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Gordon D’Arcy: All four provinces have the opportunity for a proper crack at the URC

Leinster stand alone in Europe but for Munster, Ulster and Connacht there is precious little wriggle room for further missteps

The ongoing issues with the Champions Cup format may never be resolved, but what perhaps mitigates the frustration a little is whether we can live with the less desirable parts of the tournament when we get to enjoy the quality of rugby offered across three of last weekend’s quarter-finals.

There are, in no particular order, clearly scheduling problems, logistics and travel issues but those have been there since the start of the competition back in 1995 when Toulouse defeated Farul Constanta 54-10 in the first ever pool match. Teams have regularly checked out when it hasn’t suited them to prioritise Europe over domestic league interests.

A couple of years ago it looked to all intents and purposes that a number of French and English clubs were taking a share of the money for playing in Europe and not bothering unduly to try to qualify from the pool stages.

The latest example of a club prioritising something other than European competition was highlighted by the Bulls’ decision to send a weakened side to contest the quarter-final against the Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens, a choice that has drawn an EPCR investigation.


Before departing for England, Bulls head coach Jake White made it clear that he would be leaving a host of frontline Springbok Test players at home, the inference being that the upcoming United Rugby Championship (URC) fixtures against Munster and the Ospreys in the coming weeks were a priority and therefore more important to the South African club.

There is an obvious frustration with the decision, especially when considering the quality of rugby played across the other quarter-finals but also the fact that many clubs would have coveted a place in the knockout phase.

It is not a new phenomenon, but it is, arguably, the first time we have seen it laid bare in such a blatant manner for a playoff game. There is one caveat with a bold decision like this in that there is now a huge expectation that the Bulls make the final of the URC. Deciding to compete in one competition at the expense of another is placing all the eggs in one basket, a venture with considerable risk.

Leinster have regularly faced this criticism over the past number of years in heavily rotating their squad for South African trips and focusing on the Champions Cup. The upshot and the patent lack of success that ensued has put that approach under the microscope; this season will be no different.

Leinster can bask in the afterglow of a hard-fought win over La Rochelle in Europe but gone are the days where they can afford to drop points over the next few weeks in the URC. The table is tight at the top and Leo Cullen’s men need to return home with some points from their two-match trip to South Africa.

The URC format rewards the teams that finish first and second in the league stage of the tournament with home advantage through the knockout phase. That is what the Bulls are focused on with three games on their own patch and a local derby with the Sharks. They want to be in position to pounce if Leinster – the Bulls are nine points behind – drop points in South Africa.

Glasgow Warriors are Leinster’s closest pursuers in the table but there are more than a handful of teams jockeying for the best seat when the league morphs into the playoff phase. There are no laurels to rest on, just because of what a team did in Europe, when it comes to the URC run-in. The other three Irish provinces have plenty to focus on, albeit from different starting points in terms of current form.

Munster will reflect that, despite the ravages of illness, they gave Northampton a proper rattle in the Round of 16, much more so than the ‘Bulls-lite,’ who they face in Pretoria on Saturday afternoon, did when losing to the Saints.

Graham Rowntree’s team need to harness that frustration and build it into the fabric of their performance in challenging conditions, 30 degrees and the altitude of Loftus Versfeld.

RG Snyman should return and that will have a significant bearing on Munster’s offloading and by extension attacking prowess. Room in the starting team needs to be found for Thomas Ahern, a standout performer this season.

Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett, Peter O’Mahony, Alex Kendellen and a fit-again Jack O’Donoghue, there’s plenty of competition. Coaches crave these selection headaches; the art form is getting them right.

Connacht and Ulster both have a realistic chance of qualification but their form has been wildly erratic. There is some empathy for what is going on up north as a coach change during a season is rarely a positive experience.

Just before Michael Cheika was appointed, Leinster struggled to find a coach that was the right fit at the right time. Gary Ella had a brilliant vision of how to play the game, but his liberal attitude wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Declan Kidney’s turn came and went as everyone realised quickly it wasn’t a good fit. Performances and results in any group generally require a certain level of harmony.

Connacht can’t point to off field disruptions yet the contrast in their performances have been stark. There is a solid group of players there but the consistency levels in performance terms aren’t right. Judged by the same yardstick as other Irish teams, there is significant room for improvement.

They have shown in fits and starts that they can play to a high standard, something that makes their capitulation against Benetton last weekend all the more disappointing. There are some big matches on the horizon for both teams, they are now playing to make up for some lost ground at other stages in the season.

Leinster stand alone in Europe, but all four provinces have the opportunity for a proper crack at the URC, albeit that there is very little wriggle room for missteps from here on in.