Although there existed the possibility of all four Irish provinces qualifying for the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals prior to round five, only Munster and Leinster ultimately made it into the last eight.
Ulster fans will no doubt rue the fact that their side came away from Bordeaux Begles empty handed. The northern province led 13-9 with six minutes remaining in the south of France but conspired to lose 28-13.
This left them facing an uphill task of qualifying from a pool that also included the free-scoring Clermont Auvergne. Indeed, Ulster’s fate hung by a thread for most of the pool phase.
Only for a memorable Paddy Jackson drop goal against the Exeter Chiefs, Ulster’s campaign could have all but come to an end after the second round.
Despite a brilliant effort and two famous wins over Wasps and Toulouse, injuries finally caught up with Connacht. Pat Lam’s side showed little fear as they unleashed their attacking brand of rugby on Europe’s premier club competition.
Had Bundee Aki been available Connacht’s round six clash against Toulouse, then Pat Lam’s side may have claimed a deserved quarter-final spot.
In the end though, only Ireland’s traditional superpowers managed to qualify for the last eight. Both Munster and Leinster dominated their pools to secure home quarter-finals, and both teams will be confident of overcoming Toulouse and Wasps recpectively to reach the semis.
[tie_slide]1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
Handed the opportunity to start ahead of Jack McGrath, and carried well against a fired up Castres team.
[tie_slide]2. Niall Scannell (Munster)
Niall Scannell might not provide Munster with flashy moments, but he is consistent. Threw well from the touchline, and was part of a dominant front row at scrum time.
[tie_slide]3. John Ryan (Munster)
Destroyed the highly rated Eddy Ben Arous at scrum time on a number of occasions. Ryan has come of age this season after coming out from behind BJ Botha’s shadow.
[tie_slide]4. Ross Molony (Leinster)
Made 18 tackles before being replaced by Mike McCarthy as the game edged toward a conclusion. Although it may not have been Molony’s best day in the loose, he put himself about when necessary.
[tie_slide]5. Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
Another immense display from Donnacha Ryan. Seemed to pop up everywhere in defence and was hugely competitive against Racing’s throw.
[tie_slide]6. Jack Conan (Leinster)
Another massive performance from Jack Conan, who has hit form just as Joe Schmidt is set to name his Ireland squad. Made 65 meters in attack, and was relentless in defence with 17 tackles.
Special mention to John Mudoon, who was also excellent for Connacht.
[tie_slide]7. Tommy O’Donnell (Munster)
Not the best weekend for Irish open side flankers, Josh van der Flier was replaced by Dan Leavy for Leinster, Chris Henry struggled to stem the Bordeaux tide in Belfast and Jake Heenhan was guilty of giving away a soft penalty against Toulouse.
It leaves Tommy O’Donnell, who was quieter than usual for Munster.
[tie_slide]8. CJ Stander (Munster)
Who else could you pick at number eight?
[tie_slide]9. Conor Murray (Munster)
If Conor Murray plays well, so do Munster. Joe Schmidt must be delighted the scrum half has survived the physical challenges he faced in recent weeks.
[tie_slide]10. Jack Carthy (Connacht)
Always looked dangerous in possession. Straightened the line when Connacht needed direction, while also putting in some lovely touch finders in behind Toulouse.
Has flourished under the guidance of Pat Lam.
[tie_slide]11. Ronan O’Mahony (Munster)
Took his try well by diving early, always a danger with ball in hand against Racing.
[tie_slide]12. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
Scored two tries against Castres and looked to threaten when given the opportunity. Made 93 meters in a tough encounter and took on a leadership role when Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa were forced off.
[tie_slide]13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
Attacked with intent throughout Leinster’s encounter, beating seven defenders with some tidy footwork.
[tie_slide]14. Adam Byrne (Leinster)
A player who has shot to prominence during the last few months, and according to Will Greenwood, is now a contender for the Lions.
Beats the excellent Andrew Conway for a place on the wing.
[tie_slide]15. Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht)
With Rob Kearney’s place in the Irish team now under threat, Tiernan O’Halloran has become a real contender for the fullback’s jersey.
Armed with a wicked turn of pace, O’Halloran can provide Ireland with a real attacking option from the back field.
In this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, we speak to the Pro12 Communications Manager Adam Redmond, who outlines how the league will evolve in the coming seasons.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena