Not since 2002 has the IRFU’s interprovincial title officially been played for. However, Leinster’s derby demolition of Ulster on Saturday night has Leo Cullen’s side three points clear of Munster and primed to clinch the unofficial Irish competition within the Pro14 for the third time in four seasons.
Cullen’s reigning European cup and league champions have become an Irish derby powerhouse since he took over the reins in 2015. Matt O’Connor’s Leinster won just two of their half-dozen fixtures in 2014/15 to finish bottom of the four provinces, their worst effort since Gary Ella was in charge in 2003/04.
Having fought in the trenches for years as a player in the second row, Cullen has shown a knack of getting his selections right for these derby games. Their 40-7 bonus win over Ulster was their 17th success in 23 regular season Irish derbies with Cullen in charge and their second in their three all-Irish fixtures over the Christmas/New Year period.
The holiday programme, where Leinster beat Connacht and Ulster in Dublin and lost to Munster in Limerick, highlighted the greater squad depth that Cullen has at his disposal compared to his Irish rivals.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 5, 2019
Leinster had 38 different starters for their three games, eight more than Munster, nine more than Ulster and a massive 13 more than Connacht, whose lack of depth was further illustrated by them having seven players – Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, Gavin Thornbury and Colby Fainga’a – starting all three matches. The only other player in the provinces to start three games over the holiday period was Munster’s Jean Kleyn.
The emphasis for the rotating Irish provinces now quickly shifts to Europe’s round five and six fixtures in the coming weekends and the Irish league within the Pro 14 won’t be completed until the weekend of April 26 when Leinster face Ulster in Belfast and Munster host Connacht in Limerick.
In the 15 previous seasons featuring six rounds of home-and-away Irish derby fixtures in the league, Leinster have been “champions” on eight occasions followed by Ulster on four and Munster on three. The IRFU’s official interprovincial championship ran from 1946/47 until 2001/02.
PRO14’S IRISH LEAGUE
P W L F A BP PTS
Leinster 5 4 1 140 87 2 18
Munster 5 3 2 155 97 3 15
Connacht 5 2 3 99 111 3 11
Ulster 5 1 4 60 159 0 4
Results: Leinster 40 Ulster 7, Connacht 24 Munster 31, Munster 26 Leinster 17, Connacht 21 Ulster 12, Leinster 33 Connacht 29, Ulster 19 Munster 12, Leinster 30 Munster 22, Ulster 15 Connacht 22, Munster 64 Ulster 7, Connacht 3 Leinster 20
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