IRELAND'S defence of the Six Nations crown won so brilliantly last year is now only a matter of weeks away. Before that, however, there are huge games for Munster and Leinster as both attempt to maintain their interest in European competition deep into the spring.
Munster are on the road, facing Premiership opposition on Saturday on the artificial surface in Barnet. This is a challenge to rank with their biggest. In recent seasons, the ultra-pragmatic Saracens have developed a somewhat innovative tendency in many ways; they've continuously evolved and grown from a fiercely controlled and conservative outfit in the early days of Brendan Venter and Mark McCall, into one of the most fluid and expansive units in the English Premiership. Their spirit of innovation is evident, too, in the construction of their 4G artificial playing surface, their off-field marketing activities and, most recently, the sensors worn behind their players' ears to assist medical research into the measurement of forces involved in instances of concussion.
It would be over-simplistic, however, to label the confrontation as the modern monied men of Saracens against the traditions of Munster.
The bonus point in Clermont last time out through Ian Keatley's late penalty could yet prove priceless. With Sale due to visit Thomond Park the following week, a win on Saturday would set them up nicely for a real crack at qualifying from the group.
If the Londoners have expanded their attacking game in recent seasons, their strength up front remains a major weapon and they will look to target Munster in the tight, particularly at the scrum. At loosehead, Mako Vunipola will be sure to have a cut off his opponent in red, be that BJ Botha or Stephen Archer, while elsewhere up front, they will attempt to grind Munster into submission, before releasing to Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell and their outside backs.
JJ Hanrahan's signing for Northampton and Munster's contract extension for Keatley absorbed a lot of column inches last week. While Keatley has been in good form at outhalf, the centre combination for Munster has been a consistent area of difficulty for them.
Anthony Foley's selection of Hanrahan in the 12 jersey in Clermont was a major factor in the back division's much-improved performance and a repeat will be required next weekend. With the supremely-organised Saracens' defence guaranteed to ensure that space will be at a minimum, the pressure will be on Hanrahan as Keatley's foil and progress in this area will be crucial to Munster's chances.
For their part, Leinster will be hoping that their second-half performance against Ulster will have marked something of a turning point in their season. An opportunist try from Ian Madigan, a bruising carrying performance from Jack Conan and an ever-threatening Luke Fitzgerald brought them back into a game in which they'd struggled through the opening period.
Conan and Fitzgerald were Leinster's main men last week and while the former, having moved to his natural No 8 position in Jamie Heaslip's absence, was deeply impressive, the consistent threat posed by the latter was even more encouraging. He's back in contention now for the Irish No 13 jersey and his Leinster backline colleagues will be looking to him for inspiration in the coming weeks as they attempt to boost their try-scoring averages.
Castres, their visitors to the RDS, should pose little difficulty. The French champions lie 12th of 14 in their domestic league prior to this weekend and their fighting for survival in the top division will be all-consuming. They may provide some element of physical resistance in the early stages of next Saturday evening, but as the game wears on, Leinster should have far too much in the tank.
Whatever about Leinster's publicly-stated surprise at the suspension of Jack McGrath, the citing was to be expected in the circumstances and the three-week penalty constitutes a major blow in the continued absence of Cian Healy. While Castres are the immediate focus, the loosehead's absence will be more keenly felt when Leinster travel to face Wasps in what will be a must-win game for both sides.
His replacement, Michael Bent, should be able to cope against Castres, but Wasps will be a major step up, a test of an altogether different calibre.
Ulster, already out of contention in their pool, have the unenviable task of travelling to the Stade Felix Mayol to face defending double-champions Toulon. It's a massive challenge facing Neil Doak's team and to be in bonus-point range of the home team would be a huge achievement; a clean bill of health for his squad may be more important, though, in the context of imminent domestic issues in the Pro12.
All told, it's a big weekend for the provinces. Munster's challenge is a big one and a tough one to call. It has all the appearances of one of those away games of which they've made a specialty. A familiar mantra comes to mind too: never bet against Munster.
Sunday Indo Sport