Connacht, Leinster and Munster eyeing Euro glory
Following last year’s Six Nations triumph, most neutrals would consider Irish rugby to have suffered from a major hangover this season.
Domestically however, the picture is brightened by the continuing fortunes of Connacht, Leinster and Munster in European competitions.
The national side performed poorly by their own high standards in this year’s Six Nations, after starting the championships as Grand Slam champions.
They were outplayed and out-muscled by France in Paris and shell-shocked by a Dan Parks inspired Scotland in the last ever international fixture played at Ireland’s temporary home, Croke Park.
However, the lack of success on the national stage appears to have only instilled more hunger into players at provincial level.
Leinster are enjoying another excellent season topping the Magners League table and on course for more European glory.
The Heineken Cup holders squeezed through their clash with Clermont Auvergne giving them every chance of retaining the crown they captured for the first time at Murrayfield.
Outright favourites Toulouse await the Dublin-based side at the Stadium Municipal next weekend and will provide Brian O’Driscoll and company with one of the toughest tests of their careers.
Meanwhile it’s business as usual for Ireland’s most well known and successful side, Munster.
The two times European Champions are flying high in the League and are still in with a chance of European glory.
Munster are also on the road, facing Biarritz at the semi-final stage in their search for a fifth Heineken Cup final appearance, and are marginal favourites to progress.
They appear to be coming into form at the right time and will be quietly confident of making it past the Basque club.
Ulster are the only Irish side without a chance of collecting silverware at this stage, but have still had some high points; the home win over Stade Francais springs to mind.
They narrowly failed to qualify from the group stage, but have since endured a worrying dip in form in the League, a blip which could cost the side dearly both on and off the field.
The IRFU use the leagues as a basis to decide which three of its teams qualify for the Heineken Cup, which to date has always been Leinster, Munster and Ulster.
But the fourth professional side, Connacht, have been gaining considerable ground on Ulster, leaving the northerners needing to pick up vital points sooner rather than later to secure qualification.
Connacht are the traditional whipping boys of Irish rugby. The Galway club do not have the resources to compete at the level of the other three provinces but have shed their underdog status of late.
This season they have performed above expectations again, reching the semi-final stage of the Amlin Challenge Cup, where they will host a Jonny Wilkinson inspired Toulon outfit next weekend.
On paper, the current Top 14 leaders will provide an immense challenge for the Westerners, and it is difficult to see the French side not leaving Galway with a win.
Connacht are a credit to outgoing Director of Rugby, Michael Bradley, who has decided to move on at the end of the season after seven years in charge, and should provide a stern test for Toulon.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ryan Carter
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard