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Tony Ward: Provinces' stuttering form will not hold Ireland back

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Ian Madigan shows his disappointment at a Leinster defeat - but he can expect more joy in an Ireland shirt

Ian Madigan shows his disappointment at a Leinster defeat - but he can expect more joy in an Ireland shirt

SPORTSFILE

Ian Madigan shows his disappointment at a Leinster defeat - but he can expect more joy in an Ireland shirt

The four provinces are third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Pro12 table, yet it's fair to say they are all experiencing mixed fortunes at the moment.

In a sense they are victims of their own success. The bar has been set high, and we come into a European week with all four under pressure to survive - so it is little wonder there has been criticism.

The Irish Pro12 assault hasn't really taken off in earnest, yet Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connacht occupy positions three to six.

Yes, the Ospreys and Glasgow lead the way but overall, Ireland has outperformed the other three nations in the competition.

However, I feel that means precious little as the Six Nations looms.

Almost all the optimism surrounding the national side is based on Test form in 2014, and that is as it should be.

I highlight this because there is a perception growing legs that inconsistent provincial form is an indicator that all is not as well as portrayed at the highest level.

Of course Joe Schmidt will be looking to individual form as he picks his team for the Six Nations, but I very much doubt that the provinces' failure to set Europe on fire is worrying him unduly.

Logic might suggest that if the professional teams are going well then Test form will follow, but rugby certainly doesn't work like that. In fact, there's little correlation whatsoever.

Blame

So if Ireland fail to live up to our expectations in the coming weeks, please leave Matt O'Connor, Neil Doak, Anthony Foley and Pat Lam out of the blame game.

Carton House is a different working environment entirely, with different objectives and different (more short-term) demands involving differing personnel in differing roles.

How often in times past have we seen Ireland players on the back of disappointment (think World Cup '07) reinvent themselves when returning to wear blue, white, red or (Connacht) green?

So measured optimism is well placed for the national side.

Back to the Pro12, and it was a mixed weekend for Ireland's four.

The only province to lose was Connacht. Not for one minute do I share the 'typical Connacht' view doing the rounds.

Both Connacht and Edinburgh went into Friday's game at the Sportsground on the back of massive derby wins. Edinburgh's Alan Solomons won the battle of coaching minds with his charges better prepared to hit the vile conditions running.

The intensity the Westerners showed against Munster was missing this time out, particularly in the opening half, and that is not good enough, given where Connacht rugby is now at and where it aspires to go. It was a glitch and they will bounce back - of that I have no doubt - but it was disappointing and extremely damaging.

On the plus side, despite shipping an injury, Bundee Aki was again outstanding while scrum-half John Cooney injected badly needed impetus when replacing Kieran Marmion late on. Beyond that, it was a night best forgotten.

Leinster, by contrast, continued on their winning way against the resurgent Cardiff Blues, whose line-up featured 13 internationals.

What Cardiff lacked in discipline, Leinster showed in abundance. Credit the TMO system for highlighting and punishing unpleasant indiscretions mid-match. Manoa Vosawai's knee into Ben Te'o's back was nasty and cheap - he deserved a red card, rather than the yellow he got. Jarrad Hoeata had earlier been rightly been sent off for a high tackle on Rob Kearney, and the numerical advantage eventually told.

There were performances of note from Sean Cronin (in consistently good form), Jimmy Gopperth (Wasps' gain will be Leinster's loss), Jack Conan (another performance of growing maturity), Luke McGrath (the most complete of so many up-and-coming scrum-halves around), Ben Te'o (a serious physical presence), Jordi Murphy (superb work ethic) and both Kearney brothers.

Young prop Tadhg Furlong also looked the business and contributed the bonus-point try (perhaps a little flattering to Leinster) in an impressive half hour.

And full credit to Munster for the comprehensive nature of their victory in Italy. Quite apart from the four-try bonus, the game time for the returning Keith Earls and prop James Cronin (given the doubt over Cian Healy and Jack McGrath) was absolutely crucial from an Ireland perspective.

It was good to see Paddy Butler also get a run, along with Dave Foley and Dave O'Callaghan both in from the start. It provides the perfect springboard for this massive week ahead for Munster.

As for Ulster? The proverbial game of two halves in Treviso. When they are good they can be very, very good, but when they are bad they are awful.

Paddy Jackson, in particular, was on fire in the first half, but he's still some way behind Ian Madigan in the Six Nations out-half pecking order. Bizarrely, Ulster collectively flicked the switch to 'off' at the break. They are still in the mix but little more than that.

Time to clamp down on post-try cheap shots

I know there are mixed views on the increasingly intrusive role of the Television Match Official (TMO) in the modern game.

Of course there is the danger - given the problems around scrum time anyway - that rugby could become as fractured as gridiron (although advertising plays a big part in that).

I'm with the rugby authorities on this one. Anything that helps clean up the game and expose less savoury incidents, with that cowardly knee into Ben Te'o's side a typical case in point, deserves the full use of mid-match technology it is currently getting.

Where I would like to see match officials upping the ante even more is when a try is scored and the covering defender with that last-gasp leap manages to dig his knees into the unprotected side, back or legs of the attacker, who is fully focused on making the try-line.

I remember Gordon D'Arcy returning from France in a wheelchair from one such injury many moons ago. As of now, rugby has got it right.

Irish Independent