I've been thinking about the differences between the province’s experiences in Europe last weekend. Leinster destroyed Racing92 10-42 away. Ulster had a chastening experience in losing to Sale 39-0. Munster secured an honourable losing bonus point against outstanding French side and perennial European Cup challengers, Toulouse. Connacht had a creditable win 22-8 against Newcastle despite resting a few front liners.
I’ve long been an admirer of the Cullen/Lancaster coaching duo and the assistant coaches they have brought in over the years – of which Sean O’Brien is the latest. Andy Friend has done a great job of building up Connacht’s strength in depth despite losing players like, Roux, Dillane, and Sammy Arnold to French clubs. McFarland seemed to have Ulster on the right track until they lost their way against Leinster, and now Sale. The question is, how well can they recover from those setbacks? They’re playing O’Gara’s La Rochelle this weekend, so it doesn’t get any easier. Munster seem to be recovering from the Van Graan era and giving some very promising young players their chance to develop.
The acid test for a good coach is whether players get better under their tutelage. What has been interesting to watch is how many Leinster players have gotten better and better in the past season or two. Keenan came in from almost nowhere and hasn’t put a foot wrong since; Lowe didn’t have a defence. Ringrose and Henshaw (when fit) are playing the rugby of their lives. Gibson Park has moved from second choice at Leinster to one of the best 9’s in world rugby.
Van Der Flier is world player of the year and Caelan Doris is not far behind. Ryan Baird is upwardly mobile after a string of injuries, and James Ryan has rediscovered his mojo. Porter and Sheehan are becoming world class. Academy and fringe players like Jimmy O’Brien, Jamie Osborne, Scott Penny, Max Deegan, and Joe McCarthy are moving into international squad contention. Only injury is holding players like Furlong, Sexton, Kelleher, Connors, Larmour, and Frawley back.
Michael Ala'alatoa, Jason Jenkins and Charlie Ngatai are proving to be astute acquisitions and, to my eye, are improving with every match. Leinster lost Josh Murphy, Peter Dooley, Adam Byrne and David Hawkshaw to Connacht, Jack Dunne and Rory O'Loughlin to Exeter Chiefs (where they have become regulars), and Devin Toner, Seán Cronin and Conor O'Brien to retirement this season and yet their strength in depth seems to be as good as ever.
Leinster have also lost coaches Felipe Contepomi to Argentina, Denis Leamy to Munster, and Stuart Lancaster leaves for Racing 92 at the end of the season. Leo Cullen only renews his contract on a year to year basis. The question is can Leinster continue to improve as they have been doing? Andy Friend will leave a powerful legacy at Connacht, but can they continue to improve once he leaves? Can Rowntree bring through a new generation of outstanding players and return Munster to the glory days? Can McFarland finally bridge the gap between Ulster being a good team and an outstanding one?
Ulster have also developed and improved a number of outstanding players in recent times, most of whom have yet to make the breakthrough into the international team, even if they are hovering around the fringes. Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume, Stuart Moore and Nathan Doak in the backs and Tom O’Toole, Andrew Warwick, Tom Stewart, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney and Marcus and Matty Rea come to mind. The question is: can they take the next step up to challenge the incumbents at international level? You have to be pretty close to world class to make the Irish team these days.
Munster have some outstanding young talent coming through in Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron, Thomas Ahern, Edwin Edogbo, Gavin Coombes, Alex Kendellen, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Antoine Frisch and Calvin Nash who promise a renewal as some of the older stars threaten to fade away. But will they be good enough to recreate the glory days?
For Connacht, Cian Prendergast has been outstanding and threatens to take Peter O’Mahony’s place in the national side. The Murray brothers could solve a weakness in the tight five that has dogged Connacht forever, and Finley Bealham has gone some way to bridging the gap between Tadgh Furlong and the rest of the Irish tight head propping universe. Caolin Blade and Kieran Marmion are as good a pair of 9’s as anywhere at club level, and Adam Byrne could join Mack Hansen as an Ireland contender if he can remain injury free.
One of the joys of watching Irish rugby has been that, compared to our near neighbours, the professional game has been outstandingly well managed here. Those of us who witnessed many barren decades know that nothing can be taken for granted. Nucifora, who is also apparently due to move on doesn’t always get a positive press, but in the main the IRFU and provinces have gotten most things right, to the point where other countries are studying our structures and methods closely. Our 7’s teams have also come from nowhere to being in the top rank of contenders for trophies, and the IRFU seem to have finally gotten the message that our women’s team needs to become fully professional as well.
These are brilliant times to be following Irish rugby, even if we still have some ground to make up in various areas.