Trimble can't be ignored in race for Fitzgerald's shirt
Published 19/01/2010 | 05:00
Rewind to the start of the season and you can bet your bottom euro that all four Irish entrants would have snapped your arm off if you offered them the scenario of being at the heart of the European divvy-out with just one game to go.
Realistically, Ulster's trip to Bath could prove not so much a hurdle too high as one game too far. They may well win, and even securing the bonus point might not be beyond them. Unfortunately, even that might not be enough, as they are the only Irish side for whom qualification is dependent on results elsewhere.
That said, entry into the Amlin Challenge Cup (as one of the three next-best runners-up, after the two that reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals) is a very real incentive to beat Bath, irrespective of what takes place elsewhere. Whatever happens, the improvement at Ravenhill has been marked under Brian McLaughlin, Jeremy Davidson and the new regime. There is a real 'team Ulster' feel about the place again.
McLaughlin's emphasis on developing indigenous talent and giving each player his head is paying rich dividends for Ulster and for Irish rugby in general. I would dearly love to see that faith rewarded with Ulster joining Munster and Leinster in the last eight -- not that the big two are there yet, but they are certainly well on the way.
Against Edinburgh and into the face of a typical Ravenhill howler on Friday, Ulster displayed great tactical nous and cohesive technique in running down the first-half clock; their discipline was equally impressive. They are not by any means the finished article but they are well on the way.
The all-for-one principle clearly applies. But it is the seamless addition of young players of great potential in Jamie Smith, Dan Tuohy, David Pollock, Chris Henry, Willie Faloon, Ian Whitten and Tom Anderson to 'seasoned' campaigners like Darren Cave (22), Niall O'Connor (22), Ryan Caldwell (25) and Ed O'Donoghue (27) that really makes them a team to look out for.
With Lions-hardened Stephen Ferris still just 24, it makes for exciting times ahead for a team and a set-up that should be up there alongside Munster and Leinster in terms of potential and status.
Against Edinburgh they were clinically clever and ruthlessly efficient, with Tuohy, Isaac Boss and Andrew Trimble most conspicuous. Boss, a New Zealand-born former Ireland scrum-half, produced one of his most complete performances in an Ulster shirt, yet was pushed all the way for the accolade of the game's most influential player by Tuohy, in the second row.
Trimble, too, continues to edge his way back into the Ireland frame. Along with Shane Horgan and Keith Earls (back on fire in Treviso), Trimble is right in the race for Luke Fitzgerald's temporarily-vacated left-wing jersey.
Munster won with buckets to spare as they did the bonus-point business in double-quick time in Treviso. The scrum creaked a bit but Marcus Horan could well return for Friday's massive game against Northampton.
Quite whether that easy victory represented the ideal preparation for Friday only time will tell, but the way they set the three-quarters loose was mighty impressive. The strategy was clear as time and again the first receiver checked and switched play back in the opposite direction, exposing the Italians ruthlessly down the wider channels by way of long accurate passing (chiefly from Tomas O'Leary, Ronan O'Gara and Jean de Villiers), allied to incisive running from the back three.
There was much to admire in the comfort on the ball and the interplay between backs and forwards. All told, it made for a controlled run in the park, one in which the issues in midfield (De Villiers and Earls), back row (David Wallace at No 8 in place of the injured Denis Leamy, with Niall Ronan on the openside flank) and left wing (Denis Hurley) should have been decided for Friday.
Ronan was particularly impressive in the type of free-flowing game for which he is made. The only real issue for coach Tony McGahan is at loose-head, where the temptation to restore Horan will be strong.
Leinster, helped by London Irish's defeat at Parc y Scarlets, have one big decision to make ahead of their trip to Twickenham.
Shane Jennings and Jonny Sexton got vital game time after their periods on the sidelines, but in Jennings' case, Sean O'Brien's impact off the bench has given the management food for thought.
I expect Jennings will start in an unchanged line-up, but I don't know how long the reigning champions can afford to keep O'Brien out of the starting XV.
The flanker may be young and relatively inexperienced (though now a fully-fledged international), but his ability to get beyond the gain-line so consistently and provide that crucial go-forward momentum -- on which the best back-line in the competition depends -- is irrefutable.
Against Brive (who did the competition and French rugby proud by way of this performance, when they had nothing but pride to play for) Leinster did not deserve the bonus point, but their patience and perseverance, not to mention pure innovation from Horgan in eking it out, was admirable.
So too were the outstanding Kevin McLaughlin, Jamie Heaslip (as ever) and back-in-form Gordon D'Arcy.
The depth of Brive's resistance should serve Leinster's cause well when they run out at Twickenham on Saturday.
London Irish (who took their eye off the ball in their 22-10 defeat on Sunday) can afford to throw caution to the wind with a five-point return the bottom-line requirement. I think it's mission impossible for the Exiles, but Leo Cullen and his colleagues will scarcely view it as such.
Last, but by no means least, I must congratulate Connacht. A win in Madrid will complete a perfect six-from-six return at the top of Pool 2 in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The bonus will come in terms of a home quarter-final and no team-- not even the Heineken Cup three -- will relish a trip to the Sportsground in early April.
There is still room for further development by way of improved indigenous recruitment, but in terms of generating local interest, this latest run in the shadow tournament is timely. Just imagine what an outright win would do.
But for now, with qualification achieved, all interest will focus on the draw. Assuming the northern province come up just short in the premier event and make it through to the Amlin Challenge Cup, then what about Connacht v Ulster? Now there's one to really whet the appetite.