Tony Ward: Connacht must savour moment
Victory over Zebre will help Westerners towards an Amlin Cup spot -- but with the future of the Heineken Cup uncertain, nobody knows when European elite will return again to the Sportsground
It was a long time coming but the International Rugby Board's midweek insistence that it will not back the breakaway European Champions Cup was essential in rugby's attempt to step off the path to self-destruction.
We are still deep in a thicket, but the governing body's statement was strong and definitive -- 'it is our way or no way'; it won't back a competition that is not approved by its unions. At last there are clear signs of the 'union' being put back into rugby union.
In its strongest statement yet, the IRB said it "strongly believes that the establishment of a truly representative pan-European rugby competition that fully complies with IRB regulations and bye-laws is in the best interests of the global game."
The statement continued: "The IRB acknowledges and supports the commitment of the Six Nations member unions in their ongoing attempts to reach an accord for a genuine European competition that has Europe's top players and fans at heart."
This was a crash waiting to happen ever since contracts were split between clubs (in England and France) and unions (everywhere else) upon the game going open back in 1995.
Now is the time for the IRB to show leadership. It is no magic wand, but this declaration of unified intent seems to be the first indication that the business moguls, the money sharks, haven't seized control of the game just yet.
I fear there is some way to go still and at best we may have a repeat of 1999 in 2014/15, but if it takes that on the way to a much more secure arrangement going forward then it will be a very small inconvenience indeed.
But for now let us enjoy what we have while we have it.
Last night in Paris and Belfast, the fifth series of matches in the Heineken Cup pool stages kicked off.
Today and tomorrow the three remaining Irish sides will be in action, beginning with Connacht at home to Zebre this afternoon.
For Pat Lam and his side, this is must-win territory. What was achieved in Toulouse on that never-to-be-forgotten December day is already part of western folklore.
Before a Heineken Cup ball was kicked back in October I suspect (much like last year) the aim would have been to beat Zebre home and away and pinch one of the home games against the heavyweights in the pool, making for a three wins out of six.
Having already won both games on the road (at Zebre and Toulouse) today opportunity knocks at the Sportsground before the western faithful to make it a third memorable season in Europe's premier event.
And if we are brutally honest here, given the changed rules of entry almost certain to be implemented, it could be a while before Heineken Cup rugby is on the Connacht agenda again.
More's the pity given the plethora of up-and-coming players thriving in these heady times.
It is difficult to quantify what this European exposure means to young guns with the quality and potential of Robbie Henshaw, Eoin McKeon, Kieran Marmion, Mick Kearney, JP Cooney, Jack Carty et al.
However, with Zebre having beaten Treviso over the festive period to record the first home win in their short history, the Italian minnow will be looking to do to Connacht what the westerners did in ransacking Toulouse. But Connacht look to have too much.
Verdict: Connacht to deliver win number three.
Next up, it's Munster away to Gloucester (6.0). The visitors are far from the finished article but they remain impossible to shake off. In that sense, they are in a class of their own.
Others come and other go but Munster rugby is consistency itself. Think Harlequins last season and Perpignan this and you've got the idea.
I dearly hope I am wrong but I cannot see a third Heineken Cup for the province in this squad. However, I certainly would not bet against them beating any team anywhere on any day.
I love what Leinster have achieved in recent times, particularly under Joe Schmidt, but in terms of the spirit that best represents the 'fighting Irish', Munster still lead the way.
Despite the spin, I can see little different in what Rob Penney is about now than when he first arrived, but far from knocking it, I firmly believe it to be the most pragmatic strategy and the one best suited to the individuals at his disposal.
Put simply, Munster have reverted to type, doing what they do best and, when at their best, better than anybody else.
The wider vision has failed but Penney has reset his goals and cut his cloth accordingly. The bottom line is a team that has won all but three of their competitive fixtures this season. For a squad still in transition, that's some return.
Kingsholm is one of my favourite grounds. It is akin to Thomond Park in atmosphere (arguably better, given 'the Shed'). This is the fourth of Munster's five cup finals since dropping the guard in Edinburgh.
Verdict: To stay afloat Gloucester have to win but Munster on occasions like this can be irresistible. Take Munster by a whisker.
Last up it's the team who, on their day, play the most complete brand of rugby in the northern hemisphere.
Can they get back on track following their pre-Christmas Aviva glitch? Of course they can, but that extraordinary home defeat to Northampton (on the back of the Franklin's Gardens tour de force) has opened up the pool in a manner they could have done without.
Top 14 champions Castres are still in with a shout, as indeed are the Saints and Ospreys.
Defeat in France tomorrow and -- difficult as it may be to comprehend -- the three-time champions could be on their way out.
Leinster cannot afford the sort of mental laxness that cost them against the Saints. Another win on Gallic soil is essential if they are to make the last eight with home comfort.
Verdict: Take Leinster to land the spoils at the death.
Limerick soccer legend Joe was one of a kind
Yesterday in Limerick we said goodbye to one of the greats of Shannonside sport -- a Young Munster fanatic and Limerick soccer legend.
Whatever about the first part of that description the latter would have seen the late, great Joe O'Mahony shuffle uneasily.
Even as I pen these few inadequate words I find it difficult to comprehend that Joe Mahony (the O' was always silent) is no longer with us.
Born in 1948 and armed with a couple of youth international caps, the consummate football technician signed for Limerick as a raw 18-year-old in 1966.
Immediately he struck up an amazing centre-back partnership (one that was way ahead of its time) with Al Finucane.
Joe was a one-club player, gracing the League of Ireland for over 20 years, amassing over 400 league appearances and skippering the then Markets Field side to the league title in 1979 and FAI Cup in 1982 (under the management of Eoin Hand); he also won the Cup as a footsoldier under Ewan Fenton in 1971.
He played twice for the League of Ireland as well as sitting on the bench for the Republic of Ireland's World Cup game against Czechoslovakia in Prague in 1969.
He was a quiet and humble man but as brave as he was brilliant when sweeping.
I know I speak for every player to have soldiered alongside him when I say he was one of a kind.
He will be widely missed but nowhere more than by his family, specifically by wife Sheila, son David, daughters Laura and Lisa, sisters Anne and Mary, grandchildren, relatives and his very many friends.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis. Sleep well Joe.