Resurgent provinces ploughing unexepected path through Europe
But it's unlikely Ulster or Connacht will emulate upturns in fortune at Leinster and Munster
We are accustomed to coaches telling us that if you had offered them this position at the start of the Champions Cup they'd cheerfully bite your hand off. Oddly enough, we've never heard the opposite, ie 'your hand is safe mate, we're doomed'.
Of the four provincial coaches - a unique departure to have all four on the same ship having paid their own way - not all are on the same course. We reckon Leo Cullen would be the first to reach for the 'if you had offered me' line, and in his case it rings true. It was last August when Leinster announced that Kurt McQuilkin would be leaving the province, heading back to New Zealand on a domestic call. And given that he seemed to be the one man in the set-up earning universally rave reviews, it looked a critical loss.
Enter Stuart Lancaster, and from a standing start Leinster have got up to speed like a 400m runner on a good day. In which case Montpellier in the RDS on Friday night are waiting on the final bend. With a five-point gap between them, a win for Leinster would send them down the final straight - away to Castres - chasing a home draw in the quarter-final. And that would be a terrific return given the air of gloom about the place as McQuilkin headed to the airport.
That mood had set in last season, across the country, when, for the first time since 1998, the knockout stages of Europe's premier competition had taken place with no Irish involvement. Factor in the twin peaks of stratospheric television money in England and France, on top England's salary cap increasing season on season - going from €5.08m in 2014/15 to an expected €7.3m in 2017/18 - and it was hard to see where the light would break through.
In Leinster's case their young guns have fired them forward to a combined record between Guinness PRO12 and Europe of 12 wins from 16 games coming into this weekend. But if that was unexpected then where do you put Munster's 12 from 15 in both competitions en route to Paris yesterday?
Their turnaround since being beaten out the gate in Lansdowne Road by Leinster in October has been spectacular, enhanced yesterday by a ruthless performance in Paris. And to have done it against the backdrop of losing Anthony Foley makes it all the more remarkable.
Their little coup of hanging on to Jaco Taute till the end of the season gives extra power to a midfield being supplied with a stream of ball by their forwards. Glasgow in Scotstoun will be a massive game, driven by the Scots' need to atone for their performance in Limerick the week after Foley died. The prospect for Munster of five points at home in the last round, against Racing, is appealing, and now that they top the pool it's hard to see them not getting what they wished for.
For Ulster, however, the ship appears to have sailed. Again. Their next opponents, Exeter, are done and dusted in this pool, but Ulster need 10 points from their last two games to have a sniff of a best runners-up spot, on 19 points. But with Ulster's injury profile now doing a passable impression of Connacht's, that haul is unlikely. When they had Exeter at home, in the second round, Ulster won by the skin of their teeth. And when they went to Bordeaux, the week before, they revealed the sort of naivety - in missing the losing bonus point - that makes it very hard to progress in this competition.
Connacht are in a much healthier position, despite Pat Lam's weekly struggle to get 22 players ready for action. Five points against Zebre at the Sportsground on Saturday will he hard to miss .
If Wasps do as expected against Toulouse, a couple of hours later at the Ricoh, that would leave Connacht going to Stade Ernest-Wallon in the last round looking for a minimum bonus point to take them onto 19 points.
Most likely what happens then will be determined by who Connacht can put on the park. Their 16-14 win in Toulouse in 2013 should be the benchmark for them.
Next weekend's fixtures
Round 5: 13 Jan, Leinster v Montpellier, RDS, 7.45; 14 Jan, Connacht v Zebre, Sportsground, 1.0; Glasgow v Munster, Scotstoun, 5.30; 15 Jan, Exeter v Ulster, Sandy Park, 5.30
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