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Gordon D’Arcy: Irish provinces take ‘less is more’ approach with top players as schedule intensifies

Coaches must perform tricky balancing acts as matches build up

The pursuit of the perfect fixture schedule is a utopia that the rugby community may never discover given the vested interests. Trying to harmonise a global season has proved beyond the reach of World Rugby for quite some time now, which is especially telling given that it’s been a stated goal.

Instead, it continues to be left to the hemispheres to come up with a fixture list that best caters for the disparate interests. In the northern hemisphere that means domestic leagues in France, England, and the United Rugby Championship (URC), which ministers to Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Italian and South African interests.

And then there’s Europe, the Champions and Challenge Cups, purportedly the blue-riband tournament, albeit that it is a subjective view that varies from club to club. The URC is currently acting as a bridging platform between the close of the Autumn Nations series and the start of European competition the weekend after next.

A decision was taken to refine the URC schedule so that matches would not take place during the international windows of November and in the match weeks of the Six Nations. The thinking was that clubs would be able to use smaller squads and that the URC would have an enhanced appeal because marquee players would play more often.


There was nothing wrong with the theory, but the practice is slightly different. Clubs put a premium on winning home matches over trying to be competitive across every game. That trade-off in ambition was very evident last weekend in the selection decisions taken by Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh.

While a young Leinster side might have been slightly flattered by a 40-5 margin of victory, they were worth the win against a Glasgow side that decided to rest many of their international contingent. Likewise, Edinburgh had one eye on Munster travelling to the Scottish capital this weekend when choosing the team beaten by Benetton.

Clubs are obviously free to pursue whatever selection strategy best suits their resources and the Irish provinces fully subscribe to the ‘less is more’ view for their top players. The result is that there will be just a handful of matches in which teams will be fully loaded in the URC despite the best intentions of the organisers in tweaking the fixture schedule.

Home advantage was worth about 18 points last weekend and only Cardiff bucked that trend with a phenomenal 35-point shutout against the Sharks in Durban. It will be interesting to note how many victories there were on the road for the teams that make the playoffs.

Connacht’s determined late surge at Thomond Park highlighted one or two weaknesses that Munster are going to have to shake off if they are to make the desired progress over the remainder of the season.

There is no doubting the improvement in style and substance, of late, under Graham Rowntree – helped by that win over South Africa A in Cork – and his coaching team and the green shoots are visible, illustrating what might be possible through continued development of the playing group. However, it’s still a little bit off judging by the clunkiness of the win over Connacht.

Striking a balance between winning and development in terms of playing patterns can be tricky but Munster need to master it quickly if they are to turn their season around in the URC but also try to guarantee a bright start to their European campaign against Toulouse at Thomond Park on Sunday week.

When Joey Carbery or Jack Crowley glided through the Connacht defence, or that offload from John Hodnett put Antoine Frisch away, they were unable to convert these positive attacking moments into direct scores. That must change.

Connacht were able to regather, albeit conceding penalties, from which Munster punished them through their driving maul. So, what’s the difference in that they did score tries? When a team starts to develop an attacking shape, the natural evolution in its most simplistic form is that creates line breaks, which in turn leads to tries.

Rowntree’s hope is that Munster will finish off more opportunities without an overreliance on the lineout maul to overpower teams. That’s great in itself, but there must be a greater breadth of try-scoring methods to be successful.

In Europe there is generally less scope to bully teams physically so the broader the attacking options, the more difficult it is for the opposition. A try that is scored or created from open play is much more valuable to the belief within a squad. It’s chastening for the opposition.

I can assure you that when you are given the runaround by a top team it feels like chasing shadows and quickly becomes dispiriting if it’s reflected on the scoreboard. It’s a very simple equation: when you are on top, score points, as that quickly erodes the confidence of the opposition. It is very hard to turn off that tap in a match.

It is a trait that Leinster have displayed in most matches over the past few years to such an extent that there is surprise when they do not take five points from nearly every match.

Since Dan McFarland has taken over at Ulster, they too have been adept at delivering bonus point wins with many of their home matches yielding five points. The knock-on effect has seen them as playoff regulars and earning home advantage, too.

This weekend they’ll have to do it on the road as they make the relatively short journey to Dublin. The result won’t impact either teams’ qualification ambitions unduly, but it will certainly feed the wolf that exists within an Ulster’s player mind.

For those who research the mental side of sport, there is a story about the two wolves that coexist in your mind, one that represents belief and positivity while the other is the dark and negative side of the personality.

It’s a ceaseless battle but in any given contest ‘the wolf that wins is the wolf that you feed’. In Ulster’s case this week, they have consistently fallen short in clutch matches, and several have been against Leinster.

At some point they will need to change the narrative around beating Leinster in a match that matters. Off the back of two out of three wins recently there is a question around the strength of the teams that Leinster fielded. There shouldn’t be any such riders on the basis of the sides that will take the field in the RDS this weekend.

Ulster should be buoyed by returning internationals and a mustard keen Iain Henderson looking to make up for time lost to injury. While Leinster will be missing a couple of individuals, they should field their strongest team available.

A primary focus will be who wears the 10 jersey. It is ‘needs must’ and Leinster will need Johnny Sexton more in Le Havre on Saturday week when they take on Racing 92. Ross Byrne, fresh from his match winning exploits for Ireland against Australia, proved a very capable deputy against Glasgow.

His younger brother Harry got through 40-minutes following his lay-off from injury, so the merry-go-round of fit number 10s might continue; will Leo Cullen view the Ulster match as an opportunity for Harry to deliver a performance that saw him fast tracked to the national team just 12 months ago?

There is little doubt that the bigger concerns are in midfield, where Robbie Henshaw and Ciaran Frawley are out until the new year and Charlie Ngatai could also be absent if he’s laid low by the shoulder issue that forced him to retire at halftime against Glasgow.

The weakness may not be fully exposed by Ulster this week, as this match is likely to be decided up front. However, with Racing 92 on the horizon, there will need to be some quick thinking about who partners Gary Ringrose. The Byrne axis at 10/12 never really got off the ground. If Ngatai fails to recover, Jamie Osborne could demonstrate his versatility in linking up with Ringrose.

Leinster and Ulster’s rivalry has usurped that of Leinster and Munster but to push it a stage further McFarland’s squad will need to decide which wolf they plan on feeding; the physiological battle of winning against Leinster has already begun. The gap in talent has closed between the two squads, but I think Leinster still hold an advantage over their rivals mentally.

It promises to be a very interesting weekend of matches, but particularly those in Dublin and Edinburgh.