The back-to-back games are, well, back, and as usual that is the cue for the meaty middle of the season. Following on from these pivotal third- and fourth-round matches in Europe, this season there will be three rounds of interprovincial derbies in a row followed by the concluding two games in the Euro pool stages.
After the next two weekends of Anglo-Irish affairs, which of course means BT have commandeered all six European Champions Cup clashes between the three Irish provinces and their Premiership opponents, the “interpro” rounds are compressed into a 14-day period or, in the case of Munster and Leinster, over just 12 days between St Stephen’s Day and January 6th. It will be a particularly demanding stage of the season which is sure to see plenty of rotation and a test of squad depth.
As ever, Leinster look best equipped to cope. Aside from their stocks of reserves in the tight five, their options in the backrow have been well documented. Even without the injured Jamie Heaslip, the return of Dan Leavy means six Irish internationals are competing for three starting places, the others being Rhys Ruddock, Sean O'Brien, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy.
However, presuming Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are reunited in the 10-12-13 axis, even the backrow options are eclipsed by those in the back three.
Here, despite the absence of Joey Carbery and Barry Daly, the eye-catching arrival of James Lowe has augmented the presence of a rejuvenated Rob Kearney, captain Isa Nacewa, recently capped Adam Byrne, fellow internationals Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden, as well as the rapidly progressing Jordan Larmour.
After his try-scoring debut away to the Dragons in Leinster’s seasonal opener, the 20-year-old Academy player keeps taking his opportunities. Following his superbly taken try in the win away to Ulster when coming on as an early replacement, Larmour has been increasingly impressive in his subsequent three games at fullback.
He decorated the eight-try win at home against the Dragons with another try of his own and one inventive assist, and aside from the superb offload to Lowe which led to Luke McGrath’s try, Larmour appeared to be gliding over the Stadio Monigo gluepot when others were treading in treacle. He is a genuinely quick, nicely balanced runner with an eye for a gap and the try line, as well as his offloading and passing skills.
Bearing all this in mind, there’s a case for arguing that Leinster do not really need Lowe, and that his arrival might serve to stunt the development of Larmour and others. But class such as Larmour’s has a habit of rising to the surface, and similarly class such as Lowe’s is always to be welcomed. The same was true of Nacewa’s arrival at Leinster, despite there being a plethora of quality outside backs at the province then as well.
Ironically, Nacewa has long since eulogised about the X-factor qualities which Lowe previously brought to the Chiefs and the New Zealand Maori even though, ironically, he is now one of the players under increased threat for his position following Lowe’s two-try debut against Benetton.
Talking with Lowe in the week of the Maori-Lions game, it was clear that his outgoing, engaging and enthusiastic nature would seamlessly fit in at Leinster, or anywhere else for that matter. Another gamebreaker in Leinster’s ranks can only up standards as well as furthering the faintly ridiculous competition for places in the outside backs.
This is all the more timely coming into this exacting phase of their season. The relatively novelty of Leinster’s meetings with Exeter, whom they encountered once before in the pool stages in the Chiefs’s debut campaign five seasons ago, is in contrast to Munster and Leicester, who are meeting in the back-to-back December matches for the third season running.
Nonetheless, these return match-ups remain unique in the context of the rugby season and can be critical head-to-head contests in their own right. This certainly looks true of the Exeter-Leinster two-legged affair given the Chiefs’s away win against Montpellier leaves both with two wins apiece.
Helped by their bonus points at home to Montpellier and away to Glasgow, if Leinster can emerge with a superior head-to-head record against Exeter after they meet again in the province’s marquee Aviva Stadium fixture on Saturday week, they will be well placed to top Pool 3.
Munster lost both meetings two seasons ago with Leicester, which effectively put them out of the competition, whereas they emerged comfortably ahead over the two matches last season and progressed. In what looks like being a more competitive three-way fight with Racing in Pool 4, it seems imperative that they at least emulate that feat again over the next two weekends.
As with Lowe, there was also a case for arguing that Ulster did not really need Charles Piatau, given the presence on their roster of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Louis Ludik among other up-and-coming young outside backs.
Ultimately, the presence of Piatau didn't prevent the development of Jacob Stockdale. Indeed, if anything, training and playing with a player good enough to have been a World Cup winner with the All Blacks but for stating his intention to leave New Zealand for Ulster has only helped Stockdale develop more rapidly.
Piatau is a world-class gamebreaker and despite their array of outside backs, Ulster will miss him when he moves on to Bristol at the end of the season. With his mix of strength, pace, elusiveness and creativity, Piatau remains their likeliest match-winner. With a double over Harlequins appearing a minimum requirement if they are to maintain hopes of progress, they will need him at his big-game best over these two meetings just five days apart.