As we settle in to watch the rarity of a near full strength Munster-Leinster interpro tomorrow evening, the spectacle can be cited as a fine example of the theory that when a door closes, a window opens.
hen the season’s compressed schedule was originally drawn up, this weekend was slated as one of four set aside for European action.
With margins tighter than ever before in the race for quarter-final spots, a weekend of high drama and tension was envisaged. For two weeks already, we’ve known that not all was going according to plan, the postponement of the two concluding rounds of the pool stages now looking for all the world as if they’ll never be played.
In their absence, events in Thomond Park will more than adequately fill the void, while an added bonus is provided by the relative strength of the panels ensuring a virtual Ireland trial for some with Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad to be announced next week ahead of their slated opener against Wales in Cardiff on February 7.
While there won’t be as much outside interest, Connacht’s Test hopefuls will get one last run-out, too, on Sunday against the Ospreys in a contest sure to be watched closely by Farrell and his staff.
Their counterparts to the north have no such luxury, however, those Ulstermen aiming to be involved in the championship having to hope that their previously supplied body of work will have left enough credit in the bank. With three idle weekends between that trip to the principality and their last provincial run-out against Leinster in the RDS, there are a handful of Dan McFarland’s squad who would surely have relished the opportunity to be staking one last claim for a green jersey this weekend.
Speaking prior to that last run-out against Leinster, Burns admitted that, even in the midst of the pandemic, it has been a disjointed period for him. Having made his debut during the Autumn Nations Cup with a sprightly cameo against Wales, he appeared to end 2020 as Johnny Sexton’s primary back-up.
After working through a pair of injuries since the sporting shutdown ended, the former Gloucester man ran the show against Munster to open up 2021 but was not nearly as effective against Leinster.
Having only played four times for Ulster this season, the 26-year-old could have done with a chance to show that the RDS outing was nothing more than a blip ahead of the team being named for the trip to Cardiff.
NO player in Ireland saw their international prospects take a greater hit over the course of the stretched 2020 Six Nations.
Ulster’s talisman was in line to make his first championship start against Italy before the tournament was put on ice back in March.
By the time it resumed, Cooney had been benched for the PRO14 final by Ulster and lost his place with Ireland to the debuting Jamison Gibson Park. While the standard of scrum-half play has been high through the provinces, Cooney has been coming back to his best and would have benefited from another opportunity to show it.
The tireless O’Sullivan is well used to racking up match minutes so this stoppage will have taken a little getting used to.
After getting a rare rest against Connacht in the last game of 2020, he was only on the bench against Leinster, no doubt with a view to having him fresh for the then-planned for European fixtures.
Having made his Irish debut in the autumn, the return to fitness of Dave Kilcoyne at Munster has boosted Andy Farrell’s loosehead options since then but O’Sullivan will hope he left enough of an impression on the head coach at the end of last year to maintain his position.
With first-choice tight-head Tadhg Furlong nearing a return but having not played any rugby for almost a year, there was a real chance for a young player like O’Toole to make something of a Test breakthrough.
Boasting the necessary dynamism for the changing international game, and having been named in Farrell’s first two squads, the 22-year-old looked set to be the man to take advantage behind Andrew Porter only for injury to nix his own chances, too.
Having returned against Scarlets in November, O’Toole has started just once since with Marty Moore still getting the lion’s share of time in Ulster’s number three jersey. In an effort to get minutes into his legs, O’Toole was the most established senior player in the Ulster ‘A’ side’s win over Leinster last weekend. The Drogheda native’s time will come for Ireland but it will be interesting to see whether it is now.