Hugh Farrelly: Ulster victory would be bad for Ireland
IT may not be the most politically correct assertion in a week of Heineken Cup hype, and certainly not the most popular among northern rugby supporters, but the fact is that an Ulster victory on Sunday would be bad news for Ireland and national coach Declan Kidney.
Having three provinces in the last eight in Europe has created a self-congratulatory undercurrent among Irish supporters and pundits ahead of the weekend's quarter-final action, but this ignores the altered landscape following the World Cup and Six Nations failures.
The IRFU's much-derided Player Succession Strategy has assumed even greater significance post-Twickenham, which very few have acknowledged, and it is encouraging to see how this policy has already begun to produce positive returns. Tommy Bowe, Roger Wilson and James Downey are all being repatriated after spells abroad, while Leinster's capture of Hurricances prop Michael Bent this week was another step in the right direction.
There are no guarantees of success, and Bent may turn out to be the next Clint Newland -- we will not know for sure until we see him in action next season, but at least he is Irish qualified in the position (tight-head prop) where Ireland's need is greatest.
The immediate prerogative for Kidney is to the formidable three-Test summer challenge in New Zealand, and this is why he should be hoping Munster make it past Ulster on Sunday.
For, while it has been good to see the spark returning to Ravenhill over the past two seasons, there is no escaping the fact that the spine of the team is non-Irish qualified and affecting the touring prospects of Ulster's Ireland hopefuls.
John Afoa -- We saw in Twickenham what the New Zealander's presence is doing for Tom Court's chances of coping at tight-head.
Johann Muller -- Second-row status means one of either Lewis Stevenson (increasingly impressive) or Dan Tuohy will be on the bench.
Pedrie Wannenberg -- Will keep Willie Faloon out of the side and Chris Henry out of position if Stephen Ferris is cleared to play.
Ruan Pienaar -- forcing Paul Marshall to make his name as an impact sub.
Stefan Terblanche -- Ian Whitten and a group of talented Academy backs that were seen fleetingly in the RDS a few months ago are missing out due to the ageing Springbok.
There is no doubting the quality of these imports, and they have been central to Ulster's progress to the knockout stages, but the issue here is game time for Irish-qualified players.
This is not to say that Ulster have not been bringing through indigenous talent: Craig Gilroy is starting regularly, Darren Cave is first choice when fit and Paddy McAllister has emerged also, although not as first choice.
However, with the senior Ireland squad, Ulster's representation in recent years has centred around the established names of Ferris, Rory Best, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble, and their overseas reliance has to be a factor.
As for Munster, their South African props Wian du Preez and BJ Botha are also directly affecting the progress of John Ryan and Stephen Archer. As exiled prop John Andress noted in these pages last week, you can get all the tips from older players and scrum machine practice you want, but the only real way for a prop to learn his trade is the hard way -- out on the pitch.
Lifeimi Mafi could also be seen to be an obstacle in the career path of Danny Barnes, Ivan Dineen or even JJ Hanrahan -- who is still young enough for the Ireland U-20 side but possesses the sort of talents that may have been tested earlier were he in Australia.
However, the province can still point to the graduation of Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls into the Ireland set-up in the past few years and, while some may claim this is down to the vagaries of Kidney's selection policy, that quartet do not have negotiate a non-Irish qualified player to get into the side.
Kidney needs as many Irish players playing high-intensity rugby as possible between now and the tour, and it is not bias, merely fact, to state that Ulster's over-reliance on overseas players does not help him in this regard.
Within the narrow context of next Sunday, that dependence makes Ulster a formidable proposition in Thomond Park, and Munster coach Tony McGahan believes the province's South African influx has brought a steel and assurance to the side.
"They (the South Africans) bring a real confidence, hardness and doggedness to their play and a real unshakable belief," said McGahan. "You have seen the way they galvanise and bring other players through in and around them.
"You have seen that growth last year and even more this year, and when you add Ferris and Paddy Wallace, Rory Best and these quality international players to that mix, you suddenly are ballooning that experience and hardness up to about 10 players."
Rather than tap into the South African knowledge within his own squad to get a handle on the opposition, McGahan says Munster will be "focusing on ourselves". However, while every thought is directed towards Sunday, the Munster coach did express his hope that some of the players he has brought through over the last few seasons and who are set to start this weekend can go on to contribute to Ireland's summer tour.
"Over the next 12 months, and depending on the philosophy of what the tour to New Zealand is about, there is full merit there from these guys (to be called up)... Stephen Archer, (Mike) Sherry, who was called up to the World Cup and James Coughlan -- there has been no stronger or more consistent player over the last two years -- and we'd be delighted for those guys to get that opportunity, if not for this particular tour then in the next 12 months."
Just as it would be good to see Gilroy, Marshall and McAllister make the step up -- but for this weekend it is the senior professionals who are likely to have the biggest impact, and none more than Pienaar, who is held in the highest regard by McGahan.
"He has been a real pillar for them with regards to their attacking structures," he said.
Would McGahan prefer to see Pienaar start at scrum-half or out-half?
"I'd prefer to see him on the bench."
With New Zealand looming, he may not be the only coach in Ireland to share that view.