Tony Ward: Denis Hurley's selection can point the way for Munster
Later on tonight, by half past seven or thereabouts, we will know the state of the nation. Well at least we will have a much better idea as to where the Irish three stand in the reinvented European Champions Cup. While clearly hoping such will not be the case it is not inconceivable that our interest in this year's divvy out could be at an end.
1998 was the last year when at least one of the three Irish winners failed to make it through to the business end of the competition and the last eight. What was even more extraordinary about that particular campaign was that it was the only one in which the best runners-up (to make up the eight) came through three extra quarter final play-offs. And still not a province in sight!
Ever since there has been an Irish interest right up to April (at least) every year. So the fact that round five in mid-January could represent curtains doesn't bear thinking about. The Pro 12 is important in terms of keeping the professional tank fuelled as well as providing the means to a place in the premier European tournament the following season.
While it would be wrong to suggest the bread and butter of the domestic Pro12 League doesn't matter it would be equally wrong to over hype its worth relative to Champions Cup involvement in itself. Obviously getting there is vital but how you perform when you get there is even more important still.
To that add the element of self-imposed pressure with the bar (on the back of six Irish outright wins) raised so high.
Put simply having been on the winning podium before - Leinster three times, Munster twice and Ulster once - that is the unstated if occasionally unrealistic objective for Leinster, Munster and Ulster folk every year. Qualifying matters (particularly now as it must be earned) but performing amongst the elite even more again.
Were this year's provincial challenge to go belly up in a few hours time it would not impact upon our Six Nations defence but it wouldn't do a hell of a lot for national morale either.
Put simply today matters even for Ulster bottom of Pool 3 and away to Toulon in a Champions Cup fixture and campaign from hell.
Can they win? Yes. Will they? Most unlikely (although apparently the French hosts have a flu epidemic) but in order to kick-start a season in which they have lost their way under much changed management a performance and result in Toulon would sure help.
Before that Munster will know where they stand given the early (1 .0) kick-off in Allianz Park. This is the cup final ahead of that unofficial late January Thomond Park cup final every year.
Win today and that annual 'cup final' (with Sale the opposition this time around) will still take place but lose (even draw) and effecively it's curtains.
Can Munster do it? Yes. But I'm basing this not on the premise of never betting against them when backs are to the wall but on the basis they produce a level of intensity appropriate to the occasion and the limited attacking ability within the team.
Against Leinster home and away and against Saracens first time around they did just that. It's not pretty but is hugely effective. More to the point it's Munster rugby doing what Munster rugby does best since time immemorial. The attempted Rob Penney revolution has been parked for now. Ambition must, of necessity, be limited to soft offloads in close thereby varying the point of attack.
That allied to a sensible kick and chase game chiefly through accurate execution via Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley. Today Williams in particular must come of age. The loss of Conor Murray is a huge blow and let's not pretend otherwise but his unfortunate injury is Williams' opportunity.
Another Dave Kilcoyne type score would be worth its weight in gold given the message it would send out.
When Munster maul - as we know they can - and when they pick and drive (individually or in units) it is every bit as effective and every bit as pleasing to the blinkered eye as Dave Strettle, Chris Ashton or Alex Goode running in a try from 60 or 70 metres on the fast track that is the Saracens artificial playing surface.
The selection of Denis Hurley would suggest Munster reverting to type and that is 100% the right call in the circumstances. It is a clear declaration of intent. The return of James Cronin too is timely given the injury to Kilcoyne.
The smart money will be on Saracens to finish Munster's European interest and in the process make the Sale game a dead rubber.
I'd like to think it's not heart ruling head but I'm going for Munster to upset the odds and manufacture the win few if any expect.
For Leinster at home to Castres a five point return should be the only game in town.
When you read an opposition player saying in the build up "taking points from Leinster may not be the be all and end all for coaches who want to prepare for Toulouse, but I want to win" it's a giveaway in terms of the collective state of mind.
A four-try winning bonus (maybe a couple more beside) represents a reasonable objective in the circumstances. Yes of course winning comes first but on this occasion the bigger picture really matters.
It is a high quality selection albeit minus Jack McGrath and Cian Healy wearing one. I like the look of the backline with Jimmy Gopperth at No.10 and Ian Madigan wearing No.12.
Bearing in mind Jared Payne's selection at full back for Ulster (his most effective position) this is a big game for Madigan in an Irish context given Gordon D'Arcy's demotion to the bench.
I take Munster and Leinster to win but Ulster to again come up short.
Terenue to host Umbrella Sevens Initiative
The annual Umbrella 7s rugby tournament takes place on Saturday March 7 in Terenure College, Dublin with schools and clubs from all over Ireland invited to compete.
Umbrella 7s is an event aimed at promoting 7s rugby in Ireland, while at the same time supporting the work of the Umbrella Foundation in Nepal. Already €18,000 has been raised for the Foundation which works for trafficked and vulnerable children.
The tournament will involve separate competitions for U15 and U17 boys as well as U15 and U18 girls. Last year's winners were Belvedere (U17), Clongowes (U15) and Railway Union (U18 girls).
One of the main themes of the competition is asking young players involved to come up with fund raising ideas themselves. Cost is €300 per team or €25 per player for a team of 12.
In order to participate please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 086-8602913 by January 31 or register on umbrella7's.ie to be sent out sponsorship packs. All fund-raising to be submitted by February 23 to guarantee participation.