Friday 24 January 2020

Inter-provincial derbies to whet festive appetite

An understandable consequence of the hectic activities of the four provinces over the past fortnight would be a welcome for the Christmas break and anticipation of the closing pool games of the Heineken Cup in mid-January. The demands of the professional game are such, however, that the lucrative nature of the holiday period imposes significant demands on players and management with what is the now an annual series of derby inter-pros, played out in front of near sellout crowds.

Add in the fact that the turn of the year is a naturally convenient mid-season landmark, when teams can readily measure their current league position against where they would have liked to be when they started pre-season training back in July, and we have a genuine seasonal milestone. In this regard, Munster and Leinster would both have targeted top-four places at year-end, with a view to fashioning home semi-final places during spring.

Ulster, still emerging from a lengthy valley period, would have been looking for a Christmas top-six, with a view to mounting a real challenge for a place in the final quartet at season's end. Connacht, as ever bringing up the rear, would have been hoping to build on the momentum generated by their Heineken Cup debut to propel them ahead of at least one side from each of the other competing countries, if not their local rivals.

As the table currently stands, Leinster, clear at the top, will be happiest, and Munster (in third) will be reasonably satisfied too. Ulster, however, won't be happy with their 50:50 win-loss ratio which leaves them lying eighth, but the seven-point gap to fourth-placed Glasgow is well within their capabilities. Connacht's efforts so far have left them ahead of only Aironi and Dragons.

An interesting week therefore for all four provinces, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all riding high, coming off the much sought-after back-to-back wins in the Heineken with all topping their pools; in stark contrast, Connacht, after their very promising start, have endured an injury-riven nightmare run of 10 successive losses and are without a win since beating the Dragons in the Sportsground as long ago as September 23.

It won't be said publicly, and they will, as ever, give it their all at Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, but the visit of Leinster on New Year's Day will definitely be targeted for the elusive win, and it's a fixture, too, from which they have extracted some reward over the years.

Squad rotation, by those who can afford it, will be a feature of the week, particularly in the context of imminent Heineken Cup demands. Leinster, for example, have traditionally targeted certain games in the league to field a largely second-string side (the most obvious examples being the trips to the Italian teams, Dragons, and Connacht).

On the other hand, the visit of Ulster, against whom they have enjoyed a successful run in recent years, to the RDS on Monday will probably see most, if not all, of their available big guns selected to start, with a weaker side then despatched west on New Year's Day.

While Leinster and Munster are relatively comfortable in their current play-off positions, Ulster have ground to make up, and will confront both Leinster and Munster over the period; boosted by their successful Italian job in the Heineken, they'll be looking to launch their assault on that top-four place by taking the scalp of at least one of their neighbours, not an easy task given recent results and the acute awareness of the strategic and commercial value of the home semi-final.

Ulster haven't won in Leinster since 1999, and haven't won on the road in the league since defeating Aironi on September 10.

Their Ravenhill game against Munster on Friday (sold-out several days ago) should therefore be their more likely target; success would have the dual benefit of points in the bank while simultaneously destabilising their opponents' comfort-zone position.

Connacht's dismal run appears set to continue, unless they can put one over Leinster on New Year's Day. The perils of visiting Thomond need no elaboration at the best of times, and their hosts are unlikely to enter into the festive spirit for their neighbours in advance of that tricky trip north later in the week and in John Hayes' farewell game.

Munster will certainly have a different look about them in the great man's permanent absence; they may well find their league position has changed too after the holiday, to Ulster's advantage.

Have a good Christmas, and enjoy your rugby, wherever you are.

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