Alan Quinlan: Mixed season for the provinces but the future is bright for Irish Rugby
As another season draws to a close, the landscape for the four provinces has a more familiar look to it after Connacht stunned everybody to upset the odds last year.
Connacht have found it much tougher as champions as they slipped from the heady heights but all hope is not lost yet in their bid to ensure that they play in the Champions Cup next season.
It's easy to point to how consistent Munster and Leinster have been and the strides they have made have been hugely impressive, while for Ulster, it is an all-too-familiar story.
Leinster were always going to be a superior outfit having blooded so many younger guys last year and they are beginning to reap the rewards of that now.
From an Irish perceptive, we are hoping that Munster and Leinster meet in the Guinness PRO12 final on May 27 at the Aviva. Regardless of whether Munster go on to lift their first trophy in six years, with everything that has gone on in the last year they have to be pleased with how far they have come.
Ulster on the other hand are still without a trophy and have again struggled to make any meaningful impact. From top to bottom, they need to have a long, hard look at themselves.
Below, I have dissected each of the provinces' seasons and looked at what needs to be done in the coming months.
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During my time with Munster, the biggest challenge we faced after we won silverware was backing it up. It wasn't always easy and Connacht have found that out to their detriment.
Coming back for pre-season, you've got to set out your stall for the coming year. It's incredibly difficult to try and maintain that same hunger for success but you've got to find a way.
Connacht have paid the price for having a messy pre-season that never went according to plan. It was a disaster and left them completely behind from the off.
Losing Robbie Henshaw was a body blow and while Aly Muldowney might not be mentioned in the same breath, he was a real pack leader. For me, the damage was done in pre-season and even though injuries were costly, the announcement of Pat Lam's departure in December certainly didn't help the situation. What they should have learned You have to admire Connacht's expansive approach, especially after they won the PRO12 but it has cost them on occasions this season.
When you're under pressure and confidence is that bit lower, you have to play territory and they will hope that Marnitz Boshoff is the man to do that for them. Standout player When others let their standards slip, Tiernan O'Halloran built on last season and was superb from full-back.
He was rewarded by being included in the PRO12 team of the season yesterday which came as no surprise to me and he will be hoping that he gets another chance to impress with Ireland next month.
What they must do next season Kieran Keane's commitments with the Chiefs means that it is still unclear when he will arrive in Galway. The Super Rugby final is scheduled for August 5 and if the Chiefs make that, it won't allow enough time for him to oversee that pre-season which is not ideal.
Missing out on pre-season games last year cost Connacht and they cannot afford to let the same kind of thing happen again.
They have got to hit the ground running and that all starts over the summer.
Overall assessment I keep coming back to that Champions Cup win over Bath last year when five of Leinster's young guns made their first European start. If you look at the strides the likes of Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose have made since then, it typifies the improvements that have been made.
There is a lot more variation to their game and Stuart Lancaster has undoubtedly been an outstanding acquisition. It was a really shrewd move by Leo Cullen to accept that there was a head coach coming in, in an assistant's role.
Scott Fardy and James Lowe will add a huge amount to an already quality squad. Leinster have plenty of good options right across the board and there is no question that they will continue on this upward curve.
What they should have learned Leinster's young players have proved that they have learned from last season but now they must learn from the manner in which they froze in the early stages against Clermont.
I went through it myself as a player and you do learn from those kind of experiences when you're back in the same situation.
Standout player There are so many to choose from but for me, Furlong was the pick of the bunch. His level of consistency both with Leinster and Ireland has been incredible. Getting picked for the Lions capped a brilliant season for him.
Honourable mentions to Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Dan Leavy.
What they must do next season Leinster will start next season as one of the favourites to win the Champions Cup and the Guinness PRO12 and you'd have to expect them to be there or thereabouts again.
They will know that they aren't the finished article just yet, but they are getting there.
The major work-on for them will be how they manage tough away trips in France.
I mentioned the Clermont defeat already but the draw in Castres also had a bearing on them having to play away from home in the semi-final. They can't afford slip-ups like that if they want to get back to the top.
Overall assessment To have endured what this group of Munster players have gone through with Anthony's passing and then to bounce back in the manner that they did has been remarkable.
They channelled last season's negativity in the right manner and Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Felix Jones have come in and been a breath of fresh air. Jerry Flannery too has grown in his role.
Behind the scenes, there is a positive atmosphere and togetherness which has shone on the field.
Munster are in a good place and their skill-set has improved massively but there are a few issues surrounding the recruitment of a replacement for Donnacha Ryan which needs to be done as early as possible. What they should have learned This group of players are creating their own legacy which is great to see. The defence has largely been good but the defeat to Saracens highlighted the need to play more in the wider channels rather than crashing it up the middle.
There were still games in the PRO12 where Munster have had to work doubly hard despite dominating teams. Better execution off first and second phase is crucial to take that next step.
Standout player Donnacha Ryan is in the form of his life, which makes his impending departure all the more difficult to stomach.
For a man who is engrained in the Munster culture, he will leave behind him a huge void that will be tough to replace. Simon Zebo, Jaco Taute and Ronan O'Mahony have also been excellent.
What they must do next season JJ Hanrahan, Chris Farrell and James Hart will strengthen the back line and they need that because too often this season, the attack has been predictable.
It will be up to Erasmus whether or not he looks to bring another coach in but the decision must totally lie with him.
Overall assessment The biggest problem for any of the provinces is when you lose at home in Europe, it deflates your season and Ulster's loss to Bordeaux really unravelled whatever progress they were threatening to make. They should have beaten the French side away in the first game and, from there, they struggled.
This squad have big expectations of themselves and ultimately they have fallen well short again. To not make the PRO12 play-offs with that group of players is a really poor return.
Some of Ulster's performances have been very dour and for the quality they have, that is unforgivable really. When they beat Glasgow away earlier this season, I felt they would lay down a marker but they regressed.
What they should have learned Ulster are lacking ball-carriers and their lack of a punch up front illustrated that. They were unlucky to lose Marcell Coetzee to another serious injury but if they can get him fully fit for next season and with the addition of Arno Botha, that should give them much more of an edge.
Some of their players are not playing to standards and you don't want to wield the axe after just one season but unless guys step up, they are going to be here again next year.
Standout player Jacob Stockdale has taken every opportunity he has been given and has scored nine tries. His versatility across the back line will be a major asset to Ulster going forward.
What they must do next season Jono Gibbes will bring a hard-nosed edge to the pack and Dwayne Peel will add plenty of enthusiasm but ultimately the players have to stand up.
You cannot stress enough just how much of a loss Ruan Pienaar will be but with John Cooney coming in, although he has big shoes to fill at scrum-half, he has the capability to do so.