Christmas derbies give lesser lights a chance to shine
THE confirmation of the fixtures for rounds five and six of the Heineken Cup yesterday means European rugby still dominates the agenda, but the coming three weeks will help to shape the domestic season for the Irish provinces.
Leinster will have to put their frustrations about the scheduling decision that sees them dealing with a five-day turnaround between rounds five and six as the Pro12's second placed team look to close the gap on Munster at the top.
With three of the Irish provinces occupying the play-off positions along with Glasgow, there is some breathing space as they prepare to deal with their front-line internationals dipping in and out of the squads, but with derbies coming hot on the heels of this week's fixtures, there is plenty of room for jostling for position.
The Christmas derbies may be shorn of some of their glamour if the top Ireland stars are not available, but they offer a window of opportunity for lesser lights to stake a claim for both provincial and international recognition.
For Connacht, this is a chance to build on their win in Toulouse and find some form to get themselves off the bottom and up into mid-table.
With the Welsh struggling to assert themselves after the loss of key players and the continuing uncertainty over the future of the regions, the Irish provinces are taking the opportunity with both hands.
These games represent the mid-point in a block of weeks where the club coaches get access to their players for a prolonged period and also represents a good chance to build points before the games played during the Six Nations.
The Ireland coaches will be keeping a close eye on proceedings with the Wolfhounds game against England at the end of January acting as a prelude to the Championship and Joe Schmidt will be hoping the good feeling that carried from November into the Heineken Cup Round 3 clean sweep can be sustained.
So, ahead of a pivotal three weeks in the Pro12, where do the Irish clubs stand and what lies ahead?
Position: First. P 9, W 8, L1, Pts 35
On the agenda -- Sat, Dec 21: Scarlets
(Musgrave Park). Fri, Dec 27: Connacht (Thomond). Fri, Jan 3: Ulster (a)
After his Heineken Cup heroics last Saturday, JJ Hanrahan pointed to Munster's winning run in the Pro12 as a reason why they never gave up.
With such inexperience in the dressing-room, Rob Penney has used the league to blood players and he used the win away to Glasgow in October as a turning point in their season.
"The one thing we have been doing in the Rabo as well, luckily we have been winning games," Hanrahan said. "It might be ugly but we're still winning them and we're working on our performance all the time.
"We're trying to get better and better."
With the likes of Donnacha Ryan and Tommy O'Donnell back from injury and more -- like Simon Zebo -- to follow, there should be a lift in intensity for a squad unlikely to be overly affected by players being rested.
Unbeaten since October, they will fancy their chances of back-to-back home wins before a nice test of their title credentials at Ravenhill. The perfect preparation for a trip to Gloucester that can secure their Heineken Cup quarter-final place.
Position: Second. P 9, W 6, D 1, L 2, Pts 31
On the agenda -- Tomorrow: Edinburgh (a); Sat, Dec 28: Ulster (h); Sat, Jan 4: Connacht (a)
Second in the table, Matt O'Connor's first season is coming along rather nicely as the halfway point approaches.
However, the Australian is likely to be deprived of the largest contingent of internationals given Leinster's contribution to the national cause in November. Murrayfield and the Sportsground are not venues that have been kind to the province over the years, while Ulster will be looking to avenge last year's Pro12 final defeat -- unless they send a second string down the M1.
Still, they have the deepest squad of the four provinces and managed to win both of their games when the Ireland players were in camp in November and they'll fancy their chances of winning all three ahead before their daunting back-to-back clashes in January.
"We're in a good position in the league as well and if we want to be in the mix come the end of the season these are the games we really have to focus on," Shane Jennings said.
Position: Fourth. P 9, W 6, L 3, Pts 29
On the agenda -- Tomorrow: Zebre (h); Sat, Dec 28: Leinster (a); Fri, Jan 3: Munster (h)
Ulster are injury-hit ahead of the Christmas period, but will be hoping that the lesser lights who guided them through against Treviso during their maximum-point haul in Europe can carry them on over the next couple of weeks.
The return of Craig Gilroy has added some threat behind the scrum and with the capacity to rest some frontliners tomorrow against Zebre, Mark Anscombe's men will fancy their chances against Leinster and Munster to put breathing space between themselves and the chasing pack.
Position: Twelfth. P 9, W 1, L 8, Pts 7
On the agenda -- Sat, Dec 21: Dragons (h); Fri, Dec 27: Munster (a); Sat, Jan 4: Leinster (h)
The westerners got a major lift when beating Toulouse and now they must build on that momentum by getting off the bottom of the Pro12.
Their best bet is beating the Dragons on Saturday, but the Newport-Gwent side have been in decent nick this season.
Having won at the Stade Ernest- Wallon, Thomond Park shouldn't be as daunting but Connacht's record against Munster is not good.
Leinster at home should be a good way to kick off the new year for Pat Lam's side but the Blues will be looking to avenge last year's defeat, while the hosts will be aggrieved by their own last-gasp defeat at the RDS this season.