assess where the four provinces lie after the interpros.
Before Saturday’s game against Connacht, Leo Cullen was asked if he realised the luxury he has to send out a second-string side for an interpro and know that no matter what happens they’ll be comfortably top of their conference table.
He did, he said, and at full time, you can only imagine the luxury he must have felt having a second string side that can pull out a win like that.
Yet, Cullen being Cullen – rightly so – in a victory like this there was a lot to pull apart. Some players proved they could thrive at this level, some survive.
Cullen spoke of how some were hit by nerves, while the likes of Ciarán Frawley, an out-half sent on at fullback, showed comfort in his unusual surroundings.
Caelen Doris took a bit of a hit to his growing reputation in the back row, while Dan Leavy was quieter than one might expect. A narrow win, but the overall performance will be the most important thing Cullen takes from this Christmas cracker.
Connacht are just a dozen games into Andy Friend’s revolution, and even in defeat the signs are promising.
They lost 20-3 at home to Leinster in September, but left the RDS gutted that they hadn’t taken down the double champions on Saturday — throwing away a 17-point lead with 11 minutes to go.
Yes, the Leinster side was unrecognisable from the one that won in Galway – only two players started both games – but the style and hunger of this Connacht performance was eye-catching.
“I think tonight is the first time we really saw some real carries that dented, you know, and once you get in behind and get quick ball you can hurt any team,” head coach Andy Friend purred after. “What I’m enjoying at the moment is we’re getting quick ball and we’ve players set to go and we’ve an attacking structure that will hurt you. We’ll keep working on that and hopefully keep scoring lots of tries.”
Whither Munster? After their record-breaking 64-7 hammering of Ulster earlier this season, the province left Kingspan Stadium on Friday night with Johann van Graan praising his side’s ability to ‘fight back and get that losing bonus point’.
In many ways, that’s the story of the PRO14 this season – home sides dominating, with teams able to flip even the most one-sided away defeat into a home victory.
Yet it’s also the story of Munster’s season; dominant – often unthreatened – at home, and fragile away. They should have been playing against 14 men for 79 minutes after Robert Baloucoune’s dreadfully timed tackle on Darren Sweetnam, but they weren’t and, once more, they didn’t have enough.
True, this was a weakened side, shorn of many Test standard players, against a strong Ulster side, and they did physically turn up – but that’s the least Munster should expect.
Two huge games, against a stacked Leinster in Limerick, and a confident Connacht in Galway, await.
“I’m really happy we won, I would have liked the Christmas present of a bonus point and that was well possible after the performance in the second-half,” was how Dan McFarland summed up his side’s win over Munster.
It says a lot about how the province is growing under his leadership, that they were disappointed with the victory, and they’re right to want more.
The back-to-back wins over Scarlets in the Champions Cup came in impressive style, with tries being scored for fun, but Munster’s physical approach asked different questions to the Welsh region.
Jordi Murphy, Seán Reidy and man of the match Marcell Coetzee have the makings of a dominant back row, and it will be interesting to see what side McFarland sends to Galway this week, and if he’ll rest his front liners for the trip to Dublin on January 5.
With the visit of Racing 92 just over two weeks away, one could forgive McFarland for being slightly distracted.