All in

Clean sweep for the provinces tees up riveting European quarter-finals

Irish rugby’s good health has been underlined in the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup.

A FINE WEEKEND for the Irish provinces in Europe once again, a second consecutive clean sweep, with all four of Connacht, Ulster, Munster and Leinster securing quarter-final places for the end of March.

It’s the first time it’s ever happened and serves as the latest marker of the good health of Irish rugby, as well as a timely boost just before Joe Schmidt and his national squad begin preparations to defend their Grand Slam title in the Six Nations.

Dan Goggin celebrates the game winning tackle Munster's Dan Goggin celebrates the win over Exeter. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Having briefly celebrated their respective achievements, the provinces will move swiftly on from the prospect of those quarter-finals, with plenty of water to pass under the bridge before then.

But we can be certain that a trio of thrillers await when European club rugby resumes on the weekend of 29/30/31 March, with the inter-provincial Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Ulster at the Aviva Stadium sure to lead the agenda.

Defending champions Leinster will be the strong favourites but Dan McFarland’s ever-improving Ulstermen will embrace their underdog status in front of what is certain to be a sell-out crowd at the national stadium in Dublin.

Ulster smashed expectations in the pool stages this season, winning five of their six games against Racing 92, Leicester and Scarlets – a feat that very few people predicted at the outset of the campaign – to secure a first quarter-final since 2014.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Ulster but with captain Rory Best leading like a man possessed, Iain Henderson dominant in the second row, backline creators Billy Burns and Will Addison proving classy additions, and Jacob Stockdale scoring freely, they are deserved quarter-finalists.

Leinster, for their part, recovered strongly from the setback of losing away to Toulouse in October, just a week after hammering Wasps in a dominant show of their class at the RDS. 

Bath proved a tricky proposition away from home but, as they tend to do more often than not, Leinster found the mettle to win. Their squad – as Wasps’ director of rugby Dai Young underlined yesterday – has highly enviable depth, littered with quality players.

Leinster were without their first-choice halfback pairing of Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton yesterday as they won in Coventry, but the duo of Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne must be the strongest ‘back-up’ combination in the competition.

James Ryan celebrates winning Leinster's James Ryan was superb again in Coventry yesterday. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster remain the strongest candidates for European glory along with Saracens, but an inter-provincial start to the knock-out stages should prove intriguing.

“They are different,” said Leo Cullen of what is a rare all-Irish knock-out game in Europe. “You could see it over Christmas, those derby games take on a bit of a life of their own.”

With plenty of ex-Leinster men in the Ulster ranks, most notably Jordi Murphy, who started last season’s final for Cullen’s side, there will be a familiarity to deal with too.

“We saw it with Bath with Girvan [Dempsey] knowing us well, seeing them read certain things that we do. It’s a tricky challenge.

“Sometimes you can get side-tracked by some of that worry as well, we just need to be clear on what we’re doing ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Munster’s narrow victory over Exeter Chiefs – who remain a major disappointment on the European stage – on Saturday has sent them into an away quarter-final against Edinburgh.

Richard Cockerill is doing a superb job with the Scottish side, recruiting intelligently to bring in the likes of Bill Mata, Duhan van der Merwe and Pierre Schoeman and combining them with the native talent in a disciplined and clear-headed playing style.

And yet, while Edinburgh have home advantage at Murrayfield and shouldn’t be underestimated in the slightest, it’s probably the most winnable away quarter-final Munster could have hoped for.

Robert Baloucoune celebrates after the game with fans Ulster's Robert Baloucoune scored two tries in the past fortnight. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Johann van Graan’s side were unimpressive in their back-to-back games against Castres in December but then delivered a riveting performance full of aggression and some ingenuity to hammer Gloucester two weekends ago.

Their victory over Exeter was gritty and once again underlined that their defensive game – in which new man Tadhg Beirne has been brilliant – will continue to frustrate teams. The attack, meanwhile, is continuing to improve and Joey Carbery’s composure since a poor day away to Castres has been compelling.

Elsewhere in the Heineken Cup, top seeds Saracens will be expected to overcome Glasgow at home in their quarter-final.

It is fantastic for Scottish rugby to have both of their sides in the knock-out stages but Mark McCall’s Sarries are a superb team and remain the leading lights of Premiership rugby as the sole English representatives to have reached the quarter-finals this season.

An all-French pairing makes up the fourth quarter-final, with second seeds Racing 92 to host Toulouse, who are enjoying a revival this season and played some beautiful rugby during the pool stages.

The provinces won’t be getting ahead of themselves, but if Munster win against Edinburgh, the semi-finals will see them either face Saracens in England or host Glasgow in Ireland, depending on the outcome of that game.

Leinster would either travel to France to face Racing 92 or welcome Toulouse to the Aviva Stadium, while Ulster would be in the same possible positions if they reached the semi-finals.

Of course, there is a fourth quarter-final for Irish rugby to look forward to in March, with Connacht having secured a trip to Sale Sharks, who they already played twice in the pool stages.

Tiernan O'Halloran celebrates his try Connacht will travel to take on Sale Sharks. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Andy Friend’s side confirmed their knock-out progress with a dramatic win away to Bordeaux, not an easy place to succeed, as the likes of Racing and Toulon have been reminded in recent times in the Top 14.

Friend has made a highly-positive impact on the western province since arriving last summer and in the likes of Jack Carty, Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell – all part of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad – they possess some of the most in-form players in Ireland.

Their win at home to Sale a fortnight ago, while not perfect, could be important mentally before the quarter-final, although Steve Diamond’s side appear to be focused on glory in the Challenge Cup this season.

It would be another impressive feat for Connacht to cause an upset but if they can, they will either travel to France to face La Rochelle or host Pat Lam’s Bristol on Irish soil in the semi-finals.

For all four of the provincial coaches, there will be anxious times before the quarter-finals roll around, the hope being that their key players avoid picking up injuries during the Six Nations and return with their motivation intact or improved.

“Last year, the players came off the back of a Grand Slam and you’re wondering how is the motivation going to be for some of those guys coming off that high but they applied themselves really well,” said Leinster boss Cullen.

“Other years, sometimes it’s a disappointing campaign and then they want to turn the page and get back into another team and just turn the page as quickly as possible.

“It really depends on how the campaign goes. Some players will play five games, other players will play bits and pieces of games.

“Someone will pick up a knock at some stage. There was a couple of injuries across the campaign [last season] which ruled guys out of the quarter-final. It’s how we cope and deal with that, how we manage the group.”

Either way, three riveting European quarter-finals await the Irish provinces on the other side of the Six Nations. 

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