It may well be the season to be jolly but four lots of proud and grumpy provincial players will be squaring off in and around the Christmas period on the back of the Irish professional game’s worst weekend in six years.
Not since 2006 had all four of Ireland’s professional clubs tasted defeat on the one European weekend and two will suffer the same fate this weekend as Leinster travel to Belfast and Munster make the trip to Galway.
“We’ve had a good run of form [until now],” said Leinster’s Mike Ross of the provinces in general, “and every professional rugby player in Ireland is in training this week, pretty annoyed about how the weekend went so it should be pretty interesting this weekend.”
Ulster will be fuming at their inability to back up what appeared to be a coming-of-age performance away to Northampton when the sides met again in Ravenhill last Friday but Leinster’s frustrations are, if anything, all the greater given they were so comprehensively bettered by Clermont.
Ross spoke about how morale-sapping it was for players to pick themselves off the ground after each tackle and retreat towards the gain-line rather than advance on it, as is the case when the attacking team is the one dictating the hits in the contact zone.
More painful still for Ross was the litany of penalties awarded against Leinster — quite a few of which went against him specifically — just six days after the province had done a number on Clermont’s set-piece.
Joe Schmidt was tactful but clearly aggrieved at Wayne Barnes’ interpretation of that aspect at the Aviva Stadium but the gap at engagement served as a particular bone of contention between the various parties four days ago.
“Yeah, well, we would have discussed it with him,” said Ross. “With the pitch at the Aviva [cutting up] at the moment you need a small gap otherwise the feed ground is going to go from under you.
“We can control as much as we can but, at the same time, it’s up to us to get the execution right and a couple of times it let us down a bit. Some of it is down to referee interpretation, some of it you do yourself and it’s up to yourself to learn from it.”
The introduction of artificial pitches may yet eliminate one of the factors beyond the control of those scrummaging but Ross is from farming stock and retains a loyal affection for soil.
“3G pitches? I’d be a bit of a traditionalist. I wouldn’t be a big fan. There’s more scope for injuries on them. Maybe it’s different on the newer ones, I’m not sure, but certainly there’s more knee injuries on 3G pitches.”
His bigger concern is their remaining two games. “We are going to have to extract maximum points from our next games,” said Ross. “Llanelli and Exeter are not going to roll over for us. We’ve put ourselves in this position and it is up to ourselves to get out of it. All we can do is get on with the next couple of games because unfortunately the rest of the permutations are out of our hands.”
First things first, though.
Tomorrow’s game brings with it a whole heap of other issues that will demand their full attention as Ulster will be smarting not just from their first loss of the season, to Northampton, but last May’s defeat in Twickenham.
This will be the first time the two provinces have met since then and Ross has been as impressed by them.
“I think it’s just more time together. They’ve also had a new coach come in and often that adds a bump up to your performance and every player is trying to prove themselves to the new coach. So he’s brought a good game plan to them, they’ve got quality players and their executing it very well.”
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