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Ulster's lack of quality in depth exposed by Leinster as Munster take festive plaudits

By Tony Ward

The winner of the Festive interpro segment? Without a doubt Munster. Nine points out of 10, including a win at the home of the Pro12 champions, is as generous as Santa could possibly have been, given the circumstances.

A squad good enough to go on and win it? Who knows, but one thing's for sure: slowly, with increasing consistency, Rassie Erasmus is putting a formidable challenge together for all the major confrontations ahead.

I don't know the ex-Springbok flanker but I like what I see and hear. Yet again in his post-match summary after the win in Galway, he was up front and realistic in his assessment.

He acknowledged that the elements had made life even more difficult for a hugely decimated Connacht. He also conceded that the scrum had creaked - somewhat out of character for the Jerry Flannery-inspired set-piece of late.

You can bet your bottom dollar the "something minor" to which he referred will be addressed forensically ahead of Saturday's trip to Paris.

The gods conspired to make possession rugby nigh-on impossible for a Connacht line-up which, given such scarce resources, largely depended on doing what they do best.

In the end Rhys Marshall's pushover try, allied to Ian Keatley's game management and point scoring opportunism (I'm delighted for him) made the difference in such horrendous handling conditions.

It was made for Munster and, with the increasingly influential Billy Holland calling the shots, any attempted deviation from the preordained plan was an impossibility.

Erasmus has a very real problem in perming just two from Donnacha Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Dave Foley and Holland - and that's just the second row.

Connacht did manage to grab a losing bonus by way of a late Jack Carty penalty but already a place in the play-offs in defence of their title appears a hurdle too high.

At the RDS in windy but much more player-friendly conditions, the fare was reasonable without ever reaching spectacular heights.

For Leo Cullen, much like his Munster counterpart, the main satisfaction is in an ever-growing panel. The faith that Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and Stuart Lancaster have shown in Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin is being rewarded.

Neither is yet the complete article, they couldn't possibly be yet, but with each passing game confidence and experience grows.

When Fergus McFadden and the Kearney brothers - Dave and Rob - return to full fitness, the Leinster management will have a problem as the two in action against Ulster looked totally at ease at this level and both, as we know, have gas to burn. It's still early days but the omens are extremely good.

And for 45 minutes Leinster looked like what I believe them to be - the most complete of the Irish sides.

They controlled the first half into the wind executing two brilliantly rehearsed set-piece tries courtesy of O'Loughlin and McGrath.

When they completed the St Michael's stranglehold as Ross Byrne slid through the most delicate grubber for his former schoolmate O'Loughlin to cross for a third try it seemed a bonus fourth would prove a formality.

Ulster will take little consolation in any suggestion of a second half moral victory but from O'Loughlin's second touchdown to the final whistle there was only one team in it and it sure as hell wasn't wearing blue.

Even with job done a four-point return out of a possible 10 represents a meagre tally for a Leinster squad well equipped to go the whole way. And there were other big performances too with Sean O'Brien in devastating ball carrying form against the wind.

Both second rows - particularly Hayden Triggs - also had their moments while Ross Byrne banked another important game. In the centre the terminally underrated Noel Reid was electric but in Gary Ringrose again came the most informative performance of all for Joe Schmidt.

On this occasion his defence was awesome and with Jared Payne ruled out, the Robbie Henshaw/Ringrose centre pairing is already set in stone. His 'man and ball' try-saving tackle on Clive Ross represented the outstanding highlight for me.

It is difficult not to feel for Ulster when short Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and (through long term injury) Payne.

They simply do not have the same quality of replacement, save for the three quarter line and full back, to make up any loss.

To add to the Les Kiss frustration what looked a powerful backline on paper was hugely inept when they did manage to free up ball in an impressive second half forward onslaught.

Without Ruan Pienaar in his most influential position and Jackson alongside they undeniably become predictable and, especially on this occasion, error strewn.

To be fair I felt sorry for both Ulster halves this time out. For Paul Marshall because he has had so little game time as run on scrum half and equally so Pienaar wearing 10 given it is some three years since he was last selected to start there.

Kicking from the outside half position is a different art requiring different technique and different timing to that off the base of scrum, ruck or maul, despite being only the length of a pass away.

Put simply, Ulster were betwixt and between in the link zone and it didn't work.

On the plus side Charlie Piutau oozes danger whether close in or wide out.

That said another Ulster day at the RDS best forgotten.

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