With a highly successful first three rounds now in the books for the Irish provinces, Irish Rugby’s resurgence appears to be gaining momentum at all levels with all four sides in with a genuine chance of qualifying for the quarter-final stage.
Even just qualifying out of the pool stages will be a major step up for the Irish sides but there is a genuine sense of optimism that the provinces are once again in with a chance of bringing a European title back to the Emerald Isle following a four-year absence.
This mainly lies with Munster, who as of late have enjoyed a resurgence under new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and former Springbok defensive guru Jacques Nienaber.
Following the tragic passing of head coach Anthony Foley during the sides trip to Paris in round one, Munster have become a side galvanised by grief, and whilst the passion on display is evident for all to see, it is the clinical accuracy of Erasmus’s side that has made them so hard for oppositions to live with.
Munster are playing a style more associated with vintage South African sides that sees their big ball carriers getting over the gain line and allowing quick ruck ball for their explosive backs to do damage with. This ball carrying ability combined with a pinpoint accurate kicking game courtesy of Conor Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal has seen Munster pinning back their opposition as their wingers dominate in the air.
In defence Munster, have been relentless and boast the best tackle success rate of any side with a staggering 92 percent completion rate. The work of Nienaber cannot be underrated as he has transformed this Munster side in the space of six months from a side leaking points both home and away to a side that has only conceded seventeen points whilst scoring 76.
His work in Limerick will leave the South African Rugby Union frustrated over letting a coach of Nienaber’s quality leave their shores following their dismal showing this season.
Munster’s biggest tests are certainly ahead of them with all three away matches still to come, but it is hard to see the men in red not progressing to the final eight on current form. Should they indeed top their pool and remain relatively injury free Munster will be incredibly awkward for any side to play.
If they do one better and secure home field advantage, there will be very few sides who will challenge them at Thomond Park which has begun to claw back its aura of yesteryear.
Having travelled to Montpellier already, Leinster are in arguably a better position than any of the other three provinces to progress to the final eight. Following an utter whitewash of Northampton at Franklins Garden’s the three-time champions sit in a strong position atop of pool four. Having picked up a crucial losing bonus point during that round two fixture away at Montpellier, Leinster have the benefit of welcoming the Top 14 giants to Dublin in what is likely to prove to be the crucial clash that decides the pool winner.
An area the men from Dublin hold the upper hand is in their squad depth. Given a string of injuries currently plaguing some senior players, their academy system continues to produces incredibly talented players who are now ready for the step up to the European stage.
Leinster possess arguably the strongest academy system in Europe, with players such as Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Josh van der Flier all having made the step up to international rugby over the past few seasons. This wave of talent as been followed by a number of new players making the step up to senior rugby with players such as Adam Bryne, Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin all making an impact in the rout of Northampton last weekend.
And the young backline at present might lack leadership, but the forward pack of Leinster is as good as any in Europe. With what is close to the first-choice Irish pack, Leinster possess the quality to control games up front even against the giant French packs. This should in turn alleviate pressure on the youngsters in the backline as they continue to find their feet.
Munster and Leinster have been Ireland’s flag bearers for so long when it comes to European action, but it has been the improvement shown by the men from out west that is perhaps most fascinating.
The PRO12 champions Connacht, have been quietly gone about their business and despite a loss last weekend away to a very talented Wasps side, the men from Galway are in with a shot of qualifying for the knockout stages in Europe for the first time in their long history.
Despite having several tough fixtures ahead of them most notably the return fixture with Wasps this weekend, Connacht have shown that they can go toe to toe with the big sides in Europe.
Although with Springbok import Marnitz Boshoff and incumbent Craig Ronaldson both currently out injured, stand in fly-half Jack Carty will need to up his game as Connacht will not be able to rely on tries to win close games.
Ulster too should not be forgotten, having played a significant role in the most entertaining game of the European season thus far. With their 39-32 win over French giants Clermont at Ravenhill. In a display that showed the quality that the men from the north possess in dangermen Paddy Jackson and Charles Piatau, Ulster proved that on their day they have the quality to beat even the best sides in Europe.
The issue for Les Kiss’s side this season has been their inconsistency in both Europe and the PRO12. In the opening round, they blew not only a golden opportunity to pick up a victory away in France at Bordeaux but they lost the losing bonus point too and all within the space of fifteen minutes.
Their toughest clashes are yet to come with the away matches to Clermont this weekend and Exeter. It has been these lapses in concentration that have cost the Ulstermen dearly this season and is what is likely to see them miss out on playoff action due to a poor points differential and tough schedule. Despite this, should Ulster manage to progress from their pool, they have shown the ability to beat any side on any given day, the likelihood of them doing this for three consecutive playoffs matches however is slim.
Munster and Leinster certainly have the potential to bring home a European trophy this season, should a few things go their way. But, it feels as though it may be a season or two too early, as both sides continue to rebuild under their new coaching staffs.
The big spending sides – Saracens, Wasps, Clermont and Toulon – all continue to rumble. Which means a place in the final four for any Irish side will be deemed as progress. And should that happen, it will set them up nicely for next season, where a title is certainly more realistic.