It’s finally here.
This weekend will mark 25 weeks since the Irish provinces were last in action and what a long wait it has been.
Irish rugby supporters have been starved of action over the last six months but their wait will be rewarded with back-to-back rounds of interprovincial derbies.
On Saturday, Leinster take on Munster at the Aviva Stadium (7.35pm) before Connacht meet Ulster at the same venue on Sunday (4.30pm).
Ahead of these eagerly awaited ties, we are taking a look at some of the main questions surrounding the Irish provinces ahead of the season’s exciting return.
Do Munster have the final pieces of the puzzle?
When Munster announced that they signed Springbok World Cup-winning duo RG Snyman and Damian De Allende, it marked one of the most significant overseas signings that any of the Irish provinces have made in years.
With the addition of these two players, in the second-row and at inside-centre, Munster have significantly strengthed in areas which could yield real progress for Johann van Graan’s side.
Munster’s inability to break the semi-final glass ceiling or to overcome the best sides in Europe involves many different factors. But one of the biggest of these is down to size differential.
When Munster come up against bigger sides such as Saracens, Racing 92 and Leinster – they tend to be dominated up front and struggle to get over the gainline during phase play.
Snyman and De Allende will definitely assist Munster in overcoming those problems in these key areas.
Whether their influence will be enough for Munster to finally take that next step is, as of yet, unknown. But it certainly puts the southern province in one of their strongest positions to finally end their trophy drought which goes back to 2011.
With these additions, however, comes pressure. That will be another factor that the Munster squad and coaching staff will need to contend with as the season progresses.
Will Leinster continue where they left off?
When Leinster last took the field they ran in nine tries to complete a 55-19 demolition job on shell-shocked Glasgow Warriors at the RDS.
This also further added to the hype around the young Ryan Baird, who ran in a memorable hattrick to firmly announce himself on the senior scene in what was just his second start for the eastern province.
That hype will be further justified if Baird can put in a good performance against RG Snyman on Saturday night.
All teams will be going into their first games a little undercooked due to the unconventional preseason and lack of game-time since lockdown. However, it will certainly be interesting to see how close Leinster can get to their form which they displayed earlier in the season.
Leo Cullen’s side have yet to suffer a defeat in the 2019/20 campaign and this will no doubt be a major motivating factor inside the walls of their UCD base.
Nevertheless, momentum can be difficult to salvage at times but the team that Leinster have chosen certainly suggests that Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are keen to pick up where they left off.
Are Ulster the dark horses of the Irish provinces?
It seems like Ulster have been quietly going about their business as they prepare to take on Connacht on Sunday.
Dan McFarland’s side need just two points from this match to assure their place in a semi-final while they also have a Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse to look forward to.
Knockout rugby in both competitions is a very good achievement but McFarland and this squad have greater ambitions as they look to play in their first final since 2013.
They have a settled squad that is playing with confidence and they have been bolstered by the astute signings of Ian Madigan and Alby Mathewson.
Iain Henderson’s absence through injury is a significant blow, as is the loss of Robert Baloucoune, but there is enough quality in this side to see Ulster reach a Pro14 semi-final.
Arguably, Ulster’s biggest issue is consistency. McFarland and the rest of his coaching staff will be keen to rectify this but they certainly have the tools at their disposal to mount a serious challenge for silverware.
Do Connacht finally have the depth to compete?
Andy Friend has had a telling impact on Connacht since he took over as head coach at the beginning of the 2018/19 season.
The western province play an attractive brand of rugby and on their day, they have the ability to compete with the very best teams, particularly at home in Galway.
However, one of their biggest problems over the last two seasons is the drop off in experience and quality once the squad are hit with injuries.
It’s easy to sympathise with Friend once you see the extent of the injuries his squad has endured. Before Christmas, Connacht had 17 players sidelined due to injury. There are few, if not any, squads who can compete with those kinds of numbers missing.
Connacht have made some clever signings over the summer with the addition of Conor Oliver and Sammy Arnold who both come with significant senior experience alongside Alex Wootton who arrives on a season-long loan.
The additions of former Leinster young-guns Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling will also benefit the western province. Although they are young and relatively inexperienced, they come from arguably the best club environment in Europe and with huge potential.
It’s an exciting time for Connacht who have named a very strong side to face Ulster on Sunday. A win for the westerners would give them a huge confidence boost ahead of the new season which begins in October.
How long will it last?
When Munster confirmed one of their Academy players tested positive for COVID-19, it provided a stark reminder that the Irish provinces are not immune to this virus.
🗞️ SQUAD UPDATE | Munster staff and players returned to the HPC in Limerick this morning with the third scheduled routine round of PCR testing taking place.
Full details ⤵️#SUAF 🔴
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) August 17, 2020
Thankfully, the southern province acted swiftly in implementing contact-tracing and self-isolation which saw no further positive results this week.
However, with cases increasing around the country, it’s possible this won’t be the last positive case we’ll see within Irish rugby circles. How this will impact the new season, particularly when overseas travel is required, remains unknown.
All stakeholders involved in the game will be hoping the restart of the season can continue without any setbacks.