Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Irish teams should reach for the stars after turning important corner

Time to pinch ourselves methinks. This day last week we were trying to get our heads around three wins from three for the best of the Irish over pretty close to the best of the English, but we dared not let it go to our heads.

We are not an arrogant lot, but just to be sure, we backed up one of the most momentous weekends in Champions Cup rugby ever by transforming three from three into six from six seven days on. Time to pinch ourselves hard.

And if last week was good, this was even better again, with Exeter Chiefs and Leicester Tigers throwing everything they had into the return scrap. But Leinster, in an amazing second-half at the Aviva, and Munster, for the full 80 at Welford Road, took pride in the jersey to another level.

Watching all three — including Ulster on Friday, albeit against a white-flaggish Harlequins side — had me bursting with pride.

I look at Leinster and Munster and I’m saying to myself not that we WILL win the ultimate prize come May, but that we most definitely can.

Ulster were good against Harlequins, but Leinster and Munster were something else again. Gut instinct tells me that Leinster, in terms of the sum of the parts and beyond, represents our best bet, but watching Munster soak up everything Leicester had to offer and still pull away in the manner they did hints at the time being right for the new generation to stake their claim.

Put simply, Munster were magnificent.

It was classic Munster from days of yore. Keeping possession, working position, exerting pressure and keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

It’s been a great week for Peter O’Mahony and in the Welford Road cauldron he was to the manor born. His athleticism was spectacular, while his leadership and belligerence at the breakdown was typical POM.

He was a most deserving recipient of the Man of the Match gong. In truth, from the wrecking ball that is now Dave Kilcoyne in the loose to the classy Simon Zebo at the back, they were outstanding to a man.

Think back to last season and, in virtually every match he played, CJ Stander was named the main man. His form has dipped slightly this season, but only as he has fallen below the consistently high standard he had set for himself. 

Momentum turners are a rare breed, yet in O’Mahony, Stander and Conor Murray Munster possess three such rarities at the heart of the team.

We all know how lethal he can be when breaking the gain line off front-foot ball, but it is his ability to eke out the hard yards and make forward momentum where it simply doesn’t exist that made the biggest single difference of all. He wasn’t by any means alone, but where he dared go the rest followed to a man.

And what of Kevin O’Byrne? Who does Jerry Flannery — the master of the hooking art — pick from O’Byrne, Niall Scannell, Rhys Marshall, Mike Sherry and Duncan Casey? 

Bear in mind that Keith Earls and Andrew Conway have to find a way back into the mix.

There’s a big game between Munster and Leinster set for Thomond tomorrow week and I would plead with Johann Van Graan and Leo Cullen to take it back to what it once was by including every player who is fully fit and firing. Irish form in Europe has reignited interest and reasserted all possibilities.

We all bask in the glory of getting it over the auld enemy but these back-to-back matches have had so much more from an Irish perspective. There has been nothing fluky or cynical about any of the six wins.

A very important corner has been turned. Time to reach for the stars.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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