Jim Glennon: Provincial rivalries will drive the return to European success
After a relatively bleak December for the traditional powerhouses of Leinster and Munster in European competition, the interpro derbies provided a welcome, and necessary, change of focus.
The two form teams met in Galway on St Stephen's Day on a typically windy Sportsground December evening and, even coming off the back of their outstanding double over Toulouse, Ulster's trip west presented a real challenge.
Les Kiss has needed little time to settle in at Ravenhill and looks to be already bringing his influence to bear, with an increased midfield potency particularly evident. His new charges left Galway with a late seven-point win, leaving Connacht to ponder their second successive loss in the league since the high of their win over Munster in Thomond Park. This was extended to three at the RDS on Friday, and they'll be disappointed because both losses in the past week have been in closely-fought encounters.
While Pat Lam's team has shown definite signs of mounting a sustained challenge for honours this season, the run of losses will be a cause for concern, especially after a similar slump in form at the same juncture last season.
Depending on who you listen to, injuries, World Cup hangovers, transition periods, succession issues, form losses, financial constraints, IRFU player restrictions, young coaching teams and unrealistic expectations have all been factors in the relatively poor results of recent weeks for Leinster and Munster.
Ulster especially, and Connacht, allowing for the present blip, have managed to more than hold their own, however. Ulster's success over Toulouse was especially noteworthy in the context of the other provinces' difficulties.
The interprovincial rivalries, long a feature of our rugby landscape, remain pivotally important. The Munster-Leinster clash at Thomond Park was as competitive as any in recent years and while the quality of some aspects of play fell short of what we have become accustomed to, it was a real match nonetheless. The atmosphere was what Munster would have hoped for and on the pitch the scoreline tight until an opportunist last-minute Leinster intercept try distorted it somewhat. Both coaches will have felt that they should have clocked up more points during periods of dominance, and Anthony Foley particularly will rue a gaping void at half-back.
The outlook for Leinster is somewhat brighter. Problems remain but Leo Cullen and his group will move forward with confidence levels largely replenished - a Pro12 win is a major prize and their sole focus now.
Munster won't easily forget the setback, coming as it did on the back of their loss to Connacht a few weeks previously at the same venue, but the point must be made that, with all the pessimism surrounding the provinces' European progress, expectations must be realistic, and the next generation will struggle in the absence of the established leaders.
While it's difficult, in the context of the financial resources currently at the disposal of the English and French, to envisage a turning of the European tide in the short-term, it must be said too that a few weeks ago it was equally difficult to envisage Ulster trouncing Toulouse by 38 points at home and following it up with an away win the following week.
While there's little doubt or disagreement on the requirement for a coherent strategy for injection of external private funding or investment into the provinces, the capacity of all four to produce talent remains unquestionable - to the extent that such investment will always be secondary to academies.
The interpros are essential to the development of academy graduates such as Leinster's Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier, Munster's Jack O'Donoghue and Rory Scannell, Alan O'Connor and Kyle McCall with Ulster and Connacht's Sean O'Brien and James Connolly. Their early exposure to games of this stature and intensity is vital and one of the positives of recent weeks has been the performances of these and others blooded in the absence of so many front-liners.
We may have lost some of our competitive edge in Europe, but success nonetheless is still possible. The lesson from recent weeks is that while the business model may require examination, the intense rivalries between the provinces remains a positive driving force and if our once pre-eminent position has been undermined by the shifting sands of politics and high finance, it's imperative that we extract the maximum from the resources available to us.
Sunday Indo Sport