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Provinces have yet to weather their storms

By Tony Ward

If it was a dream weekend for Welsh rugby in the PRO12, with all four regions registering wins - two over Irish opposition - it was a wicked one for our provinces.

Storm Desmond seemed to blow our sides off course, with only Ulster emerging victorious. The Scarlets now lead the way as we enter successive European games followed by back-to-back derbies into the New Year.

It is an exciting time in the rugby calendar but a challenging one too, particularly for the provinces as various disappointments have led to a drop in confidence.

And no, despite defeat in Cardiff, I am not including Connacht in that summation.

Their list of walking wounded is as long if not longer than the other three provinces, with Craig Ronaldson, Ian Porter, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Eoin McKeon added to it in Cardiff on Friday.

But, despite these latest setbacks, there is still an energy about Connacht that makes the defeat that little bit easier to swallow.

No doubt their fans will have mixed views on the vagaries of winning ugly or losing with style. There is of course a middle line and, injuries allowing, it is this compromise ground that Pat Lam's relatively young squad have still to hit.

In the aftermath of Liverpool's surprise defeat to Newcastle, Jurgen Klopp used the expression "dirty points". We know what he means - picking up whatever you can on the back of an indifferent performance.

Connacht did get the losing bonus point, but following on from the previous week's tour de force at Thomond Park, a win of any hue for the league pace-setters away to the team lying 10th after seven defeats from their previous eight should have been achievable.

That is where the bar for prospective champions is now set. The precision so evident in Limerick was notable by its absence in the opening 40 minutes in Cardiff.

The structure and vibrant ambition was clearly there, with Matt Healy's pop-pass for Ian Porter's try in the corner top class, but so many passes that stuck in Thomond went awry in the Arms Park.

It's about knowing when not to force the pass. All the hype surrounding the win over Munster had to affect Connacht's psyche in the build-up so maybe, just maybe, losing at this stage could prove a blessing in disguise.

The trick is in how they respond in the back-to-back clashes with Newcastle in the Challenge Cup, and then against Ulster at the Sportsground in Round 10 of the PRO12.

Given the mounting casualty list, I suspect four 'dirty points' would make a satisfactory Christmas present. Whatever it takes, it is essential that they do not lose back-to-back in the league following that breakthrough in Munster.

In individual terms, Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Aly Muldowney were right up there for the second week running.

Wide-men Healy and O'Halloran must be in the frame for inclusion in Joe Schmidt's preliminary Six Nations squad, while second-row is fast becoming a major area of concern for the Ireland coach as the international season approaches, and Muldowney surely deserves consideration.

Ulster too are operating out of Emergency Ward 10 with Iain Henderson, Darren Cave, Peter Nelson and Dan Tuohy joining Roger Wilson on a growing casualty list.

Their own 'dirty win' over Edinburgh (essential after losing to Leinster and Saracens) was as welcome and hard-earned. It keeps them well in the mix in fifth, with second-placed Connacht and third-placed Munster in Belfast next up.

Munster were awful in Rodney Parade. They were beaten convincingly in a second-half slug-fest which epitomised everything that's dreary about the modern game when the protagonists are lacking ambition.

Had Simon Zebo or Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino managed first-half touchdowns, it might have been a different story in the second period.

Instead, what we witnessed was the Dragons - chiefly through the kicking of Sarel Pretorius and Dorian Jones, allied to the direct running of the influential Taulupe Faletau - keeping Munster in a vice-grip.

The saddest indictment came from Dragons coach Kingsley Jones, describing mid-match and in the aftermath the simple tactic of putting the ball behind Munster and keeping them there.

While accepting Anthony Foley's pre-match comment that the disappointment of the Connacht game the previous week had opened up a window of opportunity for others ahead of the Leicester contests, it is difficult to see who put their hand up.

That said, Ronan O'Mahony, Shane Buckley and Robin Copeland had their moments while the front-row - Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan - did enough to suggest there will be a scrap for all three starting positions to face the Tigers.

Needless to say, Conor Murray's presence is essential to Munster's European cause, with Ian Keatley still the best equipped to steer the course at out-half.

In the back-row, I would find room for CJ Stander and Copeland. Jack O'Donoghue, too, deserves his shot.

This selection should be interesting.

Belfast Telegraph


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