Gerry Thornley: Busy few weeks promises an antidote to the post-Christmas blues

Vital month coming up for all four provinces before England come calling at the Aviva

Peter O’Mahony: made an impressive return to the Munster line-up against Connacht at the  Sportsground in  Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Peter O’Mahony: made an impressive return to the Munster line-up against Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It’s a grim old day, the first Monday of the New Year. It had to be grey and damp. That just goes with the territory.

The Christmas trees and lights are down. Schools are back and so too the traffic. The first real winter chill has still to bite. SAD indeed. Yet there’s always the rugby.

For decades and decades, time was when the Six Nations kicked off in January and it was about the only thing to brighten up the month. Not until 1998 was the first weekend of games put back to the first weekend in February.

Cue the Heineken Cup to the rescue. The void was filled first by the tournament’s final at the end of January in 1998 and in 1999 by the semi-finals and final – Ulster beating Colomiers a week before Ireland lost to France at the same venue on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, a schedule which seems hard to credit.

Ever since 2000, January has been the month for the final two rounds of the pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and they appear to be as potentially tumultuous and season-defining as ever.

More than any of the other five nations, the provinces’ performances are inextricably linked with those of Ireland. One feeds into the other.

This does not apply to the same effect in France and England, where the clubs are more like separate fiefdoms, and certainly not so in Wales, where the national team’s performances are usually in spite of, rather than because of, the often low-key efforts of their regions.

After the relatively barren 90s on both fronts, Ireland’s improved showings since 1999 and 2000 in the Six Nations are exponentially attached to the provinces emerging as real contenders in Europe.

In every year bar one since 2000, Ireland has had at least one province assured of a place in the knock-out stages post the Six Nations. In fully 12 of the last 19 years, at least two provinces (usually Munster and Leinster) had secured safe passage to the advanced stages of the Heineken Cup, while on three occasions Leinster, Munster and Ulster all did so.

Ireland’s Triple Crown of 2004 followed qualification by Munster, and those of 2006 and 2007 after both they and Leinster had secured advancement, with Munster going on to win the Heineken Cup in 2006.

Both had also advanced to the knock-out stages prior to the Grand Slam of 2009, which in turn led to Leinster winning their first Heineken Cup.

Feelgood factor

Munster, Leinster and Ulster had all qualified in 2014, when Ireland won the Six Nations, and Leinster did so a year later before Ireland dramatically retained their title.

Prior to last year’s Grand Slam, Munster and Leinster had both qualified for the knock-out stages in Europe after which, of course, Leinster secured their fourth Champions Cup.

By contrast, when all three were eliminated from the pool stages in the post-World Cup fall-out in 2015/16, Ireland finished third – their lowest finish in the gilded Joe Schmidt era.

So while Schmidt will fret over his players over the next two weekends, he will be fully appreciative of the benefits from strong showings and the feelgood factor which could then feed into the mood and training at the Irish squad’s Carton House base.

The four Irish provinces Christmased well with bumper festive crowds, some true crackers and either resting up or welcoming back key men. It will have done Schmidt’s mood no harm to see, for example, Peter O’Mahony rested for the first two weekends of the three round interprovincial series before making such a re-energised return in leading Munster to their bonus point win over Connacht in Galway last Saturday night.

Admittedly, alas, Chris Farrell picked up another knee injury, and while it was a surprise to see Johann van Graan risk so many front-liners given a six-day turnaround before facing Gloucester in Kngsholm, in Farrell’s case he was only just returning from another setback and would have needed a game.

All four Irish provinces are all still in the European hunt, but also all are still at risk of elimination too.

Munster lead their pool while Leinster, Ulster and Munster occupy second place, and all three host their respective pool leaders on Saturday; Euro summit meetings so to speak in the month that’s in it.

The RDS hosts the most aristocratic European clash possible between the two four-time winners, Leinster and Toulouse. That Johnny Sexton is doubtful compounds James Lowe’s suspension and heightens the tension in the build-up to Leinster’s revenge mission.

Sole qualification

Furthermore, Munster are every bit as vulnerable as the other three. Defeat in Gloucester would leave them embroiled in a last day, three-way shoot-out for what would almost certainly be one sole qualification spot, with Exeter still very much in the mix were they to beat Castres at home next Sunday before pitching up in Limerick on Saturday week for another of those Anglo-Irish Thomond Park shoot-outs.

Come the end of the penultimate round, conceivably all four provinces could be leading their pools and well set for qualification. Yet none dare look beyond this weekend’s penultimate round, when defeats would seriously imperil their hopes of advancing.

And, of course, just three weeks from next Saturday, England come calling for Ireland’s opening defence of the Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium followed, a week later, by a tricky trip to Scotland.

For what seems almost like the first time in history, it is England who are coming looking for a scalp, with Ireland the hunted ones. It’s going to be an epic few weeks.

Happy New Year.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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