Tony Ward: The inter-pro derbies have been magnificent - but three in 11 days could end up costing the provinces
Three intense derbies in the space of 11 days could take edge off Irish sides ahead of big fixtures in Europe
For those in love with the oval ball, it's been a winter wonderland of rugby this festive season as each successive interpro has pretty much outdone the one before it.
If you go back to October and the Leinster/Munster clash in the Aviva, the main question in the post-match analysis was whether the biggest derby in rugby was losing its edge and maybe that tribal drive was no longer there.
Peter O'Mahony was wrong to react in the way he did to Reggie Corrigan's pertinent question in that flash interview but in O'Mahony's reaction we got where he and Munster stood, irrespective of Leinster winning the day.
Point being that players do care and in that key regard, irrespective of the trappings of the modern game, it's no different now than ever it was. Pride in jersey or tribe, whether it be club or province, isn't coached: it's innate and if you ain't got it you will be found out very quickly. My issue over the last 12 months wasn't with players but with selection.
And here I have no problem whatsoever complimenting all four head coaches in how they have managed three high-intensity Guinness Pro14 derbies before full houses in 11 days. I was particularly critical of Leinster in 2017 over the side selected for Thomond Park.
The point was valid given the sell-out element to the fixture so far in advance but the criticism was harsh when effectively the coaches' hands are tied by Pro14 scheduling and even more so by IRFU player management restrictions.
Consider the perpetual moaning of football managers across the water - and yes they too have their Christmas scheduling issues - but there is no comparison between the physical demands of rugby compared to football and the recovery needs involved.
From a rugby perspective, what we are witnessing is the establishment of a set of late December-early January fixtures that have ongoing appeal with the paying punters satisfied once they know the coaches are doing their level best to balance individual and squad needs with those of tournament organisers (by extension TV demands) and governing bodies (IRFU and by extension Joe Schmidt).
I hope I am wrong but I feel three interpros in 11 days could be one too far. I have little doubt that Leinster and Ulster will give it hell for leather in the RDS this afternoon with Munster and Connacht likewise in a few hours' time. The fear is of Irish provinces sucking the life out of each other before the resumption of European Champions and Challenge Cups in seven days' time.
Bragging rights matter but not at the expense of Europe. It is a really difficult balancing act so the New Year resolution for 2018 is to be more sensitive to head coaches in how they go about tackling that task.
Again on Monday we were treated to a couple of interprovincial encounters that went right down to the wire.
I expected Connacht to give it a right good go at the RDS and they didn't disappoint. The irony is that they didn't play particularly well. I say that on the basis of lack of control at times when in possession. That is normally an accepted strength. Few teams protect possession better, indeed overly so at times.
All that said, and despite the disappointment of coming up just short when pounding the Leinster line for that precious win, there were again definite signs of progress under Kieran Keane. The Waikato way and the Connacht way, pre-Keane, have much in common.
It's been a good December with morale and confidence restored post the transition from Pat Lam to KK. Today's game in Thomond is another severe examination, particularly with Munster low after back-to-back defeats. A whitewash doesn't bear thinking about for Munster but something's got to give.
In individual terms for Connacht, Ultan Dillane continues on that upward curve towards the robustness and ball-carrying impact that took him into the Test frame. It is imperative he now asserts himself alongside John Muldoon as a leader on a consistent basis.
Behind the scrum, Jack Carty's overall game, though competent, still contained those goal-kicking and touchline glitches he has to eradicate if he is to move on from here. He definitely has what it takes but the sum of the parts simply has to be greater and he has to be more assertive as playmaker-in-chief.
Kieran Marmion had a good outing on his inside but, with precious little between the Connacht scrum-half and Luke McGrath, there is a big call coming up for Schmidt shortly as to who will be shadow to Conor Murray. As of now, Marmion still appears marginally ahead but the gap is minuscule.
Bundee Aki, meanwhile, was back to his effective best in midfield but for me the most impressive Connacht player, alongside Dillane, was Matt Healy.
As with Simon Zebo, former scrum-half Healy possesses that all-important left peg and is not afraid to use it for territory or chip and chase. His try was the icing on the cake but it is that work rate off the ball and support in attack that makes him the most potent weapon in the Connacht armoury, despite Tiernan O'Halloran's unquestionable creativity in a different type of way.
For Leinster, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Seán Cronin, McGrath and the entire back-row of Dan Leavy (at 6), Josh van der Flier and Max Deegan were outstanding. I still don't fully comprehend the need for Lowe's signing but in terms of impact in the loose down the left, that offloading ability is bringing a new dimension to Leinster's continuity attack. With Joey Carbery on the way back and Jordan Larmour on the way up, these are heady times for Leinster fans.
Like Johann van Graan, I do not believe Munster to have a discipline problem but certainly a moment of indiscipline by Sam Arnold (and it was that) did cost them dear. That said, immense credit to Ulster for the manner in which they made the extra man tell.
Darren Cave was a very real leader at a time when he was most needed while with increasing game-time John Cooney edges ever closer McGrath and Marmion in the shadow of Murray.
Promising signs too from Greg Jones and Nick Timoney as they grow into their new playing environment. But the one who really caught my eye was Rob Lyttle, and as with Healy that bonus-point try was the icing.
The mere fact that the former 'Inst (RBAI) and Methody schoolboy has been picked on the Ulster wing at a time when there is a queue containing the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe tells you something about this 20-year-old's attacking ability.
Like Larmour and Carbery, Lyttle is blessed with dexterity of foot. He can sidestep in a postbox. As an advocate of the small men, I love what is happening in the global game. All Blacks Damian McKenzie and Nehe Milner Skudder have lit the way.
Follow your gut and bring 'em on Joe.
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