By Phil Rice
Leinster concluded their Christmas interprovincial series last Saturday with a comprehensive 38-7 victory over a disappointing Ulster team.
Following on from an away victory over Munster and a home win against a doughty Connacht, Leinster are building momentum at this crucial stage of the season, when so many issues are settled. Notably their qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.
Glasgow visit the RDS this Sunday for a lunch-time kick-off which could provide Leinster with the opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals of the much-prized European competition, with one pool match still to play.
Head coach Leo Cullen has juggled with his impressive squad during these interprovincial matches and while doing so still managed to maintain an outstanding level of performance.
There is a band of quality young players emerging at Leinster which is the envy of all other European teams.
Ulster have benefitted from eight Leinster graduates who have looked elsewhere when they realised they needed to move on in order to get enough game time.
Meanwhile, Cullen has kept a number of genuine international class young players and with the upcoming Six Nations these players will get their opportunity to display their skills for their province, covering for international calls.
The latest of these budding stars was awarded man of the match last Saturday evening. Full-back Jordan Larmour, who first showed his talent with Ireland’s Under 20s two years ago, was quite brilliant at the weekend.
The pace he showed when hitting the line was exceptional. He scored twice with a third try disallowed for a marginal offside by Jamison Gibson-Park in the build-up.
With the injury prone Rob Kearney approaching the twilight of his career, surely here is a ready replacement both for Leinster and Ireland.
The production line keeps pumping out players of tremendous skill and maturity for their tender years. Dan Leavy was outstanding over the Christmas period, as was Josh van der Flier, who brought off an unbelievable 34 tackles in the Connacht match.
This beat the previous record number of tackles by any player in a Pro12/14 league game by four.
Max Deegan, who captained the Irish Under 20s two years ago, has also begun to show his potential and along with Jack Conan they have seamlessly covered for the injured Jamie Heaslip this season.
With four losses to date, Glasgow have no chance of making the quarter-final stage, however, their players will have plenty of motivation as they hope to catch the eye of national coach Gregor Townsend as he decides on his Six Nations squad.
The Scottish region are one of only two teams to have beaten Leinster this season and Leo Cullen will not take their challenge lightly.
The other two sides in the pool Exeter and Montpellier, will have played on Saturday and Leinster’s requirements will be clearer. They will be hoping Exeter win which would help their cause when facing Montpellier away the following week.
Munster face an emotional trip to Racing 92 in Paris. It was in the build-up to the corresponding game last season when it was discovered that head coach Anthony Foley had passed away.
The match was postponed as disbelieving Munster supporters grieved at the entrance to the stadium. Munster have a four-point lead over Racing at the top of their pool and an away victory would go a long way to earning them qualification for the next stage.
There is no doubt there will be raw emotion on display and Munster may well be carried to victory in honour of their much loved, departed leader.
Ulster have a huge task on their hands as they face the impressive La Rochelle at the Kingspan. They will need to step up their performance considerably from their poor effort last weekend.
They comfortably beat Harlequins twice before Christmas and it may be that they are keeping their best form for the European competition. Head coach Les Kiss knows that failure this weekend will lead to increased speculation as to his future at the club.
Connacht are undefeated to date in the Challenge Cup and have a seven-point lead in their pool. They face their sternest test to date this weekend when they travel to Premiership side Worcester Warriors.
The English side have shown improved form recently and Connacht will need to put last weekend’s heavy defeat by Munster behind them.
They fielded a weakened side for that game and a reproduction of the form they showed two weeks ago when they pushed Leinster all the way, should be enough see them qualify for the quarter-finals.