Belfast Telegraph

Future looking brighter for the Irish provinces

By Alan Quinlan

It's 12 months on from the European doom and gloom and the landscape looks a lot brighter for the Irish provinces.

European campaigns are hinged on these back-to-back clashes before Christmas and although there is still a hell of a lot to play for, all four Irish teams are still very much in with a shout of making the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.

You can't underestimate the impact that the returning international players have on these crucial games after they have enjoyed a successful November.

In my view, there was probably too much expectation on these players to lift everyone else for the European games last year, and even though they provided the spark at the weekend, there were others around them who were more than capable of also shouldering some responsibility.

Confidence is high in Ireland at the moment and that was largely reflected in the performances over the weekend.

You could see that the players were full of energy, full of intensity and were extremely hungry.

Connacht were the exception, but they came up against a Wasps side that I fancy will be there or thereabouts for in May. However, that doesn't excuse their malfunctioning lineout.

Leinster and Munster are both in really strong positions to take control of their own destiny and while Ulster had a hugely impressive win over a very strong Clermont side, their task in going to France this weekend, before travelling to Exeter, is a tough one.

Leinster are really starting to find their feet and the intensity they played with on Friday night sent out a serious message.

The memories of what happened in 2013 will be fresh, but this Northampton side are not as strong.

Leinster blew Northampton away and while there will be a lot of soul searching in their camp this week, I cannot see them reversing the result at the Aviva.

In saying that, there is no doubt that there will be a reaction and how the Leinster players manage that is what will define their European campaign.

I've stuck up for Dylan Hartley in the past, but enough is enough. His red card was pure stupidity on his part and I think he deserves a lengthy ban. There should be serious repercussions this time.

You'd have to wonder if he will ever learn. I've been in a similar situation where I served a ban, but lessons were learned.

Hartley has definitely committed worse offences, but to go in with a swinging arm like that was mindless. He hurt his team and will pay the price now.

Hartley was being talked about as potential Lions captain, but he's severely damaged his chances.

To go away from home in Europe like that and completely demolish Northampton in the manner that they did was a big statement. Leinster are in pole position to top the pool now, which is a huge step forward from where they were last year.

The same thing can be said for Munster, who are a completely different animal this season. There is a renewed excitement and belief both in and around the squad.

The players look very controlled in everything they are doing. The scrum was dominant again and when you think of Leicester's hard-nosed tradition, it was great to see Munster bully them up front.

There is no doubt that Munster are creating something special again and all of the coaches have been crucial to that.

Jacques Nienaber's influence has been extremely prevalent. A defence coach doesn't just get guys to line up and run forward and make tackles, he puts massive pressure on them to get up off the ground, to counter ruck, to hunt on the inside.

All of those factors create a high work rate.

Defence builds that cohesion and bond that we are seeing in Munster's play now. It's been really evident this season.

It's amazing to think that Munster lost twice to this Leicester team last season.

They will be quietly confident of completing the double over them in Welford Road, but they should be mindful of the fact that back in 2004, Leicester lost 33-0 away to Ulster and six days later were 49-7 winners at home.

Ulster restored some of their confidence and they will need every bit of it going to Clermont on Sunday. Les Kiss will be disappointed by how Ulster allowed them back into the game to come away with two bonus points, but there were enough positives to suggest that they can compete in France.

Their defence will have to be a hell of a lot better, however, especially going to a place like Clermont. It's a tough place to play in as the crowd are right on top of you and it can be intimidating.

Connacht will need a similarly huge result at home to Wasps.

The review session will not make for pleasant viewing as it was their own lineout that created a lot of their problems yesterday.

To lose five of your own lineouts at any level is criminal. Connacht looked totally lost and unsure of themselves at the set piece, which was unbelievable.

We saw how much of a loss Aly Muldowney has been. He was Connacht's lineout leader last season and was their main caller.

Calling the lineout is a difficult task and it's something that the likes of Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux are going to have to take control of.

We blame the hookers a lot of the time, but there is a massive responsibility on the lineout caller. I called some of the shorter lineouts in Munster, but when you have someone like Paul O'Connell who runs a lineout so well, it makes it a lot easier.

All four provinces still have the ability to do so, but this weekend's results will have a major say in deciding exactly how strong Ireland's challenge for European glory will be this season.

Belfast Telegraph

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