Ireland is enjoying a satisfyingly steadily upward trajectory in the world of Test rugby and following their Six Nations Grand Slam this month, Joe Schmidt’s side has overtaken England as the closest rival to New Zealand’s rugby dominion.
The nature of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign was one of control, accuracy and authority, featuring a lethal cutting edge often lamented as lacking in recent seasons.
Such was their superiority this spring that the much-touted tussle with England at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day was all but over by half-time.
A clinical and irrepressible, almost All Black-like, performance from the visitors rocked their English hosts in a manner not seen for many years.
Ireland delivered champagne rugby on their way to a third Six Nations title in five years but now, with their exploits consigned to the history books, the resulting hangover has the potential to be rather brutal.
The conclusion of the international Test series sees a return of the Champions Cup on Easter weekend, with the small matter of the quarter-finals to be played.
As Scarlets welcome La Rochelle and Clermont Auvergne host Racing 92, Irish eyes are looking at Munster’s massive clash with Toulon and Leinster’s similarly difficult contest with Saracens.
Between them, these four European giants own ten of the last 12 titles, from the days of the Heineken Cup through to today’s rebranded Champions Cup and the expectation is for two mammoth encounters.
From their group stage form, Leinster have long been the favourites to secure the title and join Toulouse as four-time winners of club rugby’s top prize.
For Munster, their endeavours to emulate the feats of the dominant side from the late 2000’s continues and their home advantage at the weekend gives the provincial side a massive boost, even against an in-form Toulon.
Now, however, as the sides sharpen their focus on the battles that now loom large, both provinces are counting the costs of Ireland’s Six Nations heroics.
Leinster boss Leo Cullen learned early in the tournament that he would be without Robbie Henshaw for the remainder of the season.
An unfortunate shoulder injury suffered while scoring his fourth international try during their clash with Italy saw the talented centre head for season-ending surgery.
Joining Josh van der Flier, who damaged knee ligaments against France on the opening weekend, has company on the sidelines for the next few months.
Add this to the worrying sight of Tadhg Furlong leaving the field early with a hamstring complaint and suddenly Cullen was facing a real injury crisis that already included the likes of Sean O’Brien and Rhys Ruddock.
Luckily, Furlong returned for Ireland’s clash with Scotland and is back to his world-beating best.
For Munster, the Six Nations campaign was equally abrasive as recently appointed head coach Johann Van Grann must plan for the massive clash with Toulon without his monster centre Chris Farrell and in-form winger Keith Earls.
Farrell, who replaced Henshaw in Ireland’s centre in a Man of the Match performance against Wales, damaged his knee in training ahead of the clash with Scotland and will now play no further part in Munster’s PRO14 and Champions Cup campaigns.
Joining him on the sidelines for the next six weeks or so is Keith Earls, who hurt his knee late on in Ireland’s victory over England.
The explosive winger is out of the clash with Toulon and is not set to return until on or about the time of the final, should the province be involved.
Adding this pair to the list of already injured names that include Chris Cloete, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andrew Conway and the injured again Tommy O’Donnell, Van Graan has been left with a far from ideal situation ahead of the visit of the Top 14 side.
While both provinces can look forward to the return of their international heroes, from Rob Kearney to Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray to CJ Stander, the losses they have endured over the last seven weeks have the potential to cost both sides dearly in the coming days.
Leinster’s opponents Saracens are suffering their own injury problems, with Owen Farrell and George Kruis in a race to prove their fitness for the weekend, news that will certainly temper the concerns of Leinster fans.
For Munster, however, the sight of Toulon decimating Clermont at the weekend will do nothing to ease the fears of the Thomond faithful ahead of their clash on Saturday.
At this point of the competition, there is no room for weakness or ‘off days’. It’s Champion Cup quarter-final time and those who are fit best be ready to stand up and be counted.