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David Kelly: 'Festive fare sees question marks remain for Ireland's Champions Cup contenders'

 

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Leo Cullen. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Leo Cullen. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Leo Cullen. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Seconds away, round three. After two enthralling sequences of inter-provincial games, the final round of clashes take place this weekend but, as may well become apparent by selections during the week, the prospect of European fare will loom large for the three sides who will jostle for knockout berths later this month.

It may have been hard to notice during the steamier moments of the clashes in Galway and Limerick last weekend but there is a bigger picture for Munster, Ulster and Leinster this month - not to mention the over-arching dominance that a certain event in Japan later this year holds on Irish rugby.

And so, while all three of the country's Champions Cup representatives remain primed to continue their relentless charge for the play-off spots in the Guinness PRO14 this year, their main focus will be on ramping up their challenge for the elusive quarter-final slots in European competition.

All three will fancy their chances on the double; however, after their feisty festive set-tos, there still remains some question marks concerning their candidacy to challenge for European supremacy as big guns like Racing 92 and Saracens hover with menacing intent.

Player management will still play a key role this weekend as the IRFU bosses continue to crunch the numbers ahead of the Rugby World Cup but all bets are off when it comes to the terms of European engagement.

Injuries and suspensions permitting, Dan McFarland, Leo Cullen and Johann van Graan know they can select their strongest sides for the concluding stages of Europe; hence they have had to mix and match their resources over these three weeks of festive fare.

Aside from Leinster, who have only their loose discipline to blame for leaving them behind the eight ball in Thomond Park, the provinces will have privately conceded the impracticality of emerging from the three fixtures with a 100 per cent record.

The European champions' first-half implosion has exposed frailties in both the tenor of Jonathan Sexton's captaincy and the pitch of the side's emotion during a cauldron which, at times, they stoked without any attendant focus.

That they rectified matters at half-time, and will presumably do so again in what is traditionally a winning fixture for them - at home to Ulster - will alleviate concerns in the short term.

But with Toulouse freighting their traditional wiles to the RDS later this month in a pivotal pool game in round five, Leinster's brains trust have been forewarned as to the irreparable damage that could be done to their prospects of securing a home quarter-final should they stage a repeat of their meltdown in Limerick.

That Toulouse clash will most probably determine which side earns that vital home quarter-final slot as both teams are likely to qualify, assuming they take care of their round six opposition, with Bath travelling to France and Leinster away to Wasps.

For Munster, victory was paramount against Leinster for they would have headed west for a tricky fixture with Connacht hoping to avoid a run of four successive defeats; instead, they now have momentum to build on as their qualification has become trickier after slipping up in Castres.

Only four points separate top from bottom in their pool and, although Gloucester are wildly unpredictable and will be without Danny Cipriani, it is difficult to remain convinced by Munster's form, if not by the character once more revealed in Limerick.

Their attack remains dysfunctional and, as Leinster noted, their two tries, the first scored in three games, were from an intercept and a close-range maul; they remain stifled in their attempts to create from open play, a factor that lingers despite in-house optimism.

Ulster remain buoyant but, if one assumes they follow up defeat in Galway with another reverse in Dublin against a wounded Leinster, the effects of back-to-back losses will be hard to gauge as they prepare for the most pivotal fortnight in five seasons of European competition.

For the last four of them, their interest has ended in January but a ten-point haul against free-falling Scarlets in December has invited the tantalising prospect of heading their pool.

Simon Zebo's Racing 92 stand in their way but their five-point lead at the head of affairs might not seem such a daunting prospect if Ulster can get Belfast rocking in round five. Their recent history of falling short at this stage will worry their supporters.

The main question mark surrounding the northerners is squad depth; their scrum and general tight play has been transformed in recent months but they could be vulnerable to injuries to key performers such as Jacob Stockdale, Rory Best and Marcell Coetzee.

All three sides can atone for any dropped points in the league; they will have no such luxury when they return to Europe.

Irish Independent