Munster need support of 16th man more than ever
Leinster have what it takes to storm Ricoh and keep Irish hopes alive
Death by a thousand lashes... at least that's how it feels. It is something those who turn up at the Kingspan in Belfast later today (kick-off 5.30) and in Thomond Park tomorrow (3.15) will feel for sure.
Does it matter if Ulster and Munster come up trumps against English Premiership power in the guise of Leicester and Sale? Yes it does but will it satisfy new-age support honed on success, particularly in the case of Munster? That I doubt and with good reason.
Call me a cynic but what I see piling through the turnstiles in good times I suspect will not be replicated going forward. Already Munster folk - the so-called 'brave and faithful' or '16th man' - have been voting with their feet by way of their absence from what they perceive as run-of-the-mill Guinness Pro 12 fixtures.
They may well be the holders of season tickets and therefore feel themselves to be doing their bit when fuelling Munster rugby's spectator attendance returns, sadly they are anything but. Loyal support is unconditional and is even more relevant in bad times than good.
For my sins I am a Leeds United football fan since almost the cradle certainly for the best part of 50 years. They are a sad mess on and off the pitch and have been for some time but I am a die-hard white. I go over to Elland Road whenever work commitments allow but at least three or four times a season.
I will go to the grave a fully committed white and nothing will change how I feel about a club and a city which made up my formative years. Point being that sporting loyalty should of necessity be unconditional.
Provincial or club rugby - I still find it really hard to get my head around that term in a professional context - is what Railway Cup football and hurling once was. It is however built on a very fickle base. Take away success and I have my doubts this king has any clothes. It is for that reason more than any I am hugely concerned for Munster rugby going forward.
Yes I have a particular interest in and passion for everything Munster. That said I am no more biased towards Munster than I am to Leinster, Ulster or Connacht despite new-age blogs suggesting otherwise, but I do fear for the game in the south because as of now they are slowly but surely slipping off the competitive radar at European level.
The shift in AIL power from south to East in recent years tells a tale in itself but the fundamental issues - to which I will return - are far more complex and much more deep-rooted than that.
Today's visit of Sale is at the other end of the spectrum to when the Sharks hit Thomond in January 2006 - remember Paul O'Connell's 'welcome to Limerick' hit on Sebastien Chabal. Munster won pulling up (31-9) and both qualified for the last eight. Sadly almost a decade on and each is out before a ball is kicked.
That said pride is on the line and pride is the most essential ingredient in the search for confidence and momentum going forward.
The same applies to an Ulster squad drifting aimlessly despite the talent at their disposal. For sure the sum of the components do not represent the individual parts. But before either Munster or Ulster set out on that road to redemption the big one takes place in the Ricoh Stadium in Coventry. Don't ask me why - and I suspect I am not alone here - but while Saracens is one of those clubs you love to hate, nomadic Wasps by contrast is a club you love to love, well this observer anyway.
I don't think it stretching it to suggest today's winner-take-all game is the biggest match for Irish rugby thus far this season outside of the international arena. For many practical reasons I don't believe there to be a 'connect' between club (provincial) and international.
That said it would be a timely boost for national morale if Leinster can at least keep Irish interest alive specifically by way of a home tie in the last eight to come in April.
On Wasps' impressive showing at the Stoop, Leinster rugby is going to need to be at its very best. To that end Matt O'Connor will hope to take up where they left off against Castres. Not for a minute are we drawing comparison between the level of opposition but there was something about last Saturday that smacked of a Leinster side having turned the corner and well on the way to getting its mojo back.
To that end today's game is really make or break. Win, thereby insuring a home quarter-final allied to the troops returning, specifically Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien, and there is genuine grounds for optimism come April. Lose, but in the process securing a bonus point, and an away tie in the last eight could well mean curtains. Point being that the benefit of a home quarter-final cannot be emphasised strongly enough. They might not have been setting the world on fire aesthetically but unlike Munster and Ulster they have been winning consistently.
Contrary to popular opinion and allowing for the difficulty of today's challenge Leinster rugby is still in a good place. I believe they have what it takes to storm the Ricoh but then, albeit based on different criteria, I felt the same about Munster heading to the Allianz for the early fixture a week ago.
O'Connor has shuffled the cards in his pack, specifically with Kane Douglas and Dominic Ryan coming in for Mike McCarthy and Jack Conan respectively, so clearly he has a plan which suggests fluidity albeit on what is likely to be a tight (soccer) pitch.
I'm not sure I agree with that rationale as Conan gives away nothing to anybody in terms of speed over the ground. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating in some fixture to set the final series of games alight.
Verdict: Leinster to chisel out a home quarter-final.
Schools Cup Protocol warmly welcomed
In a timely letter to all school principals and rugby masters, the IRFU, through Chairman of the Schools Committee Gerry Drennan, has reiterated its stance on three key issues.
Specifically the circular refers to the Management of Concussion, the use of Nutritional Supplements and Respect for Referees. Put simply the principles governing concussion embrace "Stop, Inform, Rest and Return".
On Supplements good eating and drinking practices support optimum performance. While respect for referees - on the field and off - is a most fundamental aspect of our game.
In wishing everybody involved well in the upcoming provincial campaigns kicking off in earnest this week can we suggest for anyone in any doubt whatsoever of the attached links to the IRFU website and specifically the IRFU policy on Sports Supplements and the Young Rugby Player: http:/www.irishrugby.ie/downloads/IRFU_supplements_theyoung_FINAL.pdf. Eat to compete: http:/www.irishrugby.ie/agegrades/eat_2_compete.php.