Emergence of young guns has turned despair into hope
Full houses point to the desire from the rugby public as we consign RWC exit to history
Time was, and not so long ago either, when the sporting landscape of the holiday period was the exclusive preserve of horse racing and cross-channel soccer.
All has changed, however, in recent years - with rugby's provincial derbies firmly established. Full houses were the order of the day at all four provincial venues this week.
Rewind 12 months, however, and the physical and psychological wounds inflicted by our World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina, and the manner of it, were still raw. Our provinces were struggling badly in Europe and the looming Six Nations was an unwelcome spectre on the horizon.
This time around the road ahead is much less daunting and is being approached with confidence. With a clear image of that World Cup exit still lingering in the rear-view mirror, there's little chance of those inside the bubble getting carried away.
The key takeaway from RWC 2015 was the lack of depth in the squad and a sense of urgency was attached to developing the capabilities of the wider group across all the provinces.
The arrival of Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery, the continued improvement of the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane and Josh Van Der Flier, not to mention the scaling of new heights by Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, has driven the group to new levels.
In a sense, the emergence of this new breed at both provincial and national levels was a direct consequence of last season's travails.
Invaluable experience was accumulated by emerging pros who, in the ordinary course of things, would have spent midweeks holding tackle bags for the established names and weekends watching them from the stands.
The benefits of game-time accumulated over the past 14 months is now clearly evident, while the newest batch of Academy players, especially in Leinster, have demonstrated levels and depths of quality unseen anywhere else in Europe.
Sport is notoriously fickle, however - this season's injury toll, for example, while a constant issue, has proven a lot more manageable than last season's, despite something of a spike in recent weeks, particularly in Connacht.
Through the heyday of the provinces' near-annual assaults on Europe, the Leinster-Munster rivalry achieved unprecedented levels of intensity. If at this juncture at least, it still falls somewhat short of the halcyon days, a sold-out Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day was an indicator not only of the pull of the rivalry between the pair, but of the provincial game generally.
Leinster, as the capital-city based franchise with all the commercial clout that comes with it, were always most likely to be the first to drag themselves back to some sort of competitive footing in Europe, and their newly-recovered momentum isn't a huge surprise.
Munster, however, is different
Rewind again 12 months, or even just two to October, and things were not nearly as positive. The overriding reaction to a mediocre defeat to Leinster in the Aviva was that they were poor, and that the 25-14 scoreline in Leinster's favour was kind to them.
The renewed bond and cohesion clearly manifest within the squad since Anthony Foley's subsequent passing has brought them from that mediocrity to a level of consistent quality they had barely even threatened previously.
The emergence of an injury-free Tyler Bleyendaal at out-half, coupled with the arrival of Jaco Taute outside him, has provided a fulcrum and sense of direction. Combined with the now world-class Conor Murray, the return of Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander's consistency, they are once more a force to be reckoned with.
Their loss to Leicester in Welford Road will have stung, however, and showed that they have a way to go yet. It was one they should have been able to grind out, but it doesn't get any better than Leinster in Limerick as the target for their anger - even a Leinster much depleted by the rotation requirements of national team management.
Leinster, however, still travelled with more depth at their disposal than any other province could muster in the circumstances and, despite the rotation, managed to make things difficult for much of the game. Leo Cullen and his colleagues don't lack confidence in their younger players, and an early taste of the 'Thomond' factor will have done them a power of good.
Our relatively small pool of professional players dictates that the quality of output from the Academy structure is vital to our chances of success at provincial and international level. The roll call of just some of Leinster's Academy undergraduates - Carbery, Rory O'Loughlin, Adam Byrne and his out-half namesake Ross - is an illustration of the quality of Leinster's current production line. Add in the likes of recent graduates van der Flier, Furlong, Ringrose, Luke McGrath and James Tracy and it makes for an unprecedented reservoir of youthful talent.
Just as the continued production of players of this calibre will be key for Leo Cullen, so it is also for all his provincial counterparts. Indeed, the onus is now on the IRFU to maintain current levels of output, and spread more evenly across the provinces too.
Rassie Erasmus, for his part, will have been delighted with the performance of second-row Jean Kleyn - for me, Munster's stand-out performer up front. Tough and abrasive, the 23-year-old South African showed real potential, and while he's not currently subject to the Union's player management program, he could well play himself into it over the next couple of seasons.
The program and its application were the source of some controversy arising from Cullen's selection but the reality is that it's an integral part of the management of our national squad.
It's not entirely satisfactory for the PRO12 competition, but the packed fixture list affords little room for manoeuvre around the holiday period, and the quality, from an Irish perspective anyway, has remained high. The 'sold out' signs at all four venues speak for themselves.
What a difference a year makes. Here's to 2017.
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