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Tony Ward: Winning on French soil the key test for Ulster

A GREAT weekend for Irish rugby, a great weekend for Ulster, Leinster and Munster, and yet for the IRFU, despite much to celebrate, a feeling of being at the sharp end of a double-edged sword.

Simple question: would the three main provinces be where they are today without the input of so many overseas players? No, no and no again. No matter how anyone attempts to dress it up, that is the reality of Irish rugby today.

Does success at provincial level feed into the national psyche and by extension the form of the Ireland team?

Yes, yes and yes again. We all support the IRFU in their endeavour to nurture the best indigenous talent but, as of now, the measured mechanism is not in place to bring that aspiration to fruition.

There is no shame in going back to the drawing board. Those charged with charting the course of the game have the collective best interest at heart, but the modifications as currently constituted are in danger of not alone killing but driving into extinction the goose that has laid the golden egg for Irish rugby in the last decade and more.

There is much work still to be done, particularly by Ulster at Clermont Auvergne and Munster in Northampton to ensure qualification (for Ulster) and a home tie (for Munster) in the last eight of the Heineken Cup but, as the Six Nations looms large, Irish rugby is in a pretty good place.

On another scintillating weekend for Irish rugby, it was Brian McLaughlin’s Ulster leading the way, not just with the win and performance of the weekend but the status of that win, given the quality of opposition (Leicester) ripped apart at Ravenhill. For those who haven’t been to the Belfast venue recently, I urge you go there.

The main stand will soon be demolished, with great plans afoot to improve the ground. The potential support for Ulster is massive. Think back to Lansdowne Road in ’99 and the unprecedented crossborder invasion. David Humphreys was the inspirational figure behind that European success and now it is he – through clever investment as director of rugby – driving the province back ever closer to a return to their greatest day.

I have never subscribed to the view that a successful Ireland needed a successful Ulster, but a successful Ireland has always needed four equally competitive provinces standing shoulder to shoulder.

The Connacht issue we will leave for another day, but the Ulster renaissance is under way. And, if Leinster demolishing Bath was the stand-out performance of round four, then Ulster destroying twicewinners Leicester sent out the most emphatic message from round five.

PASSION

Last Friday night at Ravenhill was passion-filled Ulster rugby of old. For those of us of a different generation who travelled to Ravenhill in awe, this was a return to great times past.

A jam-packed Ravenhill was as near as it got to Thomond for the visit of a touring side prior to the Limerick Mecca being revamped. Inspired every bit as much by the hugely committed imports as by their own, Ulster were on fire against Leicester, every one playing for the shirt.

Given the incessant intensity, it was without doubt the most complete Ulster performance of the season and one that has sent out a massive statement to the rest of Europe.

Yet it is quite conceivable all that good work could be undone in France in a few days’ time. Herein lies the challenge if Ulster rugby is to join Munster and Leinster at the top table of Heineken Cup rugby.

Munster learned how to win consistently in France, paving the way for outright success in ’06 and ’08. Leinster followed suit in overcoming that psychological hurdle on Gallic soil, laying the foundation for two titles in the last three years.

Psychology will always play a major part in rugby. What Munster and Leinster have cracked Ulster have still to do. If ever opportunity knocked to deliver under pressure, this is it.

It is perhaps unfair to single out individuals, such was the collective quality of this Ulster performance, but in an Ireland context Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris have surely sealed their places to face the Welsh first up in the Six Nations, while Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Paul Marshall, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry have put themselves in the frame for Wolfhounds selection at the very least.

Gilroy and Marshall have already shown enough for me to convince that full international recognition is a matter of when, not if.

Tom Court too is now an invaluable member of the national squad as back-up to both Cian Healy and Mike Ross. In the meantime, all eyes focus on the Stade Marcel-Michelin on Saturday.

The jury remains out and pressure remains on to prove this Ulster squad is the real deal and (like their main rivals) capable of reproducing the Ravenhill formula on the road. For Munster too it’s a difficult weekend.

Do what they do best and they have it within them to snuff out the Northampton free-running fire, but there are some big concerns.

ROMANTIC

The romantic in me loves the attacking notion of the dancing Lifeimi Mafi and Keith Earls alongside each other in midfield, but the reality of the modern power game dictates otherwise.

When Trevor Halstead wore the No 12 shirt, Munster were probably at their most complete as a unit. Rua Tipoki may not have been a Halstead in terms of physique but he too brought that go-forward physicality to midfield.

The Munster of 2011-12 are lacking that option badly. Denis Hurley’s Sonny Bill Williams-like ability to off-load in the tackle surely presents a midfield option worth considering. Hurley has been a rock of solidity in the last line but there is a crying need for his obvious physicality closer to the action.

Head coach Tony McGahan should be delighted with five wins from five, but injury to Niall Ronan, added to ineffectiveness in midfield, leaves him well aware of the weaknesses in his side.

The atmosphere at Thomond at the weekend was every bit as muted as the team performance. Northampton away is huge, with sealing a home quarter-final almost as significant as qualifying.

As for Leinster? Their win in Glasgow was crucial, with home advantage against Montpellier on Saturday the key to a Dublin quarter-final in the last eight. Healy and Man of the Match Sean Cronin were the stand-out individuals at Firhill, while Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray led the way in Limerick.

For Leinster, it’s job almost done. For Munster, despite qualification, there’s much still to do, while for Ulster one of the biggest games in the province’s history now awaits. Round six can’t come quickly enough.