To paraphrase one of the most over-used clichés of the pandemic era, the next 10 weeks are crucial.
For Johann van Graan, Andy Friend, Dan McFarland and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Leo Cullen this is the period of the season that will set their sides up to succeed or fail.
After a four-week lay-off during the internationals, they are plunged headlong into an intense burst of fixtures across two competitions.
By the time they come up for air for the Six Nations break, they’ll know a lot more about where they stand this season.
Each have their own challenges; Munster are in South Africa for two weeks before flying directly in for a pair of tough European games.
Connacht and Ulster have to go to the RDS in the next two weeks before kicking off their European campaigns, while Leinster will have to deal without some significant fire-power after losing a few key players to injury on Ireland duty.
Squad management will also play a part, with the front-line Ireland stars away on holidays this week after a successful November.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) champions will be hardest hit by that policy, but they won’t get much sympathy from their rivals considering they have 32 internationals on their books.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve got good strength in depth so we can afford to treat each individual case with regards to how many minutes they’ve played and make sure that they don’t get burn-out because it’s going to be a busy schedule ahead of us,” Leinster coach Robin McBryde said.
“In this next block of games we’re into the interpros, then we’re into Europe, back into interpros, back into the interpros and then they’re straight into the Six Nations after going back into Europe.
“So it’s a big block of games but we have got strength in depth, we’ve got quality so hopefully we’ll be able to manage everybody and make sure that none of them get that burnt-out feeling.”
It’s a punishing schedule that will test squad depth above all else.
Leinster are in the best shape in that regard, but even they won’t want to be down too many bodies for European games against Bath and Montpellier before Christmas.
Connacht have the lightest squad in the competition, but their coach Friend won’t be using it as an excuse.
“We’re in a good spot,” the Australian said.
“The boys had a break and we had three good weeks of training.
“We got the majority of our international players back, which is good. And we’ve had three really good weeks of continual work. We’re focusing on these two games. We have 10 games, Christmas is in there, New Year’s is in there, European games, Friday, Satur¬day and Sunday games but all we can do is zoom in on are these two games against Ospreys and Leinster, two Friday night games and we’re looking forward to them.
“We’ve called it our ‘Back it Up Block’. We want to back up the performance against Ulster (in October) which wasn’t perfect but was a performance that was full of energy.
“If we can deliver that I believe the wins will start to come.”
For Munster, the challenge is more complex because of the travel involved.
In 2018, they came off two weeks in South Africa and nose-dived in a Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92.
Van Graan is determined to learn from that experience, highlighting the decision to stay at altitude throughout; training on mornings and evenings to avoid the sun; their plan to fly front-line players to South Africa next Saturday; the eight-day turnaround between their clash with the Lions and Wasps; and the fact they fly home the night of the game, as things they’ve worked out since last time.
“Learn from the past and do the best with the cards that were dealt to us at a very late stage. There’s no excuse from our side. That’s the competition. We have to play the Bulls and the Lions away,” he said.
“In a bigger picture, the URC is going to be so competitive that we can’t afford to just let two games slip. We came down here to win and we say that with a lot of respect because we know that both games will be very tough to win in the Highveld.
“If you just look at the best days of Super Rugby when the Crusaders, the Blues, the Brumbies came to these two venues, if I take you back to the two Super Rugby finals that the Lions played, you don’t just go to Ellis Park as an overseas team and win.
“Neither do you at Loftus, so trying to marry all those things up in the coming weeks, we believe we’ve planned well, learned from the past and time will tell.”
In their favour, Munster have a relatively light injury list and will welcome Damian de Allende and their Ireland players back next week.
Ulster will benefit from the rest most of their players got in November and this Saturday may represent their best chance of sacking the RDS for some time.
If they can get on a roll as they welcome Duane Vermeulen in and Jack McGrath back from injury, the northern province have a chance to build real momentum – albeit a trip to the Stade Marcel-Michelin to face Clermont is enough to derail any campaign.
They’ve been in cold storage for a couple of weeks, but now the provinces come centre stage. Getting through this block in good fettle will set them up nicely.
Meanwhile, World Rugby has loosened its eligibility laws in a move that could make life a little harder for Ireland at the 2023 World Cup.
Tonga and Samoa look set to be the biggest beneficiaries of the rule change which will allow capped players to change national allegiances once they can demonstrate a connection to the nation they’re changing to and have not played for a country for 36 months from 2022.
It means Tonga could have Wallaby Israel Folau and All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala and Charles Piutau on board for the 2023 World Cup in France, while Samoa could call on New Zealand cap Steven Luatua and Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen amongst others.
That should allow the Pacific Island teams to be more competitive in France, a tournament where one – most likely Tonga – will be in Ireland’s pool.
“Approval of this landmark regulatory change is the culmination of detailed and widespread modelling and consultation across the game,” World Rugby president Bill Beaumont said.