Kidney can't ignore O'Brien against Italy
Not for a minute would I suggest they deserve our pity, but the festive period is a hectic time for our professional elite.
Yes, there's certain latitude in terms of squad rotation and here the input of the IRFU is central, but back-to-back inter-provincial games bring with them a level of intensity, and competitiveness, that's above the ordinary.
So, how was it for you? And, I guess more importantly, for them? Well, even allowing for the chopping and changing, there was little to suggest any immediate shift in the current status. It still reads Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht in that order and, yes, we appreciate that Munster are top of the Magners League, with quite a bit to spare: 10 points ahead of third-placed Leinster and a whacking 17 ahead of Ulster back in sixth.
If Tony McGahan had been promised these stats in his Christmas stocking before the season began, he would have been delighted. But rest assured, no one in the south is being fooled -- least of all McGahan. He knows just where they are at and the danger that lurks ahead in Toulon on Sunday week. With due respect to the Magners League, another mighty win on the road in France is quite simply the be-all and end-all to their season.
Munster have set their European bar so high that qualification for the business end of the Heineken Cup is an expectation and a demand. It may be unfair but it's also the reality. And despite back-to-back victories over Connacht and Ulster, they do look vulnerable ahead of the Toulon dogfight.
Would I bet against them doing it? Not on your nelly, but that's for another day. On Saturday, they ended up taking Ulster at a canter with 29 unanswered second-half points, including four tries and the bonus, representing pretty much the perfect reaction to the ropey run-in to Christmas (Dougie Howlett, Paul O'Connell and the scrum implosion at Swansea).
But satisfying though the 35-10 win over Ulster was, given O'Connell's continued absence plus the ongoing uncertainty in the front-row, it leaves Munster vulnerable in the tight-five, the area where Toulon will take no prisoners. The 25-point winning margin flattered Munster greatly.
Equally, it did little justice to the Ulster effort. But here I would expect Brian McLaughlin to share the same concern as McGahan, albeit on a broader scale. It's all very well talking up 'learning curves' and 'learning experiences' when blooding new players -- but what Ulster lack more than anything is core conviction.
Whereas Joe Schmidt is blooding the best of his emerging talent in a winning, confident environment, McLaughlin's doing so at the other end of the scale. Against Leinster at Ravenhill, they were abysmal.
Leinster travelled to what was once 'Fortress Ravenhill' and bullied the Ulstermen into submission. And here the finger of blame points firmly in the direction of the expensive, much-lauded Springbok imports.
That feeling of Ulster folk being sold short in the immediate aftermath of that game was added to with McLaughlin's admission as regards his selection for Limerick, that he had told the players prior to Christmas that he would be fielding what would be effectively two separate teams. You would have expected the heavily loaded line-up that faced Leinster to come out firing with all cylinders on their home patch.
Instead, in the absence of the talismanic Stephen Ferris, it was Sean O'Brien who ruled the Ravenhill roost. The Tullow man simply must run out in Rome for the opening Six Nations joust, with the back-row position his to lose after that. On the simple premise of form, he's a shoo-in. Nor can there be any counter-argument as regards balance, with a Ferris/ O'Brien/Jamie Heaslip trio picking itself, leaving either David Wallace or Denis Leamy as cover for all three positions on the bench.
Leinster forwards coach Jonno Gibbes called for ruthlessness in Ravenhill and he got it -- as epitomised by O'Brien's performance -- in abundance. Schmidt, contrary to so much of the heavy criticism when scarcely a wet week in the job, has taken Leinster to another level. Like Michael Cheika before him, he's proving an inspirational appointment. He will be the first to acknowledge the role of Gibbes as the link between the old regime and the new.
Witness the role of Nathan Hines and Richardt Strauss in each of David Kearney's tries. For the first, Hines appeared between Paul O'Donoghue and Shaun Berne; for the second, Strauss between Eoin O'Malley and Kearney. In each case, relaxed running at space and soft hands ensured the eventual overlap and try wasn't spoilt by a forward presence. That hasn't happened by chance.
As with Munster, the winning scoreline at the RDS flattered them against a Connacht side that had played all the rugby in the opening quarter, but that's where Leinster under Schmidt and Gibbes are now at.
Talented young players like O'Malley, Fergus McFadden, Kearney, Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan, Jack McGrath and Andrew Conway are feeding into a winning Leinster set-up high on confidence and playing a brand of rugby based on grunt, pace and finesse.
Although Ulster stand on the verge of European quarter-final qualification for the first time in 12 years, it's difficult to escape the reality of a yawning gap between east and south followed by north and west, in that order. The Christmas home series again underlined that reality.