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Leinster box clever when it comes to their box-office stars - and it pays off in Europe

The IRFU’s player-management system is loathed abroad and for one very good reason. It gives Irish sides a competitive advantage.

Leinster are rested, fresh and ready.
Leinster are rested, fresh and ready.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

THERE IS AN unwritten rule when it comes to the Gallagher Premiership, the Top 14, and the URC. If you are English or French, you talk your league up. If you are Irish, Welsh or Scottish, you talk your one down.

But not every league is as perfect as it seems. The Top 14 could soon become a top three; Toulouse, La Rochelle and Racing 92 finishing first, second and third last season, Toulouse, La Rochelle and Racing the teams keeping Leinster company in this year’s Champions Cup semi-finals.

The thing you’ll notice from that European shortlist is the absence of any English side, a trend we have seen before. There were three French sides and one Irish team in last year’s Champions Cup semi-finals, the 2018 semis being another Premiership-free zone, the 2011/12 season a fourth example.

In fact since Northampton were beaten by Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final, just four English sides, Saracens (seven times), Exeter, Leicester and Wasps (once each) have reached the last four with five teams – Edinburgh, Scarlets, Ulster, Leinster and Munster – flying the URC/Pro14’s flag across the same timeframe.

Not that this makes the URC (United Rugby Championship) a better league. Anyone who has a pair of eyes and the ability to tell the truth will correctly point out the Premiership has more depth (no Zebre or Dragons).

In the English club scene, there is more chance of fans seeing the team’s stars on a weekly basis, a habit that keeps the punter happy but leaves their teams vulnerable to European ambushes, like the one Leicester ran into last weekend against Leinster. One side was weary, the other fresh. In rugby, freshness always comes out on top.

nemani-nadolo-is-tackled-by-caelan-doris-and-hugo-keenan Leicester were chopped down by Leinster. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Consider this. So far in 2021/22 campaign Leinster has had 17 URC games, six European ones. Still, despite the disparity in fixtures, only four of Leo Cullen’s starting XV for tomorrow’s game have chalked up more appearances in the URC than the Champions Cup. Despite this, Leinster are assured of a number one seeding when the URC play-offs begin next month.

That tells you three things. One, they’ve a superb squad; two, their coaches are clever at the art of mixing and matching and thirdly, they can get away with a policy of rest and rotation because the URC just isn’t as testing a place as the Premiership or Top 14.

When it was first created, the Celtic League was an answer to a lot of headaches for the IRFU. In those days, they needed their internationals to get regular action in between the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup. In effect, it was a fill-the-gap kind of competition.

It has a lot more credibility now but even so anyone who tries to tell you that the presence of so many middling teams isn’t beneficial to Leinster’s European ambitions is either blind or a liar.

And here’s how. Prior to their Champions Cup quarter-final last Saturday, Leinster had a double date in South Africa, against the Sharks and the Stormers, two fine sides, each of whom will be appearing in the URC play-offs. The Leinster first team didn’t travel south of the equator; their second team did, the top-earners staying at base camp to finalise their prep work for Leicester. The Tigers, across those weekends, faced off against Harlequins and Bristol in the Premiership.

Ultimately the softer itinerary worked in Leinster’s favour as Leicester’s starting XV last Saturday averaged 20.42 club games this season whereas the Leinster average was 10.1. Out of those starters, only their two uncapped players, Molony and O’Brien, have played more than 12 games for the province this term.

ross-molony Ross Molony has featured a lot this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For Leo Cullen, for Stuart Lancaster, and the entire Leinster coaching staff, it is a constant tightrope they have to walk between keeping their players fresh rather than idle. They have learned how to balance.

What helps is the fact that the Irish team is top-heavy with Leinster players these days, 11 appearing in the starting XV for three of this year’s Six Nations matches, a practice that not only prevents ring-rust but also exposes their players to competitive action at a higher level.


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Tomorrow’s opponents, Toulouse, also rotate their squad a fair bit; they too have a number of starters in the French national side – nine were involved against Ireland in February, hence why Shane Horgan likened tomorrow’s European semi-final to a sequel of that titanic test in February.

There is one significant difference, though.

Toulouse’s players have had significantly busier seasons than Leinster’s – averaging 100-more game-minutes this season compared to the Irish province.

What’s more, the Toulouse cause isn’t helped by the fact the Top 14 has a 26 rather than an 18-game regular season, or by the fact that the threat of relegation forces the league’s weaker sides to put up a fight. “It’s the toughest league in the world,” said Racing’s Finn Russell, a player who has featured in both the URC and Europe.

It probably is but toughness over the course of a season won’t make a difference in a one-off game. If anything, Leinster’s ability to rotate their players to frequently and so successfully should aid their cause. They’ve timed their run to peak now because they’ve been able to. When it comes to Europe, as far as Leinster are concerned, the comparative weakness of the URC is a strength.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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