The Irish provinces enjoyed their best weekend since the formation of the European Rugby Champions Cup in 2014.
Victories for Leinster and Munster ensured their passage into the quarter-finals, and home draws must surely await as the Irish powerhouses face the already knocked out Castres and Racing 92 respectively in the final round of pool games.
Although Connacht sit at the top of pool 2, they must at least claim a losing bonus point against Toulouse if the westerns are to progress.
Connacht’s situation could have become far more complicated if the French side had maintained their concentration in the Ricoh Arena, and pulled off an unlikely triumph over Wasps.
However, as it stands, 19 points might be enough for Connacht to force their way into the last eight, and possibly set themselves up with an interprovincial derby against Leinster.
Ulster are the only Irish side out of contention at this point. Although the northern province did create some nice scores, they couldn’t deal with the Exeter Chiefs’ power.
Nevertheless, for Irish rugby as a whole, the prospect of having three teams in the quarter-finals is something to get excited about as the Six Nations nears.
Indeed, if the Glasgow Warriors can claim a win at Welford Road against the Leicester Tigers, then the Pro12 might even supply 50% of the quarter-final line-up. That would be something to cheer about after the disappointment of last season.
Made a number of huge carries against Glasgow as Munster looked to outmuscle their opponents in Scotstoun. Did well to also recover from the early pressure Zander Fagerson applied at scrum time.
Showed some lovely touches in attack when freeing up teammates off either shoulder. Has kicked on since making his international debut, and will contend with Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin for a place on the Irish bench.
The Six Nations can’t come fast enough for Tadhg Furlong, who only adds to his growing reputation each week.
Based on the stats, it would have been easy to fill a selection such as this with Connacht players. However, Cannon did have a good day in the second row, offering himself as a ball carrier throughout the game.
Never a flashy player, Donnacha Ryan simply doesn’t stop working, tackling and putting pressure on opponents in the air. Didn’t do too much in attack against Glasgow, but was ever present in defence.
Had CJ Stander not been so dominant during the St. Stephen’s Day derby between Munster and Leinster, Jack Conan may well have stolen the headlines.
Nevertheless, good things come to those who wait, and Conan was brilliant on Friday night.
For some time now Jack O’Donogue has been earmarked for greatness by Munster observers, but the 23-year-old has a tough task breaking into what is a hugely competitive back row.
However, if O’Donogue maintains the kind of levels he illustrated against Glasgow, then the Waterford native will ask some big questions.
Despite giving away a penalty for which he had to literally kiss and make up for with Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander put himself about during Munster’s physical encounter with Glasgow.
As has become customary, Stander made more meters than any of his teammates with 39.
Despite being targeted at every opportunity by the Glasgow Warriors pack, Conor Murray was able to dictate the pace of the game, and brilliantly deployed his deadly box kick throughout the encounter.
Special mention must go to David Shanahan, who showed that Ulster may have a scrum-half to repalce Ruan Pieenar at the end of the season.
It may have only been Zebre, but John Cooney still had to play in a position in which he is not accustomed.
Nevertheless, the 26-year-old didn’t look out of place, and led his team to 10 tries.
Ulster don’t really have the ballast to dominate teams up front, and have become almost too reliant on Charles Piutau to cross the gain line in recent weeks.
Indeed, outside of Iain Henderson, Ulster do not have the weapons to attack teams around the fringes, something that has cost them this season.
If they did, just imagine how dangerous Piutau would then become.
After recovering from injury, Stuart McCloskey is beginning to find some form for Ulster, and running amuck when given the opportunity.
His break and offload in the lead up to Ulster’s first try demonstrates the qualities he brings.
Although it got very easy for Leinster after Frans Steyn was sent off midway through the first half, Gary Ringrose did show some moments of quality under pressure.
Took his try well and was physical in defence. Should retain his place in the Irish midfield for the Six Nations.
Added to his growing reputation with another quality performance against Montpellier. Demonstrated his raw power, pace and no little vision to link up with Jack Conan before touching down for Leinster’s third try of the game.
Byrne must be close to being included in the Ireland squad.
It looks as though Rob Kearney will no longer be an automatic selection for Ireland at full-back. Whereas at one time he faced little competition for the number 15 jersey, the Leinster player now has a number of challengers for the role.
Not least from Tiernan O’Halloran, who scored two tries and was collected the man of the match award for his performance against Zebre. Whether or not the Connacht fullback will displace Kearney is another question, but he is certainly showing form.
<strong>Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena</strong>
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