Leinster stay top of class
2011 report card
On pitch: Excellent. As the statistics testify, 2011 was a wonderful year for Leinster rugby, the obvious highlight being the remarkable second-half comeback against Northampton to claim their second Heineken Cup title. A week later, they were physically and emotionally empty as a motivated Munster prevented Joe Schmidt from claiming the double in his debut season.
Since the autumn, that progress has been maintained in both competitions, as Leinster are in control of their European pool and have a healthy six-point lead at the head of the Pro12 table. However, aside from the superb win percentage, it has been the style of play that has made 2011 such a positive experience for Leinster.
Off pitch: The marketing jargon may grate but the Leinster 'brand' had a very productive year with new facilities in Clonskeagh reflecting the growth spurt. Moving matches to Lansdowne Road has been a triumph while the RDS has continued to pull in the punters and both venues are now among the most intimidating on the European circuit. With supporter numbers increasing through the year, the blue wave has gathered significant momentum.
Again, excellent. Having built up a buffer zone in the league by the halfway stage, it is impossible to see Leinster missing out on the play-offs come the late spring. Likewise, in the Heineken Cup, with Glasgow away and Montpellier at home, it is extremely hard to envisage Leinster not engineering a home quarter-final at Lansdowne Road where you would back them to beat anybody. Toulouse, despite their defeat to Harlequins, are the greatest threat to back-to-back titles with Clermont (if they are in the mood) the other main threats, but, once again, the double is definitely on.
Foreign contingent: Isa Nacewa continues to astound with his levels of skill and consistency while the departed Nathan Hines was a huge influence in their run to the Heineken Cup title. Heinke van der Merwe has also proved an excellent signing at loose-head while new boy Nathan White at tight-head has banished the involuntary shudders that accompany memories of Clint Newland. Richardt Strauss had huge responsibility last season and met it head on while Leo Auva'a has proved a most useful addition from Olde Belvedere in the AIL. That only leaves Steven Sykes, the nominal replacement for Hines, who has struggled badly for fitness and form.
Established stars: Sean O'Brien led the way here with Jonathan Sexton providing his own brand of inspiration from out-half and Cian Healy continuing his storm towards next year's Lions tour. Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney are buzzing again, Jamie Heaslip became more prominent towards the end of the year and Mike Ross has been doing what he does best at scrum time and could have done for Michael Cheika.
Unsung significance: The scrum-half duo of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss are in excellent nick and, in many ways, the engine of the operation.
New wave: Ian Madigan, Eoin O'Malley and Dave Kearney have made huge strides while Fergus McFadden's quality has continued to shine through. McFadden keeps getting shoved into 13 but he looks to be a fantastic prospect at 12 for Ireland for the foreseeable future. The Connacht influx has been a mixed bag, Sean Cronin has gone well at hooker, Fionn Carr has had his moments out wide but the talented Jamie Hagan has struggled at prop without the match time he needs to develop his scrummaging and his confidence.
Injuries: They were without Rob Kearney for the first half of the year and Brian O'Driscoll has been the major loss, although Leinster have been coping without their inspirational centre thus far. Mat Berquist's absence has tested depth at 10 but also allowed Madigan to flourish.
Time to kick on: Devin Toner showed against Bath that he can give Leinster what Hines used to, as well as guaranteed possession out of touch.
2011 report card
On pitch: Determined. The year started in terrible fashion as they went out of the Heineken Cup in the pool stages for the first time in 13 seasons. However, rather than roll over and embrace the demise many predicted, Munster responded with a superb march to the Magners League title and battled their way to four wins from four in this season's European campaign. In a self-acknowledged period of transition, coach Tony McGahan has been willing to turn to his younger players with encouraging results while Anthony Foley has restored core forward principles.
Off pitch: After Toulon and the Challenge Cup defeat to Harlequins, there were fears the bandwagon would shudder to a halt but Thomond Park continues to rock on the big European days and remains a significant weapon in Munster's favour. The twin-base approach remains a Munster oddity but the new facilities in Cork CIT speak of a province determined to move forward.
Not bad. They have given themselves a route to the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and, while they lack the all-round attacking game of a Leinster or Toulouse, they cannot be discounted in any one-off fixture -- especially in Thomond. Still well in the Pro12 mix also.
Foreign contingent: BJ Botha has done what he was signed to do, provide a platform, while Wian du Preez is hardworking and consistent alongside in the front-row. Will Chambers has produced some nice touches but not with enough consistency to nail down his spot while Lifeimi Mafi has been better than last season. Doug Howlett was on fire until injury but Peter Borlase? We are still waiting.
Established stars: As ever, it has been the Ronan O'Gara story, still the figurehead after all these years. Paul O'Connell missed a large chunk of last season and looks rejuvenated by the break while Denis Leamy has played very well since the World Cup with Niall Ronan producing some big European diplays. While Peter Stringer has gone on loan to Saracens, it has been a rough year for Tomas O'Leary who needs a switch abroad to revitalise his game.
Unsung significance: There are still question marks about his line-out throwing but Damien Varley is a workhorse in the middle of the Munster front row, as is James Coughlan at No 8.
New Wave: It was Conor Murray's year. Backed by McGahan, the young scrum-half's progress has been phenomenal while Peter O'Mahony is having a storming season in the back-row. Good year for Danny Barnes and Simon Zebo also, who both stepped up to the mark when called upon. Ian Keatley has been providing decent back-up to O'Gara.
Injuries: Riddled. Injuries to Howlett, Felix Jones, Keith Earls and David Wallace have robbed Munster of key men at critical times and there have been consistent casualty challenges throughout the year.
Time to kick on: Donnacha Ryan forced his way into the Heineken Cup side ahead of the institution that was Donncha O'Callaghan and faces a fight on his hands to keep his position.
2011 report card
On pitch: Better. Reaching the knock-out stages for the first time since 1999 means 2011 has to go down as a success but it is still hard to pin down a definable style of Ulster play. They have restored their formidable reputation at home but inconsistency defines their away days while they appear over-dependent on their foreign contingent.
Off pitch: The developments at Ravenhill have lifted the old ground and Ulster continue to benefit from one of the most committed home support bases around. The Jordanstown facilities for the Academy players are superb.
Decent. After the insipid defeat by Leicester, a handy back-to-back series against Aironi got Ulster up and running in Europe once again and they have the capacity to do a number on the Tigers in Belfast. In the Pro12, they are well capable of reaching the play-offs once again and will not be overly affected by the Six Nations in this regard.
Foreign contingent: John Afoa has been immense in the short time he has been with the province while Ruan Pienaar is a class act, wherever he features, and Johann Muller is a steadying influence in the second row. Australian-Irish full-back Adam D'Arcy has a definite spark about his play but Pedrie Wannenburg lacks it, Simon Danielli looks past his prime and then you have Stefan Terblanche ... what was the point?
Established stars: Two names, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris -- World Cup stand-outs and rallying points for their province. Andrew Trimble is another major influence up north and when Ian Humphreys is good, he is very, very good.
Unsung significance: Chris Henry has been asked to play across the back-row when he should be installed at No 8 but his consistency has been commendable and provides an example to some of his colleagues.
New wave: Paul Marshall has excelled with a run of games at scrum-half to the point where he is now in the international shake-up. Craig Gilroy definitely looks the part on the wing, Paddy McAllister has promise at prop and Nevin Spence showed some game earlier in the year at midfield. There was also enough evidence of talent bubbling under in the Ravens-based selection that fronted up to Leinster on St Stephen's Day to provide Ulster optimism.
Injuries: Jared Payne was a costly knock and other senior players such as Pienaar and Paddy Wallace were experienced absentees. Ferris missed the first half of the season but has been exceptional since his return, fingers crossed that he stays fit.
Time to kick on: Darren Cave is an extremely talented centre and needs a run of matches to prove as much.
2011 report card
On pitch: Grim. For all their efforts, Connacht are unable to get the results going and losing has become the habit as the current run of defeats testifies. Not getting out of their Challenge Cup pool last season was a blow and their Heineken Cup has been high on desire and low on return.
Off pitch: Encouraging. Connacht put their board in place and set about improving their facilities and attractiveness. The Sportsground has become a decent venue and the crowds, lured by the Heineken Cup, have swelled accordingly. Now, they just need some wins to keep them coming back.
They have Aironi next up which may provide the win they crave but until Connacht get the resources to build a competitive squad, it is hard to see this story change long term. All the talk of the IRFU 'sending' players out west is not helping either, it is down to individual players to make that decision as employment laws prevent any such directives.
Foreign contingent: No high-profile names but a disappointing return nonetheless. Henry Fa'afili and Fetu'u Vainikolo have not lived up to their billing while, for all his endeavour, George Naoupu has not been the same player since his return from Japan (where his dodgy knee was not protected as it should have been). Rodney Ah You has potential at prop but is still extremely raw.
Established stars: Mike McCarthy, Gavin Duffy, John Muldoon, Mike Swift and Frank Murphy remain the heart of the team but the loss of Cronin, Carr, Hagan and Keatley has been crippling.
Unsung significance: Brett Wilkinson is a battler at loose-head prop, desperately searching for more front-row support.
New wave: Shards of light here as Dave McSharry, Tiernan O'Halloran and the three Eoins -- Griffin, Grace and McKeon -- are all progressing well while the U-20 side is another reason to be positive.
Injuries: Recent blows to Jonny O'Connor and Brian Tuohy have emphasised an on-going problem for a Connacht squad that can least afford to lose players.
Time to kick on: Niall O'Connor is an out-half who needs to exert greater authority to progress because there is no doubting the ability.