Chance of home ties whets the appetite
WITH the European competitions building to a climax, the possibility of two Heineken Cup semi-finals in the Aviva in April, each involving an Irish side, is certainly a mouth-watering prospect.
And while Munster's target will be Cardiff and the Amlin Challenge Cup, there is an added bonus for Irish rugby in the form of an additional place in the premier competition if they are successful. It is almost certain that Connacht will benefit if Munster emerge victorious.
Many observers believe that the next six months will be crucial in the evolution of Munster from successful trailblazers and standard-setters in Europe, to trying to regain their position in the upper echelons.
We are often accused in the Dublin media of ignoring Ulster, but the simple fact is that all teams are judged by their deeds and as a result Munster and Leinster have commanded the lion's share of media exposure over the last 10 years.
In that context, Ulster's return to this stage of the Heineken Cup after a 12-year absence is welcome for a whole raft of reasons, not least their own prosperity as a rugby province.
They travel next Sunday to Milton Keynes Stadium to pit their wits against former Heineken Cup winners Northampton Saints. Ulster had a scrappy early season due to a bad run of injuries and a poor return from their South African contingent. Recent results, however, have shown the depth of character in the side and the degree to which the imports have now bedded in. They have become the cornerstone of the Ulster side, in particular Ruan Pienaar.
However, Northampton are a quality outfit, with outstanding players such as Ben Foden and Chris Ashton of England and the Irish centre James Downey. They will also be boosted by the return of Courtney Lawes.
Ulster will be doing extremely well to get a win, particularly in the absence of Stephen Ferris. While Ferris has been an absentee for most of the season, the step up in class from pool to knockout in this competition is such that players of his calibre are absolutely crucial.
Leinster, on the other hand, have the benefit not only of their recent positive European experience but also of a home game against a familiar foe, Leicester.
But they had a very poor start to the season, albeit during a period when new coach Joe Schmidt was getting to grips with the job in the absence of his front-line internationals. He has developed a squad with strength in depth, featuring players who were blooded through the autumn series and the Six Nations.
Schmidt's main worry this week will not be the threatened absence of Shane Jennings (who would dearly love to play against his old club) but rather getting the mix and combination right in the back three.
In the absence of Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa has been outstanding at full-back and it's unthinkable that he won't start there next weekend.
That leaves the coach with the unenviable challenge of selecting two from Shane Horgan, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden for the wing. I won't try to second-guess him. And while Jennings is a loss, there is reserve strength in his position. Schmidt must select one from Rhys Ruddock, Kevin McLaughlin and Dominic Ryan.
Leinster and Leicester have been regular protagonists since 1996 and in fact Leinster's first breakthrough in Europe was against Leicester in Donnybrook in that year. A home venue and a prospect of a home semi-final should be enough to pull Leinster through.
So while it's probably too much to hope for two Irish sides in semi-finals in Dublin in a few weeks, it will a disappointment if we don't have at least one.
Sunday Indo Sport