Celtic League still failing to capture imagination
Despite the sad demise of club rugby on the back of the game going professional, the final day of the All-Ireland League programme always used to be a great occasion, something many will recall with great fondness.
It was a day when calculators were at the ready as up-to-date scorelines from the various venues flashed backward and forward across the land. It was a day of high intensity and excitement as the race for play-off places, promotion and relegation reached its climax.
With due respect to the Magners League, everything the All-Ireland club competition was, the Celtic competition is not.
On Friday, with all games kicking off at the same time, it barely raised a whimper. I attended the Leinster versus Glasgow game at the RDS, after which I raced around to Donnybrook to catch the final 20-plus minutes of the McCorry Cup final between Lansdowne and St Mary's.
The number of people I met at the underage game who hadn't a clue Leinster were even playing almost simultaneously around the corner astounded me.
It is a sad reflection on a competition that, most worryingly -- despite the healthy new generation of fans following Munster and Leinster -- has still to capture the imagination. I want the Celtic competition to work, but right now it is doing little else beyond filling its fundamental objective of helping fuel the professional game.
The derby aspect works, not just in Ireland and Wales, but in Scotland and Italy -- to a much lesser extent -- too. And a least the tournament organisers can look forward to a high-intensity, high-profile play-off phase over the next three weeks given the presence of Ireland's top three plus the Ospreys, who are the reigning champions.
The secret hope for the organisers will be for an All-Ireland final, and specifically for the 'big one' between Leinster and Munster.
But Brian McLaughlin's Ulster will travel to the RDS confident of atoning for the loss there to Leinster four weeks ago. On Friday at rain-sodden Rodney Parade, they did what they had to do to beat the Dragons.
It has already been a much-improved season for the northerners, but given the overseas investment the least that would have been expected was a place in the last four. The challenge now is to kick on. Having come up short against Northampton in the Heineken Cup, the heat is on to see if they can deliver under the spotlight now.
I like what I see at Ulster. There is some real quality coming through in the guise of Nevin Spence, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall and Ian Whitten. They are in a lovely position coming to Dublin, where they will front up to a Leinster team who are clear favourites but will bear the significant psychological burden of a Heineken Cup final just eight days later.
It presents a major dilemma for Joe Schmidt in terms of team selection. Does he go for a mixed line-up much like against Glasgow on Friday, or does he go with the heavy artillery and hit D4 with all guns blazing? I would go with the latter. Maybe hold one or two back but no more -- it is paramount that the first-choice unit is in full working order when they face Northampton in Cardiff.
Against Glasgow they were efficient, little more. Apart from a vibrant defence, the Warriors were awful. With all their best players going abroad, you really worry for the game in Scotland.
It is quite extraordinary how two countries so similar in resources and outlook have followed such diametrically opposed paths since the Paris Accord. For that, the IRFU deserves great credit. While the SRU moaned, the Irish governing body got on with the task, centred around getting its most talented players home. It has been the central tenet to our progress ever since.
Our trailblazers in that regard, Munster, have been under intense scrutiny of late. When you win 19 games out of 22 and romp home at the top of the table by an incredible 13 points, it makes any criticism appear a little shallow ... and yet there are issues in need of address.
But for a combination of reasons -- injury, lack of firepower, defeat in the Heineken Cup and yes, even that dreaded word 'age' -- standards have dropped.
It is far from terminal. The problems can and will be addressed. And with home advantage in the Magners semi-final and final (should they overcome Ospreys) to follow, the Celtic title they deserve on the basis of their regular-season form could be destined for the Munster trophy cabinet.
But for now everything is focused on the visit of the equally out-of-sorts Ospreys on Saturday. Munster's proud reputation was dented by their insipid defeat to Harlequins a fortnight ago.
I will be astonished if Tony McGahan and Paul O'Connell fail to elicit the appropriate response -- and add to that the incentive of an All-Ireland Celtic final at Thomond, irrespective of the outcome in the Friday match. Lest it needs spelling out, Munster will clearly have a preference from Friday's semi-final and, with the utmost respect to our northern brethren, it ain't Ulster.
Munster may be down, but they're sure as hell far from out.