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Provincial state of play - Assessing Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster’s post-Six Nations chances

Scramble for URC quarter-final qualification is on while all four provinces have one eye on European knockouts in the coming weeks

With no time wasted tumbling from the Test rugby of the Six Nations into two weeks of the United Rugby Championship (URC) before the Champions Cup kicks in, the provinces will be gauging just how they sit in terms of qualification and what they need to do to point in the direction of quarter-final playoffs.

That’s not to say the URC stopped. It didn’t with rounds nine, 10 and 11 running through January, February and March, bringing the 16 participating clubs up to 11 games played so far.

With Leinster sitting at the top of the table, the other three Irish provinces are in the top eight quarter-final spots, with four points separating Ulster in fifth and the Stormers in ninth.

Leinster are thinking about a top-four seeding position and home draw with the others on a more steady as she goes approach, but not without their eye on the big prize of a top four place.


Ireland head coach Andy Farrell originally picked an Irish squad for this year’s Six Nations with 19 Leinster players involved, leaving Leo Cullen to work out which players need rest and which need game time. James Lowe and Caelan Doris were two Irish players who put in 80-minute shifts in all five of Ireland’s Six Nations games.

Others such as James Ryan, Connacht’s Mack Hansen and Munster prop and international debutant Oli Jager are excluded from this weekend’s action with bicep, shoulder and knee injuries respectively.

Another consideration for the provinces may be that their international players have been on the go for over a year, starting from last year’s Six Nations through to pre-World Cup warm-up games during the summer, the World Cup itself and then this year’s championship.

In all, that’s five Six Nations matches, warm-ups with England, Italy and Samoa, the World Cup including another five matches and five more in this year’s championship.

As evidenced in Ireland’s last two matches against England in Twickenham and Scotland in Dublin, winning back-to-back championships comes at a price physically and, maybe more acutely, mentally.

The coming weekend may determine what direction the Irish provinces take as Ospreys face Munster on Friday night with both teams having much to play for. Munster are three places above the cut line and Ospreys two places below it.

Ulster, currently in fifth place, need to win against bottom-placed Sharks on Saturday to bring their quest for a top-four finish into focus, with seventh-placed Connacht facing the Emirates Lions, who are 11th on the table.

Table-toppers Leinster travel to Italy to face 11th-placed Zebre Parma. However, it is the other Italian team Benetton, who currently sit in the eighth qualifying position and face Welsh side Scarlets on Saturday, that may provide the greatest edge on the pitch.

A degree of bad blood has arisen between Italian and Welsh players following allegations that the Italian team were not treated properly for their last match in Cardiff, where Italy emerged as winners. Italy’s captain Michele Lamaro told Gazzetta dello Sport there were “several small, unpleasant situations unworthy of a host country”, claiming Italy’s pre-match warm-up was cut short and that family members were given seats with reduced visibility.

The Welsh Rugby Union has denied any kind of “unpleasant” treatment but given who made the comments, expect a follow on. There were 17 Benetton players, including Lamaro, named in Gonzalo Quesada’s original 34-man Six Nations Italian squad.

Like Leinster, they too will go into round 12 of the URC looking at balancing the ledger of bench time and game time, although expect there to be more to the meeting than just the points.

Ulster, who will spend a few weeks in South Africa, have the most adjustments to make with the recent departure of coach Dan McFarland and the arrival of former Irish Under-20s coach Richie Murphy straight from the age-grade Six Nations.

The former outhalf has already been parachuted into the Ulster job as interim coach. Interestingly, when Murphy was asked this week if he would like the position to be made available on a permanent basis, he jumped.

Murphy will be assisted by Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty. Neither claim to be miracle workers but the next few weeks against Sharks and Stormers in the heat of South Africa could be a pivotal moment in getting the Ulster team to raise their game.

The long-ball game will also come into play with the Champions Cup next month and the referees were appointed on Wednesday for the round of 16. Scotland’s Mike Adamson has been appointed for Munster’s tie with Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens, while Frenchman Pierre Brousset will take charge of Leinster’s home tie with Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Stadium.

In the Challenge Cup, Craig Evans of Wales will officiate in Montpellier’s game against Ulster in France, with Italy’s Andrew Piardi in charge of Pau against Connacht in Stade du Hameau.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times