Friday 23 February 2018

Irish squad rankings all to play for in local derbies

There's a lot more than pride at stake, says Jim Glennon

Ulster players Nevin Spence and Paddy McAllister were in festive mood ahead of tomorrow's game against Leinster
Ulster players Nevin Spence and Paddy McAllister were in festive mood ahead of tomorrow's game against Leinster

I sent a text to one of my former charges in Leinster after their outstanding performance last week. I also wished him an enjoyable Christmas. He immediately replied thanking me, but reminding me too that for professional rugby players there is no such thing as Christmas! In Irish interprovincial rugby, this is derby week.

These Christmas games are not your run-of-the-mill Magners League games, and while they might not reach the pitch of a Heineken Cup game, they are still a level or two above the routine encounters.

After Leinster's great performance against Clermont, they will be brought back down to earth in Ravenhill tomorrow against a team that has been something of a bogey for them over the years. Joe Schmidt has been quite imaginative in his selections since his arrival and indeed this was evident in the two excellent back-to-back performances against Clermont.

Schmidt will not be unduly concerned by the loss of front-line players as he is blessed with an abundance of emerging talent in his squad and, even with the continued injury-enforced absence of Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, they have got plenty of capable players in reserve. Competition for places within the squad is fierce across the board but they'll need to be at their very best going up to Ravenhill.

Ulster really have achieved everything they would have wanted to at this stage of the season. Biarritz come to Ravenhill in January with all to play for in the third round of the Heineken Cup and with their record at home against French opposition, they'll really fancy their chances. Equally they'll fancy their chances of clipping the wings of their high-flying neighbours, especially after last weekend. On the downside for Brian McLaughlin, he is still waiting for Ruan Pienaar to really spark. The Springbok played better in Bath last weekend than in Ravenhill the week before, but for me he still has several gears to go up and if he manages to do that, he could ignite an outstanding season for Ulster.

Munster are picking up the pieces post-Ospreys. They will still be very disappointed with the outcome in Swansea and particularly so because of the demolition job that was done on their scrum and on the tight-head side especially.

For me, it's not just a question of Tony Buckley or John Hayes, there has to be an issue around the second-row forward playing on that side of the scrum and that makes Paul O'Connell's absence even more costly.

It also gives us an insight into at least some of the thinking behind his mildly-surprising appeal of his four-week ban. Paul McCarthy, Munster's scrum coach, has a lot of work to do over the next few weeks because Toulon will undoubtedly target that side of the scrum, regardless of the personnel involved -- there is no understating the extent of the problem McGahan's men face in France.

How they begin to deal with this against Connacht tomorrow will be interesting, to say the least. Connacht revel in hosting the other three Irish provinces. These are their really big games of the year, the games that Connacht set out to win and to use as a base for building their support in the west. And their recent record bears ample testimony to this.

Similar to Leinster travelling to Ravenhill, Munster will have to be on their toes to deal with Connacht, regardless of how hard they've been hit with injuries. With a dearth of competitive sport over the holiday, all four games will be well worth watching -- numerous outstanding individual contests and closely-matched clashes of squads of considerable ability, all of whom have a lot more to play for than the league points.

There's massive personal and provincial pride at stake and rankings in the Irish squad are very much there to play for -- and not just Mike Ross and Tom Court eyeing up Tony Buckley and John Hayes.

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