By Phil Rice
After an outstanding weekend of success for the Irish teams in the European competitions, all four provinces are just one step away from the quarter-finals of the European cups.
In fact, the reigning champions Leinster have already qualified but will be anxious to beat Wasps at the Ricoh Stadium this weekend in order to gain a home quarter-final.
Munster began the success story last Friday when they visited the intimidating home of Gloucester Rugby Club and despite the vociferous support from the home crowd at Kingsholm. Munster destroyed the Cherry and Whites, 41-15.
Johan van Graan’s team haven’t played as well since they last lifted the Heineken Cup back in 2008.
The acquisitions of Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne this season have given them a real impetus. It is incredible to realise that neither are first choice players for Ireland when almost every country in world rugby would bite your arm off to have them.
Beirne, in particular, must be very close to joining James Ryan in Joe Schmidt’s second row.
His intelligent reading of the game is exceptional, he does all the donkey work associated with a quality lock, but in addition gains frequent turn-overs and runs supporting lines like a back-row forward.
It is no coincidence that Scarlets have underperformed this season since Beirne left for Munster.
Devin Toner has been one of Schmidt’s first names on the team sheet, due to his exceptional line out ability, but Beirne is no slouch in that area either. The other strengths he brings to the team must make him very close to selection.
Either way, it is a nice problem to have and reassuring to have such quality on the bench, and that’s not to mention having Iain Henderson also in reserve.
Carbery has responded really well to playing at fly-half consistently and is improving every week. Man of the match last Friday with 26 points, he took control of the game in a manner that his mentor Johnny Sexton would have been proud.
There are few players you would want more in your side for a crucial match than Peter O’Mahony. His commitment and influence are extraordinary.
He never fails to excel in the really big games and last Friday he inspired Munster and his troops responded whole-heartedly.
It would be no surprise if Munster made it all the way to the final this year. They seem to have been really boosted by the victory over Leinster two weeks ago.
Victory over Exeter at Thomond Park this weekend will qualify them for the knock-out stages and might even give them a home quarter-final.
Despite missing five of their key players, Leinster put in their best performance of the season on Saturday against high-flying Toulouse.
They battled hard to gain the upper hand against very committed and physical French defence, until Jack Conan burst over the line after 30 minutes.
Then Leinster turned on the flair in the second-half to earn a bonus-point win and qualification for the knock-out stages.
Wasps will be a tough assignment this Sunday but they have no chance of progressing and Leinster will be desperate to get a home quarter-final. They should have too much firepower for the Premiership side.
Sexton has a worrying lower leg injury and with Ireland’s first Six Nations match against England just two weeks away, Joe Schmidt will be hoping Leo Cullen takes no risks with his talisman until he is completely recovered.
Robbie Henshaw is likely to return to the team this week and James Lowe will be available for selection again after his two-week ban.
If Lowe returns it would mean that Scott Fardy would miss out on playing due to the limit on the number of overseas players that can be included in the squad. Fardy was superb on Saturday and he will be rightly frustrated by the European dictum.
Jamison Gibson Park will almost certainly have to play this week as Luke McGrath suffered a nasty leg injury on Saturday.
With John Cooney and Kieran Marmion already sidelined, Schmidt must be concerned as to who will be available as Conor Murray’s understudy for the Six Nations.
Caolin Blade, who has been substituting ably for Marmion at Connacht, may well find himself on the bench for the England match.
Ulster provided the icing on the cake at the weekend when they defeated last season’s finalists Racing 92 in an outstanding performance.
Jacob Stockdale picked up two tries in an excellent display of finishing. Like O’Mahony he seems to raise his game in the really important matches. Rory Best also had a fine game and looks to be back to his very best leading into the Six Nations.
Ulster are away to Geordan Murphy’s Leicester this Saturday and victory would guarantee them a quarter-final place. Leicester have no hope of qualifying but they won’t roll over for anybody and the home crowd will make it as uncomfortable for Ulster as possible.
A repeat of Saturday’s form should get Ulster over the line.
Connacht took on Sale, the Premiership form team, last Saturday evening at the Sportsground. A narrow 20-18 victory for the home team has put them within touching distance of qualification for the knock-out stages in the Challenge Cup.
Level on points with Sale in their pool, victory away to Bordeaux this week would probably see them achieve their goal.