All eyes are now firmly on the prize as the season reaches its zenith over the next few weeks, writes Donal Lenihan
THE professional rugby player enjoys a closed season of between four or five weeks if he is lucky. Apart from the odd week of downtime during the regular season, the rest of his time is spent preparing for or playing competitive games.
Injury and the dreaded rehabilitation period that accompanies it can be laborious, lonely and frustrating. The modern professionals make poor spectators and while they all want to see their side doing well in their absence, the same good wishes do not always extend to the player who has taken ownership of your jersey. It is the nature of the beast.
The tangible rewards for all that hard work comes down to a very condensed period at the back end of the season when the silverware is handed out. The goal is be in contention for honours during that vital window.
For Munster, Ulster and especially Leinster, that time has arrived and the weekend’s Magners League semi-finals leave no scope for error. All three sides have already sampled the adrenalin flow that accompanies knockout rugby with varying degrees of success. Ulster fell at the first hurdle when they met Heineken Cup finalists Northampton in the quarter-final at Milton Keynes and now face the daunting task of downing Leinster’s colours in the RDS a week before the latter’s Heineken Cup final in Cardiff.
Munster successfully negotiated Brive and 30C heat in France for their Amlin Challenge Cup debut at the quarter-final stage of that competition before suffering the embarrassment of failing to turn up for the semi-final against Harlequins in, of all places, Thomond Park.
If ever a side needed motivation to finish a season on a high, surely the memory of that rank performance will provide it?
The fact they face the Ospreys, against whom they have enjoyed a fractious relationship going back to the days of Neath, for the fifth time this season is unfortunate. The Ospreys’ implosion this season has been even more spectacular than normal. Given the talent in their squad, they should be contesting for trophies on all fronts.
Last season after losing by a single point to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in San Sebastian, they resurrected themselves to comprehensively beat Leinster in the Magners League final at the RDS. The assumption was they would kick on in this season’s Heineken Cup but drawn in Munster’s very difficult pool, along with London Irish and Toulon, they fell away spectacularly.
All does not seem well at the Liberty Stadium. Only two and a half weeks ago, the Ospreys were fighting for their Magners survival against an understrength Munster side but showed precious little hunger for battle. Results elsewhere ultimately propelled them into the final top-four slot aided by an injury-time penalty from James Hook at a time when it looked as if Aironi would record only the second competitive win in their debut season in the Magners League. By all accounts, the Ospreys were abysmal. Offered a lifeline by the Scarlets victory over Cardiff Blues, they will surely be more competitive against their old sparring partners in Limerick on Saturday.
After years of failing to deliver on their rich promise, it would appear as if the Ospreys management are about to rebuild their side over the next 12 months. Already it has been confirmed that stellar names Lee Byrne, James Hook, Jerry Collins and Marty Holah will depart for pastures new while Lions scrum half Mike Phillips has also made it clear that he wants out.
The question now is whether they have one more kick left in them before this quality but ultimately underachieving outfit disperses for the final time.
Munster badly need to win this one and having remained unbeaten throughout the regular Magners League campaign in Thomond Park — en route to topping the league programme by 13 points — it would be a shame to break that sequence now. The prospect of facing Leinster in a Magners League final in Limerick a week after their great rivals may have annexed a second Heineken Cup would surely offer the potential to undo some of the disappointments of the season. What a way to end the season.
LEINSTER look odds on to make that final and they appear to have the Indian sign over Ulster at present, regardless of what combination they put on the field. Having been smashed in the opening quarter of their recent league encounter, Ulster recovered well to make a contest of it in the second half but still lost by 34-26.
In addition, Ulster have lost Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace and probably Dan Touhy from the starting line-up that faced Leinster that night, as they join Stephen Ferris and BJ Botha on injured reserve. That will severely damage their prospects of progressing any further in this competition.
That said, Ulster can look back on a season where definite progress has been made and reaching the knockout stages of both the Heineken Cup and the Magners League indicates a sign of things to come.
More importantly, they have blooded some of the most promising backs to emerge from the northern province for some time in Nevin Spence, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson. That quartet has the capacity to play international rugby and represent the future of rugby in the north. In addition, young loose head prop Paddy McAllister also looks a fine prospect.
While Connacht have been left on the outside looking in, they will be praying for a Leinster win in the Heineken Cup final, a result that would deliver Heineken Cup rugby next season to the province for the first time in their professional history. I think that Leinster will oblige.
What a pity, therefore, that some of the younger players whose development they have facilitated over the last few seasons in Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan should depart for Leinster and Munster in a few weeks. The irony is that the majority of those players are leaving to sample Heineken Cup rugby. However there is no guarantee that any of them will break into the starting 15 of their new clubs. Even Irish reserve hooker Cronin faces a big challenge to displace Richardt Strauss who has been outstanding for Leinster this year, and becomes Irish-eligible at the end of next season. With uncertainty still surrounding the future of Jerry Flannery, Cronin may well regret not opting to accept the invitation to return to his native Munster. Only time will tell.
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