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Plenty for Andy Farrell to admire as provinces gear up for Europe

There is a lot of Champions Cup rugby to play out before the new Ireland head coach gets to pick his first squad.

Andy Farrell watches with John Fogarty and Richie Murphy as Leinster defeated Connacht on Friday.
Andy Farrell watches with John Fogarty and Richie Murphy as Leinster defeated Connacht on Friday.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ANDY FARRELL HAS been up and down the highways to plenty of inter-provincial matches before – be it as a temporary advisor with Munster or defence coach with Ireland.

Yet there was something more earnest about his demeanour at the Sportsground and Thomond Park this past weekend. He was no longer the sidekick, he was the focal point on which the camera lenses were trained.

He ought to have enjoyed the suffocating line-speed and physicality of Leinster’s defence in Galway. And Connacht’s resilience to stem the tide when the match could have become a very ugly spectacle. With new IRFU national academy coach John Fogarty alongside him, Ulster’s Marty Moore-powered scrum will have ticked a box, while Munster’s skillful attacking flourishes impressed with Chris Farrell and Rory Scannell at their heart.

But international considerations are a long way away. Two rounds of Christmas inter-pros and an entire Heineken Champions Cup pool stage have to be played before the Six Nations rolls around to offer the means for a new-look Ireland to move beyond another chapter of World Cup woe.

jack-carty Carty and Aki during Connacht's loss to Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Europe is calling. And, as ever, round one will set the tone for a hectic pool phase to come.

Connacht’s injury situation looks to have set them a seriously steep first hurdle back in the top competition. Against Leinster they were without their top three second rows and, from the third minute on, their top two tightheads. A big Montpellier pack ahead of the gifted Aaron Cruden will be a formidable problem to unravel for Andy Friend next Sunday.

“I’m not sure it’s a wake-up call, more a reality check as to where we are, ” the Australian said after the 11-42 loss to Leinster.

We’ve been pleased with the wins we’ve had, but y’know, we’re in the big boys’ league now. That’s one of the big boys right there and they showed us that what we’ve been producing is not going to be good enough for Champions Cup or to try and win the Pro14.”

Friend will hope to have at least Ultan Dillane back available, but Sean O’Brien looks set for another stint on the sidelines after what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder in his luckless brief cameo off the bench.

“We need a gameplan that’s going to avoid an arm-wrestle for us,” added Friend. His side will be well-warned and, with Bundee Aki ready to start, primed to fight their way out of tight corners.

Ulster, on the other hand, will go to Bath relishing the prospect of an arm-wrestle if their approach to Munster in Thomond Park was anything to go by. Dan McFarland’s side returned to the scene of their record defeat and had the game in the balance before being forced to settle for a losing bonus point by Andrew Conway’s try.

“Physically we were excellent,” said the Ulster boss. John Cooney was a class apart behind the pack too and his back-line will function better with a more experienced out-half next week.

mike-haley-andrew-conway-and-conor-murray-celebrate-after-the-game Mike Haley, Andrew Conway and Conor Murray celebrate the win over Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For provinces south and east, the expectation will be high in round one. Not just because they both go into Europe top of their respective Pro14 conferences, but they face familiar opposition, unfancied opposition. Teams that their fans will anticipate convincing and even bonus point wins against.

For Munster, that expectation against an Ospreys side in dire straits after a shock loss at home to the Southern Kings – but with Welsh internationals to return – will come despite an added injury headache at out-half. JJ Hanrahan’s hamstring looks set to leave Tyler Bleyendaal as the only fit, senior 10. The call to make now will be whether to add Ben Healy to the European squad or continue on with Scannell ready to move in from 12.

Keith Earls is ready to return after running in the warm-up on Saturday and Van Graan is hopeful Tadhg Beirne can prove his fitness this week. But Dave Kilcoyne picked up a training ground injury on Thursday and is an added doubt.

james-lowe-is-congratulated-by-rob-kearney-after-scoring-a-try James Lowe celebrates scoring Leinster's sixth try with Rob Kearney. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Last year’s beaten Champions Cup finalists Leinster begin a new campaign at home to Benetton. And though Leo Cullen will remind us that the Italian side forced a win at the RDS in 2018 and a draw last season, it’s tough to envisage Leinster’s six-game winning streak being halted with internationals returning and yet more brilliant young forwards pushing through.

Hooker Ronan Kelleher hit a timely run of excellent form to start the season. His six tries in five appearances are mere indicators of his form rather than the highlight of his displays so far. The 21-year-old has been a quality element of Leinster set-piece and open field play on both sides of the ball.

“He’s been good, had a really good pre-season,” said Cullen in the Sportsground, “hence he got a couple more starts. He’s gone well so he got another few chances as well.

“He’s still young, so he’s learning all the time. Important that he keeps improving and makes sure he takes care of himself and doesn’t get too far ahead of himself.”

andy-farrell-and-john-fogarty-attend-the-game Farrell and the new national academy scrum coach John Fogarty watch Munster's win over Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s far too soon for Andy Farrell to consider him for a place in his Six Nations squad. Then again, in post-World Cup mood when Ireland need to reconsider so much of their approach, why wouldn’t he?

The opening six rounds of the Pro14 are done with now, however. The six rounds of European rugby that will play out over the coming two months will reveal all about where the provinces and their personnel stand.

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Sean Farrell

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