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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 24 January, 2019
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European clean sweep another marker of Irish rugby's rude health

All four provinces are in a strong position to advance through to the quarter-finals after an excellent weekend.

FOUR FROM FOUR on another perfect weekend for Irish rugby leaves the provinces in a strong position for qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarter-finals heading into the final round of pool action.

A quartet of impressive performances across the weekend leaves Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht firmly on course to advance through to the knockout rounds, although all four go into round six requiring one more win to ensure they finish the job.

Conor Murray celebrates after the game All smiles: it was an excellent weekend for the provinces. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Three weeks out from the start of Ireland’s Six Nations title defence, the European clean sweep is not only another marker of Irish rugby’s rude health, but having all four provinces in the quarter-finals for the first time ever would be a further boost ahead of the championship opener against England.

Furthermore, should Leinster, Munster and Ulster progress, it will be the first time three Irish provinces have qualified for the Champions Cup last eight since the 2011/12 season.

Munster set the tone with a big statement win under Friday night lights at Kingsholm as Johann van Graan’s side — guided by a man-of-the-match performance from Joey Carbery, who is now the tournament’s top points scorer with 59 — produced their best away display in quite some time to roll Gloucester over.

It ensures the southern province go into the final round top of Pool 2 and, crucially, in control of their own destiny ahead of the visit of Exeter Chiefs to Thomond Park on Saturday teatime [KO 5.30pm, Virgin Media/BT Sport], a game which has become a mouth-watering pool decider.

Munster, leading the pool by four points, know victory would assure them of top spot but van Graan’s side will likely need a bonus-point on top of that to give themselves a chance of a quarter-final at their Limerick citadel. 

The only blot on their five-star evening was the popped rib sustained by their talisman and captain, Peter O’Mahony, after he was replaced early in the second half by Billy Holland.

Munster, and indeed Ireland, will wait anxiously on news of his fitness today as preparations begin for one final push and that assignment against a dangerous Exeter outfit, who steam-rolled Castres at Sandy Park on Sunday afternoon.

Just as their southern rivals did the previous night, Leinster passed their litmus test on Saturday lunchtime with flying colours, conjuring a performance befitting of their tag as European champions to bring previously unbeaten Toulouse crashing back down to earth.

Leinster’s double success last season was built upon their unrivalled squad depth, as Leo Cullen used over 50 players over the course of the Pro14 and Champions Cup campaigns, and this was the strongest evidence yet of their remarkable resource pool.

Dave Kearney celebrates his try with Garry Ringrose and Rory O'Loughlin Leinster celebrate Dave Kearney's try. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Confirmation, if any is required, that Leinster are currently operating at a different level to most, if not all, of their European rivals. No other club, no other side, could lose the experience and quality of over 500 international caps and still get the job done in such ruthless, calculated efficiency. 

Toulouse forwards coach, and the former France hooker, William Servat admitted afterwards that the Top 14 powerhouse — themselves four-time European winners — can ‘learn a lot’ from Leinster following their RDS humbling. 

Not just in the way they play, or the manner in which Leinster used the hurt of defeat at the Stade Ernest Wallon in round two to identify and remedy the deficiencies which cost them that day, but the unwavering commitment to exposing home-grown players and building not two, but three layers of squad depth.

Particularly pleasing was the way players stood up and delivered huge performances to ensure the loss of key personnel, such as Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Devin Toner, was not felt, while powering Leinster towards a home quarter-final. 

“It was a positive step in the development of those guys,” Cullen said afterwards, before focusing minds by reminding everyone that ‘the job is not done’ ahead of their visit to Wasps next Sunday.

It would be a major surprise if the eastern province don’t go to the Ricoh Arena [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport] and do what is required of them to secure home advantage at the Aviva Stadium in early April, as they bid to strengthen their grip on their European title.

Unfortunately, the knee injury suffered by Luke McGrath looked quite serious and was the one sour note to come from a brilliant afternoon at the RDS, with the scrum-half set for a scan today. 

It would be a cruel blow for the 25-year-old to miss the start of the Six Nations should the injury be as bad as it first feared, given he missed a large chunk of the second half of last season with knee and ankle injuries. Like O’Mahony, Joe Schmidt will wait for further news anxiously.

Leinster, too, will hope McGrath is not set for a lengthy layoff given Nick McCarthy remains sidelined with a foot injury, while it could also have implications for their two ‘non-European’ players selection dilemma, with Jamison Gibson-Park in line to start against Wasps.

James Lowe, having missed the last two weekends, will return from his suspension for the trip to Coventry, although Scott Fardy may be required again should Toner fail to recover from a rolled ankle.

And what of Ulster’s exploits in Belfast, as they emptied the tank to topple Racing 92 and boost their chances of qualifying for a European quarter-final for the first time in five years with a famous 26-22 win?

Jacob Stockdale celebrates Jacob Stockdale and Ulster head to Leicester this weekend. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And what of Jacob Stockdale, who has now scored six tries in Europe this season, his match-winning brace on Saturday night maintaining an impressive record of crossing in each of the five rounds to date?

Victory for the northern province against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road this Saturday [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport] will secure a place in the knockout stages for the first time since 2014. 

“I haven’t played knock-out rugby with Ulster before and that’s obviously something I want to tick off,” Stockdale said.

“It’s a massive aspiration for me. There are not many guys in the squad that have so for us, do what we have been doing all season and playing as well as we can going the last game.

Obviously there will be guys in the squad that we can take bits from, like Besty, that have played in those matches. It’s about doing the things right against Leicester. We have to beat Leicester first off to make sure we definitely get the opportunity to play knock-out rugby.

Ulster were far from perfect against the French heavyweights, ditto Connacht in their crucial Challenge Cup win over Sale Sharks in Galway on Saturday, which leaves room for improvement heading into this weekend.

Andy Friend’s side survived a Sale comeback after scorching into an early 17-0 lead at the Sportsground and an error-riddled display to join the Premiership side at the top of Pool 3, ahead of their away trip to Bordeaux in round six on Saturday [KO 3pm].

It has been a very encouraging first season for the western province under Friend and their back-to-back December wins over Perpignan, as well as Saturday’s hard-fought victory, means they continue to court success on two fronts heading into the business end of the season.

“That will go down as a good win for us,” Friend said post-match, while admitting it was one of their most frustrating games of the season. Still, it is encouraging that Connacht were able to get the job done while not at their best.

Ultan Dillane and Denis Buckley celebrate after the game with fans Ultan Dillane and Denis Buckley celebrate Connacht's win. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It sets it up rather nicely for another bumper weekend of European action, and if the Irish provinces can continue their excellent form, the expectation is that all four will have knockout rugby to look forward to after the Six Nations.

As it stands, unbeaten Saracens are the only side assured of a place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, with Racing 92, Leinster and Edinburgh the other teams inside the top four, while Munster, Glasgow Warriors, Ulster and Toulouse make up the top eight.

Ten teams — five Pro14 clubs, three Top 14 representatives and two clubs from the Premiership — are still in with a chance of progression in the Champions Cup, while no pool winners have been confirmed, and no club is yet guaranteed a home quarter-final, meaning it is all still to play for this weekend.

As it stands: Champions Cup qualifiers

  1. Saracens — 23 points
  2. Racing 92 — 21 points
  3. Leinster — 20 points
  4. Edinburgh — 19 points
  5. Munster — 17 points
  6. Glasgow Warriors — 19 points
  7. Ulster — 18 points
  8. Toulouse — 17 points
  9. Montpellier — 16 points
  10. Exeter Chiefs — 13 points. 

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Ryan Bailey

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