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Balance of Irish provincial rugby

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The future balance of Irish provincial rugby - Neil Best

The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart

Expect Irish rugby to return to business as usual this weekend after a difficult Six Nations, with the return of Champions Cup Rugby. Three Irish provinces are in the quarter-finals on Saturday of the main event, with Munster traveling to Edinburgh and Leinster hosting Ulster. Whilst Connacht are at Sale on Friday night flying the flag for Irish Rugby in the European Challenge Cup.

Of course, four from four simply isn’t possible this weekend, but don’t rule out three from three. These clubs are vastly experienced at this level with Munster and Leinster consistently amongst European Rugby’s elite in recent seasons. Both Leinster and Munster have been semi-finalists in each of the last two seasons whilst Connacht, although losing quarter-finalist last season, have grown their depth and quality this season.

Of course, the tie of the round for Irish rugby fans has to be Ulster’s trip to Dublin. Only but the most optimistic of Ulster fans would concede that they do not expect to win – yet the question remains, is an upset possible?

Ulster’s forwards are unquestionably more abrasive and competitive this season, and the set piece has improved under Dan McFarland. But is that enough? Some of Leinster’s players have lost a little form through the Six Nations, but the depth of options available to Leo Cullen is beyond that of many if not all his rivals.

The Belfast team won comfortably in the end against the Southern Kings in the Pro 14 last weekend with talismen Stuart McCloskey and Marcell Coetzee once again to the fore. But they picked up injuries to add to injuries, and may be light at outside centre come Saturday, unless Luke Marshall finds himself not only match ready but away to Leinster European Cup quarter-final match ready.

They also need to have some returnees in the forwards, most notably Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy.

In contrast, Leinster lost at Edinburgh last Friday night, but only the most casual observer would read anything of substance into that result. Leinster have dominated both their Pro14 conference and their European Champions Cup Pool. They remain massive home favourites this weekend.

Yet there is always hope. Ulster have a growing number of young players who hold belief and little fear. Robert Baloucoune grows by the week, Rob Lyttle seems equally deadly kicking or finishing, Michael Lowry may be the true heir to David Humphreys, Eric O’Sullivan is the one who got away and Jacob Stockdale – for the time being at least – is the jewel in the crown.

Saturday may prove to be a window on the future balance of Irish provincial rugby. Ulster remain the biggest and best supported rugby side in Ireland – and in the quiet opinion of many Ulster fans – it’s only a matter of time before their return to the top again.

I always liked to be the underdog, it brought out the best in me, let’s hope it brings out the best in them.

If there be no enemy there’s no fight. If no fight, no victory and if no victory there is no crown.

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The future balance of Irish provincial rugby - Neil Best