Ulster Rugby failing to deliver on big stage
The challenge for Ulster was to prove they deserve to be ranked up there alongside Leinster and Munster in terms of consistency.
In almost every respect, Ulster came up short and failed the festive test badly. No doubt they will come out firing against Munster, but doing so in front of the Friday night Ravenhill faithful alone is just not good enough for a province that rightly aims to be the best.
And therein lies the rub. Ulster should be at the very top of the Irish tree, yet despite great strides being made under Mark Anscombe and Brian McLaughlin before him, there is still too much of an a la carte, laissez faire approach to the collective level of performance.
Much like the little girl in the television ad, "when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid". On Saturday at the RDS, they were pretty close to horrid.
That is just not good enough. Trawl through the squad and there is a depth of talent few teams in Europe – never mind this island – possess. The game in the schools is strong, so the system is in place whereby Ulster should compete consistently at the very top.
In Belfast on Friday night, you have in the away corner a limited squad playing close to the maximum of that limited ability. We can criticise Munster all we want for lacking flair and panache – potency, too – but when it comes to giving their all in every match, coach Rob Penney can have few complaints.
In fairness to Anscombe, he hasn't held back in criticising his team and the clearly unacceptable level of their performance. What I find particularly galling is that a group of talented individuals can blow so hot and so cold so regularly mid-match.
Putting it down to the absence of experienced pivotal players is no justification; whether through injury or 'player protection', one man's absence is another's opportunity.
To that end, Leinster's young guns again delivered in spades on Saturday. Jordi Murphy was awarded man of the match and with good reason. The former Blackrock schools No 8 is nowhere near as dynamic as Jamie Heaslip just yet (how could he be?), but when it comes to getting down, getting dirty and taking the game to the opposition physically, he's already up there with the very best.
Although of similar physique, he's slightly different in playing style to Sean O'Brien but alongside the equally impressive Rhys Ruddock, there was a discernible style and substance to a particularly effective back-row at the RDS.
This island has long been blessed with great back-row forwards. The challenge is in getting the mix, the balance and the chemistry right, but when O'Brien recovers, the Ruddock/O'Brien/Murphy combination is sure to be in Matt O'Connor's future plans again.
And lest anyone lose the run of themselves given Murphy's big show coinciding with Heaslip's contract negotiations, be clear on one thing: we can't afford to lose a player of that status unless the player himself has made up his mind and wants away. We need both outstanding Leinster No 8s plying their trade here.
There were others that impressed too, with former St Michael's out-half/wing Noel Reid proving alongside ex-Blackrock underage star Brendan Macken that he has what it takes to make a real go of it at inside-centre. Reid has been every bit as impressive as Murphy of late.
But the back-row and midfield were able to make their mark only because, once again, we were given a substantial demonstration of the front-row talent coming through the underage, academy, club and 'A' team systems.
Jack O'Connell (23), Jack McGrath (24), and Marty Moore (22) were every bit as central to the emphatic win as the breakaway unit earning the greater plaudits behind.
Joe Schmidt's heart will have skipped a few beats upon O'Brien's departure, with the Tullow man central to Ireland's hopes in the Six Nations.
But Schmidt must be impressed with the progress and impact being made by Luke Fitzgerald, specifically on the left wing where, on form – and with Simon Zebo still injured – the Leinster man must be in pole position for the Six Nations opener .
Munster's Keith Earls is in equally impressive form, but significantly that is on the right, where he's most at ease.
If Tommy Bowe is available that should be an either/or call, but with Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble at Schmidt's disposal, the new main man is spoiled for choice on either flank.