Alan Quinlan: Quality abounds to restore faith in interpros
Hatred may not be what it once was but derbies provide more evidence Irish rugby is on upward curve
It wasn't long ago that the interprovincial matches needed a bit of nastiness, one-on-one sideshows, and plenty of needle to capture the imagination. I had fears that these fixtures were losing their relevance. Not any more.
The four provinces served up some exquisite festive fare that was satisfying mostly due to its quality but also because of the intensity and competitiveness in the fixtures and the various sub-plots developing across the country. And we're not done yet.
The hatred, anxiety and tension in these derbies may not be what it once was, which probably reflects how these squads have become so used to the big occasions. However, the desire to be considered the best side in the country remains a primary motivator in these tribal tussles.
It may be the most difficult time of year to be accurate but attacking, expansive rugby has been warming the hearts on these cold, dark evenings. There were a phenomenal 27 tries across the four interpros in the past fortnight, reflecting the confidence each side has taken from their successful European campaigns.
While the last two weeks have taught us - and Joe Schmidt - plenty, questions still abound ahead of this evening's two fixtures. Can the Leinster juggernaut be stopped? Did Ulster's second-half comeback against Munster merely paper over the cracks? Can Munster finally get off the mark in this season's interpros after four successive defeats? Have Connacht really got their mojo back?
During my playing days we were always confident of beating Connacht. It wasn't arrogance, but those fixtures didn't generate the same fear that a derby with Leinster or Ulster would. However, in recent years Connacht have made this a real nip-and-tuck derby.
The Westerners have won four of the last seven games between the teams while their victory at Thomond Park just over two years ago, which ended a 29-year hoodoo on the road to Munster, instilled huge belief in the squad as they built towards a maiden PRO12 title.
Connacht suffered a heavy defeat in this fixture last season but they no longer fear the trip south, and coming up short after putting Leinster to the pin of their collar in the RDS won't have dented their confidence one bit.
Kieran Keane's side seem to have turned a corner since their defeat to Zebre at the start of last month, leaving a very bumpy road behind them.
I feared for Connacht earlier in the season; they seemed to be in disarray, lacking cohesion and looked shell-shocked when teams attacked them. It looks like they have their mojo back now.
Johann van Graan has been talking publicly this week about how Munster's record of four losses from four interpros this season simply isn't good enough, and you can be certain he has been ramming that point home behind closed doors this week too.
Both of their defeats were disappointing but the New Year's Day loss to Ulster, funnily enough considering the other was a home reversal against great rivals Leinster, will probably grate the most.
Losing a game from such a commanding position can shatter a squad, so Van Graan knows they cannot afford to dwell on their errors from earlier this week.
Ill-discipline and poor decision-making proved very costly on Monday but valuable lessons will have been learned and they are still in a good position in Conference A.
However, the pressure has really cranked up on Munster to deliver this evening.
The loss of Sam Arnold for today's game and the final two pool-stage rounds in the Champions Cup is massive considering they are already so threadbare in midfield.
The return of Chris Farrell has come just in time because Munster have to engineer a win today and build some momentum ahead of huge European games against Racing 92 and Castres.
The competition at Leinster seems to be driving something really special and seeing opensides Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier produce such impressive performances in recent weeks, in the absence of Seán O'Brien, speaks volumes about the cut-throat culture at the province.
We are familiar with the depth and talent in their ranks but their work-rate and character is what has impressed me so much of late, summed up excellently by Van der Flier's outrageous tally of 34 tackles against Connacht, and Leavy's desperation to turn over the ball at every opportunity.
It is now five years since Ulster's sole victory at the RDS and I can't see them doubling that tally this evening.
The sides might look closely matched in terms of results - Leinster second in Conference B, Ulster third, and both teams well placed to make the knockout stages in Europe - but the reality is altogether different.
Ulster are leaking far too many points and are facing into successive games against three of the best attacks in Europe, with La Rochelle and Wasps to come in the Champions Cup.
Les Kiss may be a former Ireland defence coach but his side have conceded 289 points in 12 PRO14 games - see Benetton Rugby's 251 for perspective - giving up an average of more than three tries per game.
They may be scoring heavily themselves but with Christian Leali'ifano's departure set to create an unpluggable hole in their attack, you can't help but feel that Ulster are taking on too much water to stay afloat for much longer.
Ulster may have been without the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy and Chris Henry on Monday but the manner in which they were bullied by Munster in the first half would have been massively deflating for any member of the forwards' union in Belfast.
Kiss's side look a little bit soft at the moment, an accusation that you used to never dare throw at Ulster - you'd soon be set straight if you did.
Best, Henderson and Reidy may be back today but Leinster will still be licking their lips at the prospect of making it an interpro clean sweep on their own patch and against one of the worst defences in the competition.
While I do have fears for Ulster and Munster are in desperate need of a derby win, the general standard of play in the inter-pros has been heartening and hopefully that trend will continue today.
With the conclusion of the European groups now in sight, and the Six Nations less than a month away, it's important that the standards don't drop.
A rising tide lifts all boats and as Irish rugby is riding the crest of a wave at the moment, that bodes well for the provinces and the national team as we head into one of the most exciting and season-defining spells of the year.