Leinster to be Ireland's backbone
Hugh Farrelly
January 18, 2011
Leinster flanker Sean O'Brien scores a try, Leinster v Saracens, Heineken Cup, RDS, Dublin, Ireland, January 15, 2011
Sean O'Brien has been in red hot form for Leinster © PA Photos

The result was depressing enough without the added pain of a slow retreat from Toulon. The Munster team flight was due to leave Marseilles at 10pm, fly two and a quarter hours, drop off the Cork contingent before the final 20 minute leg to Shannon Airport where the Limerick contingent disembark.

It should have been a straightforward journey. It ended up a truncated, tortuous affair as the chartered flight eventually touched down in Shannon at three in the morning. Half an hour out of Marseilles, the plane was forced to return to the French airport after a technical problem was detected.

After another hour on the runway, the plane took off again and made its way to Cork only to be delayed again for another hour and a quarter when a Munster supporter decided to make an unannounced departure, which necessitated every bag being taken out of the hold to be accounted for on the basis of security.

It was a grim experience, and one that was never going to improve an already gloomy atmosphere. However, it did allow plenty of time to reflect on where Munster go from here and also to analyse the knock-on effects of the province's first Heineken Cup Pool exit in 13 seasons on the Irish team for the Six Nations.

Irish rugby has become accustomed to and dependant on Munster excellence over the past 10 years. Two Heineken Cups, four final appearances and consistent big game performances against Europe's elite translated into Munster providing the backbone of the Ireland team.

The province was the chief supplier of bodies to fill the jerseys numbered one to 10. Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy were main men in the Irish pack while Peter Stringer, Tomas O'Leary and Ronan O'Gara covered the half-back positions.

Over the past two seasons there has been a shift in the balance of power and now Leinster, who have scorched through their Heineken Cup Pool as Munster were stuttering, are very much in the ascendancy. Ulster, who for years have struggled to get one or, at most, two players into the international side are suddenly offering a clutch of players. The likes of Tom Court, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble are all genuine contenders.

But it is Leinster who will provide the inspiration for Ireland heading into the Six Nations and onwards to the Rugby World Cup. Joe Schmidt has infused the side with vigour and invention and they are matching compelling forward work- where for years they played second fiddle to Munster - with their traditional flair out wide. Schmidt, following on from his excellent backline work with Clermont, has introduced his own dash of innovation.

The upshot is that Leinster, on form, could justifiably provide as many as 12 of Ireland's starting 15. Cian Healy, who had already earned the admiration of the All Blacks following impressive turns during the summer tour and November internationals, is getting better and better at loose-head. Mike Ross has been a revelation at tight-head since he has been afforded a run of games and is comfortably the best scrummaging prop available to coach Declan Kidney.

"Sean O'Brien is arguably the form back-row in Europe and is demanding to be selected alongside Jamie Heaslip."

Second-row Leo Cullen has returned from injury full of determination and calm authority and is outplaying his long-standing Munster rival O'Callaghan. Sean O'Brien is arguably the form back-row in Europe and is demanding to be selected alongside Jamie Heaslip - assuming the latter's ankle injury heals swiftly.

At scrum-half, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss have been providing Schmidt, and now Kidney, with contrasting but equally effective options while Jonathan Sexton is playing with a maturity and confidence that has established him as a one of the top out-halves in the game.

Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll remain Ireland's go-to pair in the centre, Shane Horgan is rejuvenated under Schmidt on the right wing and Fergus McFadden has been starring out of position on the left.

Injuries to Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy have created a vacancy at fullback and, while Luke Fitzgerald has displayed elements of rustiness on his return from injury, the No.15 jersey looks destined for him.

The Heineken Cup has always been a barometer for the health of the Irish team and Leinster's rude health puts Kidney in a strong position. The key now is to replicate the elan Leinster have been showing in their backline play, as Ireland were relatively stodgy in this regard during November, and to tap into the confidence emanating from that contingent.

And, while Munster's early exit was far from Kidney's preferred scenario, there is the upside of O'Connell's strong return from injury while the other smarting players will be looking to take their hurt and disappointment out on their opponents during the Six Nations. That tournament always has a funny feel to it in World Cup year and New Zealand 2011 will form the backdrop as countries ready themselves for the bigger battles ahead.

It leaves the Six Nations looking wide open this year and, with the same run of fixtures they had when securing the Grand Slam in 2009 - the key ones being England and France in Dublin - Ireland, with their Leinster players driving them on, have a real opportunity to chalk up another title.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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