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Outlook is bright for Ireland as Ulster and provinces show class

By Tony Ward

I expressed the view ahead of the weekend games and Round 3 of the European Champions Cup that winning the tournament outright for the first time since 2012 might prove beyond the capability of our competing teams at this point in time.

I still feel that Saracens and Toulon at full strength are that bit stronger than the rest, while Clermont and Wasps, despite indifferent performances against Ulster and Connacht respectively, have what it takes to go the whole way if and when they click into gear.

But for now it's another hugely constructive step as Irish rugby makes its way back to the top table of the European game.

Make no mistake, the feelgood factor following a massive November on the international stage is being replicated a level down.

The Champions Cup is as close as it gets to Test Rugby, so let there be no doubt whatsoever as to the relevance of our provincial performances. And yes I absolutely include Connacht, despite coming away with nothing tangible from the Ricoh, in that assessment.

The positives far outweigh any negatives and I include the Galway men's list of walking wounded in that.

At Franklin's Gardens, for the second successive time, Leinster ripped Northampton apart.

The individual and collective performance in 2013 was the most complete I have witnessed from any Irish team on the European road and, while Friday night's win was every bit as comprehensive, the level of performance was nowhere near the same.

And therein lies the beauty, preparing ahead to the return match in the Aviva in four days' time. Once bitten... you know the rest!

But there was so much to admire in how Leinster went about their winning business. Their close to full strength Ireland pack was brutish in the extreme.

And while he may now represent the old guard (alongside Jamie Heaslip), I felt Devin Toner was again quite superb and in every aspect.

He is currently playing the rugby of his life in that typically understated way. Given his most obvious asset out of touch which we now take for granted, he seldom gets the credit he deserves. Take away the goal kicking and he is our John Eales.

As for Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong either side of Sean Cronin, the 'Viet Gwent' (the Pontypool and Wales front row) read the Leinster front line now.

Already the parallel with Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price holds, as their much vaunted motto "we may go down; we may go up; but we never go back" gathers momentum through this Leinster trio now.

Add to that Cian Healy springing from the bench mid-match, allied to the strength and depth in the same sector in the other provinces, and our front row shelves have never been better stocked.

Rob Kearney too was immense and central to laying down that early marker. If only we got to see him more consistently in this aggressive attacking mode. He is still a class act with a fair bit to go before his time is up.

As for Dylan Hartley, the less said the better. The red mist theory doesn't wash.

I hope and trust his sanction will be at the top end of the scale. What he attempted on Sean O'Brien was nasty and full of malicious intent; a very long way from reckless. Eddie Jones' effort at an expressionless reaction said it all.

Where Leinster left off in Northampton, Ulster took up against Clermont at the Kingspan with Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall supplying the physicality, leaving it to Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson to provide a masterclass in game management.

Jackson is, on current form, second only to Jonathan Sexton and edging ever closer to challenging for that Ireland play-making slot in his own right.

Joey Carbery, despite his injury setback, has those extra strings to his bow and will eventually assume the position, but for the upcoming Six Nations (with Sexton resting) Joe Schmidt has a big call to make at 10 and he knows it. Would he want it any other way?

In the end it was tight as Ulster got the win they richly deserved, but they, like Leinster, came in behind Munster on the type of European weekend for Irish rugby that makes this competition so special.

To do what Munster did to Leicester, and in the manner they did, beggars belief.

I have no doubt there could be a price to be paid but we'll deal with that later in the week. Instead, for now, concentrate on a Thomond Park European performance up there with the very best.

This was old style Munster with Tyler Bleyendaal (a la Ronan O'Gara in his prime) converting territory into points. With that buffer, confidence grew through sensible, balanced, intelligent rugby.

The driving maul was nothing short of magnificent with CJ Stander and Conor Murray continuing their incredible form for Ireland with Munster. And add to that Peter O'Mahony's continuing return to match fitness and increasing influence.

And from a Schmidt perspective, add Darren Sweetnam to that growing Ireland list.

He has the offloading potential to be our George North and is developing in attacking potential by the match.

As for Simon Zebo? Simply class personified.

Welford Road will be a different psychological and physical challenge but Munster confidence is back and well founded.

As for Connacht, the most difficult challenge of the four proved just that and yet there was much to admire.

While the line-out struggled, the scrum and maul (when attempted) were full of intensity which I suspect caught Dai Young by surprise.

In individual terms, much like Munster, John Muldoon and most particularly Kieran Marmion, at eight and nine, were outstanding. Saturday's must-win game at the Sportsground will be buzzing.

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