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Dublin: 19 °C Wednesday 15 July, 2020

No time for RWC hangovers, European opportunity beckons for Irish provinces

All four of the Irish sides are in European action over the next two days.

THERE’S BEEN MUCH talk of World Cup hangovers this week, but the truth is that the Irish provinces have little room for showing any ill effects from the global tournament.

Instead of dwelling on the negative emotions born of Ireland’s quarter-final exit, there will be many men eager to positively underline that they should have played a far greater role under Joe Schmidt in recent months.

George Naopu, Ronan Loughney, Finlay Bealham, Ian Porter, Jack Carty and Jason Harris-Wright try on some new hats Connacht mean business in Russia. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Not that those thoughts will be forefront in these Irishmen’s minds. Rugby players, and nearly all professional sportspeople, are incredibly good at focusing on the present. This weekend’s exciting European clashes have little relevance to what has come before.

Connacht are first up this morning, kicking off at 8am Irish time in freezing temperatures in Krasnoyarsk. The Siberian city is the venue for Pat Lam’s in-form team to open their Challenge Cup account against an Enisei-STM side that they will know at least something of.

The Russians have been taking trips to Ireland for some years now, beginning with a clash against a Munster ‘A’ side in Nenagh back in 2009. Muscular, determined specimens from the outset, Enisei have added more skill and game understanding as they have developed.

Lam’s men are without World Cup stars Robbie Henshaw and Nathan White, but this is a winnable fixture even in the challenging conditions.

The Pro12 will once again be the westerners priority this season, but the Challenge Cup does represent a route into next season’s Champions Cup for the winners. Whether Connacht have the depth to fight on both fronts for the rest of the campaign remains to be seen, but Lam and his men will be confident of continuing their impressive form this morning.

Ulster kick the Les Kiss era properly into life later in the afternoon, having trekked into the Rhône-Alpes region of France to face Top 14 side Oyonnax (KO 1pm Irish time).

Les Kiss Kiss adds a huge layer of tactical acumen and experience to Ulster. Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

While Neil Doak would have enjoyed steering the ship on his own last season, one wonders if he will take greater satisfaction from being able to focus more wholly on his training-ground duties again.

The former Ireland scrum-half never appears entirely comfortable in his media duties, but his coaching excellence is what has helped him to earn huge respect from the Ulster players. Kiss and Doak working in tandem could be a magical formula.

The World Cup has shorn Ulster of Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Iain Henderson for now, but the returned Paddy Jackson and Darren Cave have subconscious points to make about their underuse by Schmidt.

The loss of Christophe Urios during the summer was a major blow to Oyonnax, depriving them of a highly intelligent and passionate head coach, and replacement Olivier Azam lasted only a matter of months before being sacked in the lead-up to this game.

USO are not the same team without Urios and have struggled for early-season form, but remain an entirely proud and formidable proposition at Stade Charles Mathon.

For Ulster, there can be no excuses. They must deliver a ballsy display on the road to start strongly in what is a difficult pool also involving Toulouse and Saracens.

A view of the Munster squad Foley's men open with an eminently winnable home fixture. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Munster have perhaps the most straightforward opening round tie on paper later this evening when they host Pro12 strugglers Treviso in Thomond Park with a 5.15pm kick-off.

Again, the more demanding ties lie ahead against Leicester and Stade Français, meaning a convincing win and, more importantly, a cohesive performance would be timely. Captain Peter O’Mahony is another World Cup victim, but CJ Stander appears to have stepped into the leadership role with comfort.

Without O’Mahony and the departed Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley will also look to the likes of Conor Murray (now 26), Keith Earls (28) and Simon Zebo (25) to lead. That doesn’t necessarily mean stirring speeches, more so an expectation of dominant performances.

After a rather frustrating World Cup, Donnacha Ryan is another to watch out for.

Finally, Leinster wrap up the Irish provinces’ European weekend with their 1pm kick-off on Sunday, when Wasps look for an away win at the RDS. The Premiership side have recruited wonderfully over the summer, having run Leinster close in this venue during last season’s pool stages and then drawn with them back in the Ricoh Arena.

Leinster’s squad remains an incredibly strong proposition on paper and whatever about the pressure on Leo Cullen as head coach, it is time for the big names in the eastern province’s group to deliver on their words.

Leo Cullen Cullen needs his big players to deliver. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Johnny Sexton should be dominant in comparison to Ruaridh Jackson, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien should be outplaying Nathan Hughes and a 35-year-old (but still excellent) George Smith. Leinster have proven players all over the pitch, but it’s now time for those men to show exactly how they earned their reputations in blue.

It’s always eye-opening how the mood of Irish rugby can shift in the space of a weekend, and with all four of the provinces opening their European campaigns with winnable fixtures, we may see the latest example.

Forget about the World Cup, opportunity beckons.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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