With three sides through to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever, there is no doubt who the dominant force is at club level in Europe right now. Yet following last year’s Rugby World Cup, all the talk has been about RWC finalists France and a resurgent Wales to win the RBS Six Nations 2012.
The results from Rounds 5 & 6 though will force people to think again with regards to their predicted champion. Munster, Ulster and last year’s champions Leinster have all progressed to the knockout stages, and will all be involved in two home Irish games, with Munster taking on Ulster at Thomond Park. Munster and Leinster were also the top two seeds at the end of Round 6, whilst Ulster produced one of the performances of the season last week at home against Leicester.
Statistically speaking, between the three of them they have been superior against each nation’s teams; against English opposition they have won five matches and lost just once, against the French they have won four, drawn once and lost once, whilst Munster completed a double over the Scarlets in the only Irish-Welsh pairing. Furthermore, in the last two weeks, Ulster and Munster scored 92 points against two of England’s playoff contenders in Leicester and Northampton. Leinster, arguably the best of the three sides, also scored 52 points against Bath in Round 4, creating an aggregate of 144-70 over the three games. That’s before remembering that Connacht defeated Premiership leaders Harlequins on Friday night.
Naturally, there are some counter-arguments. Supporters from other nations will highlight the influence of foreign players in all three sides, who of course are not elegible to play for Ireland in the Six Nations. Isa Nacewa at Leinster, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and John Afoa at Ulster, Lifiemi Mafi and BJ Botha at Munster. But the truth is the majority of all three starting XVs were dominated by Irish players, who in turn make up most of Declan Kidney’s squad.
What’s more, six or seven players who put in outstanding performances over the last weekend are not yet in the senior squad, such as Chris Henry, Eoin O’Malley, Dan Tuohy, James Coughlan, Luke Fitzgerald and hat-trick hero Simon Zebo. The key lies in Kidney not only managing to get all of them to gel together, but to also be bold and select on form rather than reputation. If they can get that right, it could be Ireland’s year.
by Ben Coles