As we’ve written many times, when European rugby hits you hard, you must apply the soothing balm of the Pro12. The first half of this season has been perhaps the worst in living memory for the Irish provinces in the main shindig, so the seasonal interpros had a heightened sense of importance.
These matches have been washouts in previous editions. With coaches hindered by limited access to their frontline players, they have tended to pick a strong side for their home match and a team of bunnies for their away tie, creating a series of foregone conclusions in the process. Not this time, as all of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster needed the points badly. Leinster are out of Europe and the Pro12 is Connacht’s primary target anyway, and while Munster and Ulster still have aspirations of qualifying for the knockouts, the best either can realistically achieve is to qualify as runner-up, which brings with it an away quarter final. They know they can ill afford to coast along in the Pro 12.
With the stakes high, it is Leinster who have come out the most amply balmed. Indeed, it’s been a fabulous Christmas period for Les Bleus, with other results going their way to boot; Scarlets lost to Cardiff, and Glasgow lost twice to Edinburgh. Munster beating Ulster also helped. They can go top and open a gap with their game in hand.
If not exactly half-full, the Leinster glass is at least starting to look less than totally empty. The team appears to have found a bit of shape and edge in attack, and it can’t be entirely by chance that they have conceded the least number of points in the league. Their defence over the Christmas period was exemplary, giving up just seven points on aggregate to Munster and Connacht, and some of the handling against Connacht was impressive considering the conditions.
A couple of standout performers deserve mention. Sean O’Brien is probably the best player on the island and when he is fit makes an incalculable difference to any team. He performed explosively over the Christmas period, giving a ferocious 55 minutes against Munster and a blistering cameo in the last half hour against Connacht. There is no other player that combines his ability both in the breakdown and carrying at close quarters, and, er, regathering his own chips over the defence off the back of scrums. Ireland and Leinster are a different team when they have access to his wrecking-ball talents. If Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt could magically protect one player from injury it would be he.
Another is Garry Ringrose. Munster and Ulster fans may be scoffing at the hype emanating from the ‘Dublin meeja’, as ROG once put it, and while anointing the 20 year old to the Ireland 13 jersey is perhaps premature, there is no doubt that Ringrose is going to be an international player, and surely no question that he is blessed with a rare and natural talent. While it was his sensational try-creating break that will be remembered, he also defended his channel manfully against Munster, and backed up the performance against Connacht with two more line-breaks and a generally sound showing on a day which wasn’t exactly made for skinny-hipped outside centres. There’s nothing like the anointing of a new local hero to get a bit of giddiness going on the terraces, and the RDS now has its next potentially great outside centre to celebrate.
Two more young guns who we are going to be seeing a lot more of are Josh van der Flier and Ross Molony. Van der Flier is enjoying a breakout season and combines great presence at the breakdown with a good carrying game, a similar kind of player to Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell (whose return to fitness, incidentally, will be a huge benefit to Munster over the coming weeks). Molony is a second row with a big couple of months ahead of him. As Demented Mole pointed out, Leinster are going to be without their starting second rows for much of the Six Nations period and have little in the way of depth. Mike McCarthy has finally brought his best form to the blue shirt and is likely to be brought back into the national team set up this spring; O’Connell is gone and Henderson is injured, and while it was hoped Donnacha Ryan would return from injury at his 2012 best, that just hasn’t happened. Molony and the underwhelming Tom Denton are likely to be partnering up for the five or six games in that window. He made two vital lineout steals against Munster which have got him noticed.
Things are looking up, admittedly from a low base, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to reflect on a European campaign in which a new and totally inexperienced coaching ticket was only finding its feet, and where the bulk of players in the team were coming off the back of an exhausting and mentally draining World Cup. With fresh energy, and fresh names in the team, the season can still be turned around, and perhaps that process has already begun.