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Your provincial mid-term report cards are right here

Here’s how your four favourite teams stand ahead of the Christmas inter-pros.

THE CHRISTMAS INTER-PROS tonight and St Stephen’s Day mark the 15th match in the season for Irish provinces, pretty much halfway in a campaign that could stretch to 33 games for teams lucky enough to make two finals.

Ultan Dillane Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Through 10 Pro14 and four European fixtures we’ve already witnessed from the teams on these shores there has been plenty to pick through, plenty to admire, but quite a bit to be concerned about too.

 Munster

After losing a semi-final, then a final and then a director of rugby over the summer, Munster’s year could have easily been allowed to unravel very quickly amidst the turmoil of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s long goodbye. Instead, the southern province are making good on the Springbok director’s outgoing promise to build on what he started during his one full season in charge.

The inter-pros ahead (not least Leinster at home) will require no further motivation for the southern province as they will be keen to right some wrongs after two of their three defeats in this campaign have come against neighbouring provinces. The third team to inflict defeat upon them are the unbeaten Glasgow Warriors, who also sit above them in the Pro14′s Conference A.

In Europe, Munster have their knock-out destiny firmly in their own hands as they perch four points clear in Pool 4 thanks to some ferocious performances to beat Leicester back-to-back after riding rough terrain – and rougher weather – to see off Racing 92 on home turf.  That opening day draw against a fired-up Castres side is looking better and better as the tournament wears on.

Felix Jones Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Clearly, there is no revolution for Munster since the arrival of Johann van Graan into the head coach seat. Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, backed by a very strong-willed playing group, have performed brilliantly to make an unusual transition process not only smooth, but an upward curving one.

Van Graan deserves credit for that too. A less-assured rugby mind might be tempted to stick his oar in too early and disrupt the rhythm rather than to facilitate what is already in good working order.

While Ian Keatley’s continued excellent form has been a hallmark of how enjoyable the Munster environment is to play in, the big concern for Van Graan must be the uncertainty around the fitness of Tyler Bleyendaal. Come the business end JVG and Munster will need him in harness to bolster back-line options and take a little pressure off the shoulders of Keatley and Conor Murray.

Chris CloeteSource: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And there is still room for the southern province to improve in both the short and long term as personnel adapt and bed further into the team’s fabric. The loss of Chris Farrell to injury and the thought of a future without Simon Zebo are telling blows. However, Chris Cloete has been a revelation on the openside since making his debut in November, while Niall Scannell’s return from injury adds another international class forward to the push ahead towards the business end of the season.

Leinster

Even more impressive in European competition have been Leinster, rattling through four wins from four for the first time in 13 years. That two of those wins came by bonus point to help them take command of the pool of death adds a little extra weight onto their claim to the European throne.

An out and out war against Exeter Chiefs over this month’s back-to-backs rubber stamped the eastern province’s credentials as a team who are capable of digging deep and doing whatever it takes to strangle victory out of a tight contest.

Isa Nacewa and Sean O'Brien celebrate after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Indeed, they’ve shown plenty of that quality through meetings with Glasgow and Montpellier too. It’s in the Pro14 where the more expansive face of Leinster has presented itself, thanks as much to the brilliant strength in depth they possess as it is to the disparity in intensity between competitions.

Leo Cullen has succeeded in setting his team at the right pitch both with the front-liners in the very biggest games, and without them.

With so many players also resourcing Joe Schmidt’s squad, it’s a task that will continue unabated and it will continue to be rewarded by admiring glances from rival provinces. Though Ross Byrne is arguably the province’s player of the season so far, Joey Carbery won’t be one of the men on the move, but there are plenty in the depth chart who are well capable of thriving elsewhere.

James Lowe and Leo Cullen Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Having deemed their big signing James Lowe surplus to requirements over the battles with Exeter, the former Waikato Chief represents an enormous added bonus for Cullen and senior coach Stuart Lancaster as they enter the second half of the season.

If they can keep Sean O’Brien, Tadhg Furlong and Jonathan Sexton fit – and maybe even add Jamie Heaslip to the mix – then there are few teams in Europe who can match them for cup nous as well as sheer talent.

Connacht

The western province have cause to take flights of fancy about their European hopes too given that the Challenge Cup now offers victors a route back to the Champions Cup.

However, having stormed their way through Oyonnax, Worcester and Brive to lead their pool by seven points, it’s now back to the harsh reality of Pro14 action for Connacht.

Jarrad Butler and John Muldoon Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kieran Keane’s first northern hemisphere job has been far from plain sailing, with the high point of a win over Munster coming in late October after only the (0/10) Southern Kings were defeated in the opening six Guinness Pro14 outings.

Even the fact that Connacht backed up that inter-pro win with a 23 – 15 victory over the Cheetahs left something of a sour taste as Keane bemoaned more than the concession of two tries post-match.

We have a great defence coach (Peter Wilkins) who works tirelessly, and I really feel for him for the effort he has put in. It’s brought about a bit of a change, but courage? You can’t coach courage and stuff like that, so it’s difficult for him.”

A month later, after defeat to Zebre, the 63-year-old was again veering far from the Alex Ferguson school of shielding players from blame:

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that one. Some individuals didn’t endear themselves very well did they? Some pretty average performances.”

Perhaps these are the collective kicks in the glute that will inspire this Connacht squad redouble their efforts, perhaps the players are in full agreement and  appreciate the unvarnished glum honesty Keane puts on the club’s public face.

The transition away from the Pat Lam’s relentless positivity was never going to be straightforward and Keane’s task has been exacerbated by the loss of Bundee Aki to international commitments, niggling injuries to Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy and longer term issues for Andrew Browne, Jake Heenan and Rory Scholes. However, the Kiwi coach must start showing signs, in the Pro14 as well as Europe, that the ship can be more than just steadied.

If there has been one massive positive of the season so far at the Sportsground, it has been the performances of openside Jarrad Butler. The former Brumbies man has been at the heart of things when Connacht have shown flashes of their best selves, linking play with good hands on top of terrific power in the carry and at the ruck.

Kieran Keane with Sean O'Brien Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

With Sean O’Brien chalked in for a return next month, when Connacht will be aiming to cement their place in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, there actually are a few reasons for Keane to be cheerful.

Ulster

Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tables are incomparable, so it’s no slight on Ulster to point out that they are the only province not topping their European pool at present.

Indeed, when their four-game hot streak to start the season went into a tailspin with a loss to Zebre and later a dispirited draw away to the Dragons, most red-blooded, red hand-wearing fans would have snapped at the offer of second place after four games played in pool 1.

Jason Eaton celebrates scoring a try Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

As things stand, despite the tonking they took away to the irresistible La Rochelle, Ulster’s 13 points has them locked with three other second-placed teams in the race for three runners-up spots in the quarter-finals.

Of course, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could bypass that race, and La Rochelle, when they meet the French side in Belfast in January. But so far in this campaign, Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes’ side have given us precious little to rely on.

The team picked for tonight’s inter-pro against Connacht is only a slight exaggeration of the issue at the heart of Ulster’s travails. Even with John Cooney hitting terrific Ruan Pienaar-esque heights and Jacob Stockdale becoming the brightest of stars, the tight five too often has a distinctly lightweight feel to it. And the need to deploy Iain Henderson in the back row where he is free to wreak the most havoc doesn’t help the front five. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Jacob Stockdale scores the first try of the game Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Still, if Rory Best can pull through from an infection caused by a stamp on his leg, it would go a long way to giving a hard edge and harder resolve that Ulster will need to advance in Europe.

They’re in touch in the Pro14 too and well clear of Conference B’s fourth placed side Edinburgh. However the pedigree shown by the teams above the – Leinster and reigning champions Scarlets – make climbing higher than third by the end of the season an unlikely prospect. Though if they’re in the play-offs, they’ll feel they have a chance.

Stockdale at fullback with fellow former U20 star McPhillips primed for Ulster debut

Christmas comes early for Connacht as O’Halloran signs two-year extension

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Sean Farrell

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