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At halfway mark, 4 provinces contend for knockout stages

That said, Irish rugby is in such a state of rude health with every pan-European trophy at international and club level resting on home sideboards at the moments, so there is every reason to expect even more success as 2010 gets under way.

Given their limited resources, Connacht's achievement in beating Montpellier in France, and then doing the double over English Premiership club, Worcester, to leave them within touching distance of a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup is on a par with Munster's astonishing demolition of Perpignan in the European Cup proper last month.

Leinster, meanwhile, have recovered from their first-day glitch against London Irish and are now right in the shake-up for qualification, Munster have taken control of their pool, and although Ulster are on the back foot following two defeats, a strong finish over the next fortnight could still see them win one of the three spots in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals now available for the European Cup teams ranked between ninth and 11th at the end of the pool stages. Halfway through the season, and all four provinces remain in contention for the knockout stages of the European competitions.

From a position where their challenge appeared to be withering on the vine, Munster are currently best-placed to reach the business end for the 12th season in a row. Armed with a simple, although incredibly demanding, game plan, they blew Perpignan away with one of the best sustained performances in the history of the tournament.

So after several months of a scrum in reverse, an inconsistent line-out, a back division which lacked a cutting edge, and an out-half who was struggling to kick his goals, Munster proved emphatically what they're capable of.

That bonus-point triumph, as outstanding as it was unexpected, has now cleared the path to the quarter-finals. The result in Treviso on Saturday isn't a formality - the Italians shocked a complacent Perpignan at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo and then only lost 21-18 to Northampton - but any class of a victory will do, setting up a likely winner-take-all game against Northampton at Thomond on Friday week.

All the same, the postponement of their Celtic League game against the Scarlets as well as the current injury situation haven't exactly done them any favors. Neither Jerry Flannery nor Marcus Horan will start against Treviso, so Wian du Preez will get another shot at loose head with either Denis Fogarty or the impressive Damien Varley in the middle of the front row.

Enigmatic as they've been this season, it's hard to see Munster messing up now with qualification firmly in their grip. Although much can change before the knockout stages in April, they've been reminded that the last two clubs before them to win in Perpignan in Europe competition - Leicester and Wasps - went on to win the European Cup in those years. Captain, Paul O'Connell, accepted that everything could turn around with one big game, but he wasn't looking to Leicester or Wasps as the current market leaders. "Beating Perpignan was a great achievement, but we've a long way to go to be up to Leinster's standard."

If that's the last you'll hear of O'Connell referencing rivals Leinster for a while, take it that there's nothing he and his teammates would relish more than another European showdown with the reigning champions. For their part, Leinster have more of a hurdle to jump before reaching the last eight. Currently level with London Irish at the top of Pool Four, Leinster will make all the right noises about the securing a win first and foremost, but a bonus point could well be crucial when the numbers are crunched after the final game against London Irish at Twickenham.

It is conceivable that both teams could qualify, but Leinster's target of two more wins would see them guaranteed a home quarter-final. The good news is that Brive's poor performances in the tournament to date has seen them turn their attention to the French league, so they'll hardly be foaming at the mouth when they get to the RDS.

Meanwhile, there have been plenty of signs of late that Ulster are re-emerging as a force. The burgeoning talents of Chris Henry, Jamie Smith, Jonny Shiels and Willie Faloon have compensated for the, hopefully, temporary dip in Darren Cave's upward curve, while the likes of Ian Humphreys and Andrew Trimble have found the sort of form that makes them Ireland contenders once more.

Coach Brian McLaughlin needs Paddy Wallace to recover from an ankle problem, plus he needs wins over Edinburgh and Bath as well as a Stade Francais implosion at Murrayfield in round six to have any hope of reaching the quarter-finals. If that scenario is far-fetched, two wins without the Stade cock-up would almost certainly secure Ulster a place in the Challenge Cup last eight, and that would represent progress.

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