Mouthwatering Euro action can atone for forgettable festive fare
Leinster must push for home quarter-final - and provincial rivals could all join them in last eight
There had been a keen sense of anticipation surrounding the Pro12 provincial derbies over the holiday period, as evidenced by the 'full house' signs at all four venues, but most supporters were left with more than a hint of disappointment at the quality served up.
The Connacht/Munster game in Galway was the only game of the quartet played to make a lasting impression, and that featured two depleted squads.
If injuries and player-welfare policies were major factors in the forgettable festive series, the upturn in intensity that the Champions Cup brings is a welcome prospect, notwithstanding the likely lack of interest on the part of a number of teams already left with nothing to play for.
Encouragingly from an Irish perspective, all four provinces are still in with at least a mathematical chance of quarter-final qualification.
Leinster kick things off on Friday night well in control of their pool as they entertain their nearest challengers Montpellier. They lead their visitors by five points, and while the losing bonus point secured by Isa Nacewa's late try and conversion on the road in Round 2 seemed important enough back in October, its true value could well be seen in the shake-up for final seedings over the next two weekends.
Round 6 brings Leinster to Castres, where they have experienced problems in the past - notably on the way to their maiden tournament victory under Michael Cheika in 2009 - while Montpellier host a Northampton side who checked out of Europe last month. The onus is on Leinster to put the pool's outcome beyond doubt in the RDS on Friday.
Montpellier, under Springbok World Cup-winning coach Jake White, are well capable of posing real problems for Leo Cullen's side. They have a gargantuan pack and their back-line isn't dissimilar. The threat posed in the wider channels by Nemani Nadolo, reportedly weighing in at over 21st, will have to be carefully marshalled by Leinster's back-three, with auxiliary help on stand-by as required.
Nevertheless, home advantage, recent momentum and the quality surface at the RDS all point to a home win, thereby ensuring qualification and a trip to Castres with a home quarter-final to play for - a situation any Leinster supporter would have grabbed with both hands if offered at the competition's outset.
Elsewhere, things are much tighter however. Having let a victory slip through their fingers in Leicester before Christmas, Munster's trip to Glasgow next week will be a huge game for both. Munster have already beaten the Scots on their artificial surface in the Pro12 this season, as well as in the Champions Cup in Limerick and, while they'll derive confidence from both, their in-form opponents have a score to settle and will provide a much more formidable challenge this time around.
Connacht, having got the rub of the green at home to Wasps - helped by a masterful piece of captaincy from John Muldoon - find themselves in the tightest of battles, with two others vying for that top spot.
The advantage of being drawn in a pool with an Italian team is evident in the standings, with Connacht, Wasps and Toulouse level on 13 points.
Wasps, with Toulouse at home in Round 5, have the plum draw in Round 6, with the luxury of a meeting, albeit on the road, with Zebre.
Pat Lam's side, despite their freakish injury list, should position themselves with a bonus-point home win against Zebre in Galway in Round 5 next week, but a trip to Toulouse on the final weekend is a tough ask, and getting some of their key men back will be essential for a successful foray in France.
Adversity has always been Connacht's perennial backdrop, however. Many of the current squad will hold fond memories of Toulouse, where the Westerners fashioned an astonishing victory in December 2013.
Of the four provinces, Ulster have least control of their own destiny. Les Kiss's team are eight points adrift of Clermont having lost to them in the Stade Marcel Michelin in December. A trip to Sandy Park to face Exeter is never an easy task, and it has become more difficult given the Chiefs' recent domestic momentum and, while you fancy Ulster's chances against Bordeaux at Ravenhill in Round 6, even with two bonus-point wins they'll still be reliant on the unlikeliest of collapses from Clermont to facilitate further progress.
If the holiday interpros fell well short of expectations, the final two weekends of the European pool stages, as ever, present a tantalising prospect. How many we'll qualify for the knock-outs is difficult to call, but there will certainly be Irish representation in the last eight and, with the luck of the draw, possibly even further.
Sunday Indo Sport