Wednesday 13 December 2017

No guarantees for provinces in Anglo-Irish showdowns

Munster and Ulster face daunting tasks in London quarter-finals, writes Jim Glennon

Provincial rugby, or club rugby as the marketeers would have us label it, is back, and with a bang too. A couple of excellent weekends of Pro12 action have refocused minds. Paul O'Connell's man-of-the-match performance in Munster's comfortable win over Connacht and Leinster's excellent victory over Glasgow generated some badly-needed positivity.

One wonders, though, what frame of mind the red corner is in now after Friday night's disastrous visit to Scotstoun. A match which should have brought them on in preparation for next weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final may well have delivered a profound body-blow to their hopes.

The clash of league contenders Leinster and Ulster at the RDS last night upped the ante a few notches for both, and should be of immense benefit in their preparations for next week.

We're now at the business end of the two European tournaments with three Anglo-Irish contests over three days in London.

Ulster, having come through their pool as winners, have been suffering of late as they struggle to cope with the disruptions of a higher than anticipated number of international call-ups and injuries, particularly to their core of overseas players. Ironically, it's Mark McCall, their injured captain in their victorious 1999 campaign, who lies in wait for them with his South African-influenced Saracens.

While the presence in Ulster's vanguard of skipper Johann Muller in the second row and Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf gives a Springbok feel to the encounter, it may well be the New Zealand duo of fullback Jared Payne and tight-head prop John Afoa whose performances are of most importance. Payne adds a different dimension to Ulster's attack and Afoa several horsepower to their scrum and they'll struggle without either on top of their game.

The Saracens group has been painstakingly, and expensively, constructed over an extended period and has at its fulcrum Owen Farrell. His consistently accurate place-kicking facilitates a game plan based entirely on physical domination, and Ulster will need not only a full deck from which to select, but also a performance to rank with their very best in the competition if they're to survive.

Munster too must contend with an Irish coach in Conor O'Shea and face an equally tough task at Harlequins.

The former Ireland fullback has already won his first battle, with his own bean-counters, by persuading them to resist the temptation to move across the road from their Stoop base to Twickenham in order to cash in on the traditionally massive travelling Munster support. Few clubs in the current climate can afford to pass up such an opportunity and Quins' decision to do so is a measure of the strength of O'Shea's position within the club.

The English champions will provide a typically physical challenge for Munster, customary of a Premiership side, and with an 8-9-10 axis of Nick Easter, Danny Care and Nick Evans, will ask some serious questions of the Munster middle five. This is an area in which Glasgow exposed real deficiencies on Friday night.

In addition, the combination of bulk and mobility which the likes of Joe Marler and Chris Robshaw are capable of bringing to bear can be irresistible even for the very best and, notwithstanding the loss of their last three league games, O'Shea will be confident of disposing of the challenge presented by his native province.

Leinster, although they have played at Adams Park in the past, face something of a trip into the

unknown in the Amlin against a Wasps team enjoying a mini-resurgence this season. Having flirted last year with the twin spectres of relegation and bankruptcy, they've made real progress this term and quality players like Andrea Masi, Christian Wade, Stephen Jones and Billy Vunipola provide an excellent blend of youth, experience, pace, and brute force.

Leinster are short of bodies. Having said that, they appear to have hit a vein of form of late, particularly at home. Their experience of winning major trophies in recent years should stand to them, and the incentive of the competition's finale being played in their own RDS can't be underestimated either. Ian Madigan seems to grow in confidence with every game and even allowing for the absences, there is a feeling that they'll get the job done, but just about.

All in all therefore, a three-handed Irish foray based more on hope than expectation; changed times indeed, but entirely in keeping with the mood of these more austere times.

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