Leinster looking like contenders again after period of uncertainty
All four provinces went into this weekend's Round 5 of Europe's premier competition still in the hunt for quarter-final places, with Leinster leading the way in style against Montpellier on Friday night.
They maintained Irish rugby's continuing rejuvenation on the European stage, nailing down the first of the competition's eight knockout places in an emphatic manner that could only buoy up the other three provinces and, as an added pleasure in the face of the seemingly all-powerful Anglo-French financial clout, sticking it to the money-men. With a changing of the guard in Munster and Leinster coinciding with a ramping increase in spending across the Premiership and Top 14, it had seemed that our annual role was to be that of mere pool fodder, and disgruntled onlookers in the knockout stages.
Some of those driving the shift to this new world have, however, failed to back up their power in the boardroom with success on the field. And, as happy as we should be with our own provinces' improvement, the manner in which the likes of Racing 92, Northampton and Toulon have fallen back is something of a surprise. All is not as the game's new power-brokers had intended.
Having said that, it's a welcome change to be looking ahead with Irish teams back in contention, something we had almost come to perceive as a given in times past.
With a losing bonus point in the bag from Montpellier in October, confidence was high that Leinster could wrap up the pool with a home win. Jake White's 'Langue-boks' are no pushovers physically, and with a large foreign, particularly South African, cohort in their ranks, a tight contest was expected.
Notwithstanding the loss of out-half Francois Steyn to a deserved red card just before the half-hour mark for a dangerous hit - more deliberate than reckless, I'd suggest - on the imperious Johnny Sexton, the tempo with which Leinster met the physical challenge was striking and encouraging. The accuracy, intelligence, and offensive skill levels driven by Sexton signalled a potential to mount a serious challenge for ultimate honours.
However, the importance of the quarter-final draw remains a key component for any team with ambitions of outright success and, in that context, the 57 points scored together with the outcome of next week's trip to Castres will have a huge bearing on the seedings for the draw and, as a consequence, on just how far they progress.
The cussedness of Michael Cheika's winning team of 2009, and the accuracy of Joe Schmidt's of 2011 and '12 provide the benchmarks for Leinster nowadays, and Schmidt's years in particular represent the Blues' pinnacle in the professional era. This current group, while well-stocked with experienced internationals and a sprinkling of Lions Test players from those previous wins, is however, driven by a new emerging group of gifted young players.
Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier made themselves known locally last season and have recently announced themselves on the international stage. Crucially, scrum-half Luke McGrath has flourished too, reaching a level many thought beyond him, and Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin look to have real class on the wings. Similarly, back-up blindside flanker/No 8 Jack Conan, outstanding on Friday with a phenomenal work-rate and a hat-trick of tries, is a measure of the depth of back-row talent available.
Amongst all this emerging talent however, for me it's the potential of the new midfield axis of Sexton in combination with a classy centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose that's most eye-catching. There's an excitement about just how good Ringrose can become.
The contenders for this season's tournament are whittling down rapidly. Holders Saracens were the only unbeaten team after four rounds and stand out, with the likes of Clermont particularly, Wasps and Munster not far behind.
Leinster appear to have come through on the other side of a period of uncertainty and transition, on and off the pitch. Nobody outside the group can really comment on the impact made by Stuart Lancaster since he replaced Kurt McQuilkin, but credit is due to the entire coaching team. There's a long way to go but performances thus far, in tandem with Rassie Erasmus' rejuvenated Munster, give a sense of something positive happening again for the Irish in Europe.
Sunday Indo Sport