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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 26 January 2021

Two home QFs a fine return for provinces before Six Nations takes focus

Munster and Leinster can look forward to knockout ties in April.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Ernest Wallon

THINK BACK TO a year ago and the despondency that surrounded the Irish provinces after they all failed to advance beyond the pool stages of the Champions Cup.

The general feeling was that it would be some years before the Irish teams would be a force in Europe again, with the restructuring of the Champions Cup seeming to suit the wealthy English and French clubs.

Ian Keatley celebrates scoring a try with Rory Scannell Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

And yet here we are in 2017 with Munster and Leinster looking forward to home quarter-finals and both of them likely feeling some justifiable confidence that they can actually win the competition outright.

Rassie Erasmus’ Munster advanced as second seeds overall from a pool that had looked hugely demanding when they were drawn alongside Top 14 champions Racing 92, Gregor Townsend’s clever Glasgow Warriors and old enemies Leicester – now a shadow of their former selves.

After five wins from six games, the southern province have marked themselves out as contenders and will certainly view a home tie against Toulouse in the next round as manageable.

If they are to win that quarter-final, they will either play Saracens in Ireland or travel to face Glasgow in Scotland, depending on who wins that particular tie. Exciting times for the red army.

Leinster, meanwhile, made life a little more difficult for themselves by performing poorly and drawing away to Castres on Friday night, but they got their home draw for April and will welcome a Wasps team packed with attacking quality to Dublin.

Marty Moore’s return home with the Premiership side will be of interest, but Leinster’s own star-studded squad will be confident that their experience and international calibre will be enough to earn a semi-final against Clermont or Toulon.

We don’t want to get greedy after the barren run in recent years in this competition, but Ireland should probably have a third province in the quarter-finals, with Connacht missing a host of opportunities in Toulouse yesterday.

Toulouse players celebrate Toulouse ensured Connacht wouldn't be playing in the quarter-finals. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

All they needed was a penalty or a drop goal to get over the line, but Pat Lam’s men were poor at Stade Ernest Wallon and probably didn’t quite deserve to advance.

Lam will leave the province this summer without having helped them to the milestone of a first-ever quarter-final and he was understandably dejected last night, stressing that a young squad need to learn from their near miss.

However, he was also keen to point out that the province has come a long way in terms of European rugby.

“I arrived in my first year in Connacht and we were in the Champions Cup from Leinster winning it,” said Lam. “We had no chance of getting out of our pool, even though we won [in Toulouse].

“To where we are now, we worked hard and there was a genuine chance right up until the last play and that shows you how far we have come. Earning the right to be top seeds, and then almost getting there.

“That is the frustrating bit at the end of it, but I am pretty proud of how far we have come in Champions Cup rugby. I am determined, and so are the players, to make sure that Connacht Rugby is here next year, even if I’m not.”

It’s now back to the Pro12 and attempting to ensure a top-six finish, with Connacht currently in eighth position and 12 points off the pace. Ground to make up.

Ulster will also be focusing exclusively on the league after their dire performances in the pool stages of the Champions Cup.

Rory Best speaks to the team after defeat to Bordeaux Ulster were poor in Europe this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Les Kiss’ men simply were not good enough, winning just two of their six games, and there is major work ahead for the province.

The signings of John Cooney and Arno Botha are positive, with more new faces to come, but the absence of Ruan Pienaar in the last few weeks showed exactly how important he is to the province and underlined how much he will be missed.

Kiss may make changes to his backroom staff this summer in a bid to revive Ulster, but they can at least attempt to salvage something this season by shifting up the Pro12 table from their current sixth position.

Despite the despondency in Belfast, it’s been a positive European club season for Irish rugby so far, while Ulster individuals like Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson will embrace the chance to now switch into Ireland mode.

Joe Schmidt will name his Six Nations squad this morning, with a sense of continuity very much expected, along with one or two injections of fresh blood.

It’s been a whirlwind month for the provinces, but the Champions Cup and Pro12 now go on the back burner in the minds of the nation’s best players as they look to bring the Six Nations title back to Ireland.

April will come around before we know it and the provinces will be back in the headlines.

“You come off a pretty big Six Nations game, Ireland versus England, and then you’re into a Guinness Pro12 game against Cardiff at the RDS and then the quarter-final,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen on Friday after his team’s draw in Castres.

Rob Kearney celebrates with try scorer Dan Leavy Leinster did enough to earn their home quarter-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s tough, but that’s why players do all of the work to play in this period. It’s exciting, Ireland v England – hopefully there’s a lot at stake for the lads and then you take a breath and you’re into a huge quarter-final.”

All eyes now turn towards Ireland, with their opener against Scotland just 12 days away. Schmidt’s men were 2014 and 2015 Six Nations champions, but 2016 saw them underperform and win just twice.

Buoyed by the achievements of Munster and Leinster in securing home quarter-finals, Ireland can tackle the challenge of regaining their crown with some confidence that they are as good as anyone in Europe.

The sense of momentum still carrying through from Ireland’s November series successes will be a factor too.

There’s no let up in this season, as ever, but the outlook is increasingly positive for Irish rugby.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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