, but are they in danger of being caught in the homeward stretch?
Still riding high atop the standings, their extraordinary 11-game winning streak before Christmas has arguably allowed them a little more wriggle room as they struggle to cope with international call-ups and a lengthening injury list.
They also burst from the traps in Europe with an opening 4-0 record, but a sloppy home defeat to Northampton cost them a Ravenhill quarter-final. The squad's overall progress is a tribute to their togetherness in the aftermath of Nevin Spence's untimely passing.
Being injury-free aided their accelerated start to the season and it is no coincidence that key injuries since then in important sectors have handicapped them – from Tommy Bowe on the wing to Stephen Ferris (right) and Nick Williams in the back-row, and influential captain Johann Muller in the tight five.
What they need to do
Not panic. Ulster still have the two Italian sides at home and even without their established stars, a squad with designs on silverware should be confident of knocking them over and ensuring a home Pro12 semi-final.
Another key issue, which their last Heineken Cup game may have already decided in any event, is where to play Ruan Pienaar. Scrum-half is his best position.
Pro12 finalists; won't make Heineken Cup semi-final.
The back-to-back European champions are still licking their self-inflicted wounds following their self-confessed embarrassing exit at the pool stages. After losing three Grand Finals in succession, they lie third in the table and are clearly gunning for the Pro12 title.
Leinster got what they wanted for Christmas – a virtually clean bill of health. Sadly, the damage in Europe was already done by then and even with messrs O'Driscoll, O'Brien, Fitzgerald and Kearney back in the mix, a sluggish start left them with too much ground to make up.
What they need to do
The main work is off the field. First, find a quality back-up for Ian Madigan (above) or, alternatively, a direct replacement for Paris-bound Jonny Sexton given that the encouragement for Madigan to make the step up has hardly been effusive within the province.
A quality second-row is required as Devin Toner has failed to convince and Quinn Roux, who may get a second year, has spent all his first in casualty. Oh, and persuade new dad O'Driscoll and big Leo to have one final fling.
Still money and kudos to be earned in the Amlin Challenge Cup but after beating Wasps at home, a tricky away semi-final awaits. Five of their last eight fixtures are bankers so a home semi-final and potential final against Ulster awaits; though a last-day shootout with familiar foes Ospreys could be required.
A second season dealing with the warm glow of Heineken Cup rugby in Galway, but, once that has worn off, there could be the familiar cooling off period, with moderate league form and a collective crossing of fingers to hope that Leinster can sneak them in through the back door to Europe's top table once more.
Connacht have at times reached well into double figures, but these cannot excuse poor league form, while home wins against Leinster and Biarritz came without several recognised frontliners.
What they need to do
With Pat Lam (right) arriving for the last three games, Connacht need to ensure that transition is handled better than shambolic manner in which Eric Elwood's succession was dealt with.
Consistency remains key. Lam will need to eradicate the wild west, underdog, breast-beating nonsense and focus on producing professional, competent displays every week, not every month.
Bleak. A scrap to evade 11th spot in the league table; they currently lie 10th and, given the fixture list, last year's eighth placing seems a distant prospect. They'll be hoping an Irish province lifts silverware on ERC finals weekend – otherwise Lam's first season will be spent trawling around Romania and Spain.
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