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Provinces' Euro misery won't be Joe Schmidt's concern

The four Irish provinces are currently third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Pro12 table, yet it's fair to say they are all experiencing mixed fortunes at the moment.

In a sense they are victims of their own success as we come into a European week with all four under pressure to survive, so it is little wonder there has been criticism.

The Irish Pro12 assault hasn't really taken off , yet Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connacht occupy positions three to six.

Yes, the Ospreys and Glasgow lead the way, but overall Ireland has outperformed the other three nations in the competition, but that means precious little as the Six Nations looms.

Almost all the optimism surrounding the national side is based on Test form in 2014, and that is as it should be.

I very much doubt that the provinces' failure to set Europe on fire is worrying Joe Schmidt unduly.

Logic might suggest that if the professional teams are going well then Test form will follow, but rugby doesn't work like that. In fact, there's little correlation whatsoever.

So if Ireland fail to live up to expectations in the coming weeks, leave Matt O'Connor, Neil Doak, Anthony Foley and Pat Lam out of the blame game.

How often in times past have we seen Ireland players on the back of disappointment (think World Cup 2007) reinvent themselves when returning to wear blue, white, red or (Connacht) green? So measured optimism is well placed for the national side.

Back to the Pro12 and it was a mixed weekend for Ireland's four. The only province to lose was Connacht.

Not for one minute do I share the 'typical Connacht' view doing the rounds. Both they and Edinburgh went into Friday's game at the Sportsground on the back of massive derby wins.

The intensity the Westerners showed against Munster was missing, particularly in the opening half and that isn't good enough given where Connacht rugby aspires to go.

Leinster, by contrast, continued on their winning way against the Cardiff Blues, whose line-up featured 13 internationals.

What Cardiff lacked in discipline, Leinster showed in abundance. Credit the TMO system for highlighting and punishing unpleasant indiscretions. Manoa Vosawai's knee into Ben Te'o's back was nasty and cheap - he deserved a red card, rather than yellow.

Full credit to Munster for the comprehensive nature of their victory in Italy. Apart from the four-try bonus, the game time for the returning Keith Earls and prop James Cronin (given the doubt over Cian Healy and Jack McGrath) was crucial from an Ireland perspective.

As for Ulster? The proverbial game of two halves in Treviso. When they are good they can be very, very good, but when they are bad they are awful.

Paddy Jackson, in particular, was on fire in the first half, but he's still some way behind Ian Madigan in the Six Nations out-half pecking order. Bizarrely, Ulster collectively flicked the switch to 'off' at the break. They are still in the mix but little more than that.

Belfast Telegraph


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