It was no disgrace for Ulster to lose, 30-15, to Leinster at a rain sodden and packed out Lansdowne road. Most teams would struggle to get that close to Leinster on current form. The match was competitive for the first hour albeit with Leinster dominating territory and possession until two yellow cards did for Ulster's chances. Leinster played the conditions superbly and showed that while other teams need things to go their way, Leinster always seem to find a way to win.
That was further illustrated in the Quarter-final by Leinster's response to going a man down against Leicester due to a harsh yellow card for Doris while the match was still competitive at 17-7. Leinster won his 10 minute suspension period 10-0, destroying the Leicester scrum and maul while a man down. Leinster always seem to have another gear to go to in adversity and their finishing was devastatingly clinical when really required. Beating the reigning Premiership champions 55-24 puts Ulster's performance in some perspective.
What is it about Garry Ringrose that some people don't quite get? He wasn't selected for the Lions, or this year's team of the 6 Nation's tournament and his name isn't O'Driscoll, but what more must he do to convince the doubters that he is the best 13 in the world? In fairness, Jones, Fickou and Lukhanyo Am are very good 13s, but do they have Ringrose's all-round game? To think Chris Harris was selected ahead of him for the Lions, and he can't even make the Scotland team.
The other heartening thing about Leinster (and Ireland's) recent performances is that very good players seem to be getting better and better. Keenan, O'Brien, Lowe, Ross Byrne, Gibson Park, Sheehan, Baird, Ryan, Conan, Doris, and Van Der Flier have all been around for a few years but seem to be raising their ceiling almost with every match. When you add in established stars like Furlong, Porter, Kelleher, Sexton, Henshaw and Larmour, it is easy to see why Leinster are odds on favourites to win everything in sight.
However, the other three-quarter finals also produced matches of outstanding quality and the Semi-final line-up now includes four former winners of the tournament. Toulouse beat the Sharks 54 - 20 which makes the match look like a walk in the park for Toulouse, but in reality, it was anything but. Sharks fought them all the way until nearly the 70th. Minute when Toulouse cut loose and scored four excellent tries in rapid succession. Either side would have constituted a considerable challenge for Leinster, but now it's the five-time champions against the four-time champions in the first semi-final. Game on!
Exeter Chiefs also produced an excellent performance beating the URC Champions, the Stormers 42-17 in Sandy Park. The Chiefs took control early on and led 21-0 at the break. The match was all but over when Sam Simmonds scored at fourth try shortly after the break, but Stormers fought back bravely to score three tries of their own before Exeter closed out the match with two more tries. Ex-Connacht academy centre, Sean O'Brien featured for the Chiefs.
Match of the round was probably the Champions La Rochelle 24-10 defeat of former Champions Saracens. It's not often you see a pack containing the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George and Maro Itoje being bullied, but La Rochelle managed it through their 24 stone behemoths, Antonio and Skelton. Man of the match was sometime centre, Levani Botia, playing at 7, who seemed to be winning turnovers everywhere as well as providing a brilliant run and try assist for Kerr-Barlow. Ex-Connacht lock, Ultan Dillane featured at 6 for La Rochelle.
The 12 Matches in the round of sixteen and quarter finals yielded not a single home victory, with the South African sides, in particular, finding the travel difficult. So, we have a very traditional Semi-final line-up of Leinster vs. Toulouse and La Rochelle vs. Exeter. Whoever wins this year will have to put in some extraordinary performances.
Leinster now have two essentially dead rubber matches in South Africa against the Lions and Bulls. While they won't want to lose their unbeaten record this season, they are 13 points ahead in the URC table and can't be caught. They may want to rest their front-liners ahead of the challenging knock out matches to come in both the European Cup and URC. They can afford to send an essentially "B" side to fulfil what are likely to be difficult fixtures at altitude and still be in with a chance to win.
When one considers that Leinster's "B" squad contains Irish internationals and squad members like Dave Kearney, Larmour, Osborne, Frawley, Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath, Deegan, Ruddock, Penny, Connors, Molony, McCarthy, Healy, Milne and Ed Byrne, as well as All Black Ngatai, Springbok Jenkins, and Samoan international Michael Ala'alatoa; it becomes clear that Leinster can still field a decent team.
Oh, and did I mention they have some decent academy players as well? - McKee, Brownlee, Russell and Cosgrave have all performed well in the URC and Sam Prendergast (seen by many as the long-term successor to Sexton) has been tearing it up for the Irish u.20 double grand slam champions.
Gordon D'Arcy, in his regular Irish Times column, has been decrying the concentration of Irish rugby talent in Leinster. There is only so much game time even outstanding players can get playing for one club, and there is always the danger that very promising talent will be stymied for lack of top-level game time. In fairness, Cullen has been very good at rotating his squad, and having good players in reserve means he doesn't have to overplay or risk rushing back injured star players exposing them to risk of further injury.
Ireland have benefitted from this careful husbandry of resources. Most of our star players have been fit most of the time and none have been rushed back before they are ready. It is also sometimes forgotten that Ireland are almost like a club side playing alongside each other on a week-to-week basis, with Leinster proving 12 starters and 5 finishers to the national side. It must be relatively easy for Farrell to slot in a few Ulster, Munster and Connacht players into what is a basically a Leinster system and style of play.
This gives us a major advantage over national teams drawn from many different club sides playing different tactical systems and whose players may not be quite as familiar with each other. It may also be why Ireland have tended to underperform at world cups where all the national coaches have an extended period of time to work with their squads and thus catch up with Ireland in this regard.
It should also not be forgotten that Leinster have provided a steady stream of players to the other provinces. Last year alone four senior squad players - Hawkshaw, Dooley, Josh Murphy and Adam Byrne went to Connacht with another two - O'Loughlin and Dunne - opting to go to Exeter, where they have become first team regulars. Ulster also have 9 players with Leinster DNA and Munster 6.
However, there is no doubt that for rugby in Ireland to thrive long term, we need four fully functioning academies providing a steady stream of test grade talent to the provincial and national sides. With only four top level professional club sides (compared to England's 11 and France's 14) we need each province to be competitive at the very top end of the club game. Great strides have already been made in expanding the catchment areas for rugby players beyond the traditional private schools to almost every corner of the country, but we still have some way to go.
Leinster will always have something of a demographic advantage with the huge concentration of population and rugby playing schools in Dublin. Commercial sponsorship will also always be more available in a large metropolis. This is where the IRFU come in, and Director of Rugby, David Nucifora, has been very active in encouraging players to switch to another province if not getting sufficient game time for Leinster. These moves haven't always been a success however, with players sometimes losing their Ireland squad places rather than enhancing their prospects. Carbery, Madigan, McGrath, and Jordi Murphy haven't exactly had great careers once they left Leinster. That puts the spotlight on the quality of player coaching and management in all the provinces.
While, overall, I think Irish and provincial rugby has been managed extremely well, that doesn't mean mistakes haven't been made. Watching James Cronin play for Leicester and John Ryan do so well for NZ Chiefs, you have to wonder about Munster's decisions to let them go, given their scrum problems against the Sharks and some other top teams. It's not as if top quality props grow on trees in Ireland... perhaps less spent on expensive imports and more on developing and retaining our own is the way to go? Munster have, for example, recruited three South African locks in recent years, when most of their problems have been in the front row.
We also need to develop the All-Ireland club league into a higher quality semi-professional league to provide a feeder system for the top-level clubs. New Zealand, France, South Africa and England all have a semi-professional second tier club league expanding the playing base and playing opportunities for their developing talent. The resources may not yet be there to fund this, but there is no doubt we need to broaden our talent pool further if we are to sustain a ranking anywhere near #1 in the world on a sustainable basis.
It would be remiss for me not to mention the Irish-u.20's second grand slam in a row including some outstanding victories and a very attractive running style of play. When you consider only a handful of them are likely to make it to the top of the professional game based on past experience, it shows just how good you have to be to even get a professional contract. Most of those players don't even have academy contracts yet and yet their style of play and skill levels seemed comparable to the senior team.
I won't go into the travails of the Irish women's team. They have only recently become full time paid professional players and it takes years for the fruits of such investment to blossom. The same could have been said of the Irish Seven's teams a few years ago, and now they are competing at the top level.
The key strategic imperative for Ireland's men's rugby must be to expand the playing base and the number of quality players available to Ulster, Munster and Connacht. Leinster have yet to win anything in the past season or two, but their squad depth shows what is required to succeed at the top level now that the South African clubs have upped the ante. Without the strength of the "B" team, much of their "A" team would be injured or burnt out at this stage in the season, and certainly wouldn't have the advantages of home knock-out ties for the rest of the season.
Rather than diluting Leinster's strength, we have to figure out how to bring the other provinces up to near enough the same level. We also have to continue to innovate and develop our style of play. Joe Schmidt's team ultimately came a cropper because it didn't continue to evolve once it had reached world #1. Watching how English and South African teams play - with a preponderance of big forwards bashing into each other and backs hoofing the ball high into the air in the hope of feeding off scraps - seems almost antediluvian compared to the grace and precision of Leinster's back line moves.
There have been signs of the other provinces following suit. Long may it continue!