Saturday 19 August 2017

Alan Quinlan: Work still to be done ahead of the Six Nations

This weekend will have a major say on what the mood in Ireland camp will be like as the players get set to reconvene

Munster’s Francis Saili dives over for his side’s second-half try in Saturday’s win over Glasgow. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Munster’s Francis Saili dives over for his side’s second-half try in Saturday’s win over Glasgow. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

There is so much rugby to be played between now and then, that April may seem like a long way away, but these weeks building up to the Six Nations are when players are really focused on ensuring that when they return to their provinces, it is with a view to preparing for a Champions Cup quarter-final.

As a player, I always wanted to go in to the Ireland camp knowing Munster would be playing in the last eight after the Six Nations and it will be the same for the Connacht players this weekend as they look to join Leinster and Munster.

The Ulster guys could conceivably be listening to players from the other three provinces talking about their Champions Cup prospects and that won't be easy.

Everyone wants to be the top dog in Ireland and it does motivate you if one of the other provinces is ahead of you in the PRO12 or Europe.

Joe Schmidt's job will be made easier by having players coming in to the camp high on confidence, but to temper that slightly there is still a lot of work to be done this weekend.

Connacht unquestionably have the toughest task, but they will go to Toulouse not fearing the French outfit.

The way they switched off late on against Wasps was unforgivable, but Toulouse winning would have been a bad result for Connacht.

Toulouse are trying to find their way again in Europe and their inability to win in Coventry was further proof of that. Pat Lam's side have to take advantage if they are to get through.

It was always going to be a mammoth task going to France in the final pool game and the fact that they are down to the bare bones will test them even further.

They've had a lot of bad luck with the amount of injuries that they have suffered, but you couldn't write them off, particularly because their expansive game-plan can ask questions of any defence.

If they get a losing bonus point, 19 points could well be enough to get them a quarter-final place, but they won't be thinking like that. Lam will be drilling it into his players that they can get a result in Toulouse.

The worry I would have is whether Connacht can stand up the physicality that will undoubtedly await them? Toulouse have a huge pack and there are a few of their guys who will want to atone for the defeat at home in 2013.

Connacht have to stick to the game-plan that has served them so well by throwing caution to the wind. They had a few little early wobbles against Zebre on Saturday, but they recovered well.

It's been a testing season for Connacht, but getting out of this pool would certainly ease the frustrations of how the PRO12 has gone for them.

They need an extra edge in training this week and Lam's positive approach will help bring that out in the players. I think it will suit them to have to go and attack Toulouse.

Like I said, April may seem like a while away, but if Connacht can manage to get to the quarter-final, they will hope to have some of their injured players back in the fold.

The Six Nations will bring with it the usual injury concerns and Leo Cullen will be sweating more than most as Leinster are likely to dominate the Ireland squad again.

Leinster are playing with unbelievable accuracy at the moment and the Six Nations is coming at a bad time for them.

They are flying and even though they have yet to be properly tested by a top side, Leinster are fully confident in everything that they are doing.

The easy thing would have been to take their foot off the pedal when Frans Steyn was sent off on Friday, but Leinster really put Montpellier to the sword.

It sent out a message to the rest of Europe that they are now genuine title contenders. Saracens and Clermont are still the best two sides in the competition in my view, but Leinster aren't far behind them.

On the Steyn sending off, I thought it was probably a yellow card in the old laws, but it's definitely a red card now.

Swinging

It was a very dangerous tackle and even though Steyn complained that Johnny Sexton dipped, you just can't be shooting out of the line uncontrollably with swinging arms.

Even if the player is ducking down, it doesn't matter, you've got to wrap or go at their ankles. There will be frustration for some players, but everyone has to adjust their technique.

We'll find out more about where Leinster really stand when the quarter-final comes around and the same can be said for Munster, even though they have come through some much tougher tests.

Castres, at home, will want to knock Leinster off their perch and ROG will bring Racing to Thomond Park looking to add to the numerous happy memories that he has from playing there.

Munster's performance in Glasgow was far from their best, but to come through a dogfight like that will really stand to them. It is also a sign of a good team, winning when not playing that well.

Their defence was immense again and to have conceded just three tries in five games in a pool like this is hugely impressive. The battle at the breakdown was ferocious. Glasgow did an excellent job of slowing down Munster's ball, which made the win all the more impressive.

Character can't just be switched on, and they're proving me and others who questioned them on that front very wrong.

However, they have to keep their feet on the ground this week because I know that ROG felt quite humiliated by the defeat in Paris.

Racing showed a huge reaction against Leicester and I expect them to try and bring the same to Limerick on Saturday.

Munster have rediscovered the ability to win games when they are up against it, but unfortunately that vital skill still evades Ulster.

They've come up short and it's the same old story. They had their moments against Exeter, but they lacked that killer punch.

They play great attacking rugby, but defensively they concede too many scores. There has to be a collective ownership of what's going wrong there.

It won't be a nice feeling for those in the Ireland camp knowing your international team-mates will be playing knockout Champions Cup rugby, and you won't be.

The Six Nations will soon take over once again and as soon as it begins, April won't seem like that far away at all.

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