We live in extraordinary times and rugby in Ireland provided an example last Sunday when Andy Farrell’s Six Nations charges went head-to-head in a ‘friendly’ against Dan McFarland’s Ulster in Dublin. Country versus province matches used to be frowned upon.

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It has, for instance, gone down in legend how the Ireland team picked by Warren Gatland for the World Cup in 1999 endured a torrid battle when they faced off against Munster prior to the finals 22 years ago. 

Munster players were bulling at being left out of Gatland’s squad and they made sure they dished out a beating in front of a Cork attendance of 4,000, winning 26-19 and settling some selection scores. There were no prying eyes on the terraces at the IRFU HPC centre in Abbotstown last Sunday for the behind closed doors rendezvous. 

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Wilkinson and Townsend reflect on the Calcuttta Cup with RugbyPass:

However, rather than keep the Ireland players in cotton wool as would traditional be the case in the two-week lead-in to the start of the Six Nations, Farrell opted to let his squad go into the ring against McFarland’s Ulster in the hope that the head-to-head has helped then best tune-up for next Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations opener away to Wales. 

Skipper Johnny Sexton wasn’t involved in the clash against an Ulster team that had a down week in the PRO14. The Ireland captain was instead wrapping up his rehab following a hamstring issue while playing for Leinster versus Munster on January 23.

However, watching on from the sidelines, he liked what he saw from a team that now has Paul O’Connell on its coaching staff and he can’t wait to put some of the plays rehearsed against Ulster into action versus Wales. “It was a great hit-out,” he enthused despite it emerging on Tuesday that Caelan Doris and Quinn Roux were now out of the Ireland squad due to respective concussion and neck issues.

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“I wasn’t involved in it. It was still the last stages of physio for me but the guys had a good hit out. We had two teams rotating in and out and so it was probably hard to get a bit of flow but in terms of being able to try and play some of the plays that we have prepared against live opposition that don’t know what is going on…

“Often when we are training team against team, we know the plays we are throwing at each other so it is very hard for them to work and often you can get a bit anxious, do that play actually work? Whereas it was good to see against opposition that don’t know what is going on. 

“We had a good hit out against them. They were brilliant. It was full-on but very respectful at the same time if you know what I mean. There were no cheap shots, there was no off the ball stuff. We have different levels of contact.

“Some guys have different interpretations of them but it was a great hit out and it was a good thing for us to go back and look at and learn some lessons so hopefully we don’t have to learn the same ones next week.”

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