Gerry Thornley: International window could leave Irish provinces undercooked

For the likes of Leinster and Munster there aren’t enough games in the current calendar

Jack Carty has enjoyed an impressive start to the season for Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Jack Carty has enjoyed an impressive start to the season for Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The brave new, post-pandemic dawn sparked by the later start to the season, the rebranding of the United Rugby Championship and the redesigned Champions Cup comes closer into view on Tuesday morning. For the first time since the turn of the millennium the four provinces will now have a four week break just five weeks into the campaign.

Most of the coaches involved appear to have no strong views as to whether this is a positive or a negative. On the one hand they have previously complained when pitted into an unbroken 10-game programme of competitive matches at the start of each season before a fortnight’s break during the November window.

A respite is possibly more welcome for those with smaller squads, such as Connacht or injury hit ones like Ulster, than for bigger ones ala Leinster and Munster, for whom the new seasonal structure presents more minuses than plusses. There just aren’t enough games.

Back in the last full season before the pandemic, 2017-18, all the provinces were guaranteed 27 regular season matches - ie 21 in what was then the Pro14 and six pool matches in Europe. This season they are only assured 22 matches, ie 18 in the URC and four pool games in Europe, although a two-legged last-16 tie or a place in the last-16 of the Challenge Cup would make that figure rise to five or six. That is still too little.

The maximum number of competitive games for any of the provinces this season would be 30, and that would mean coming through eight knock-out games to reach both finals. Back when Leinster completed their double in 2017-18 they played 32 matches to do so.

One can understand why the organisers of the URC wanted to avoid clashes with international weekends, even if Test front-liners will not necessarily be playing more matches in this competition than was previously the case. Game management will still apply.

Headaches

But it is going to provide plenty of headaches for Leo Cullen and his assistant coaches, and their counterparts in the provinces.

For starters, there’s the need to accommodate the two-week trek to South Africa. Johan van Graan has rotated heavily but now has no games for a month before Munster resume their season with their two-week odyssey to his homeland for games away to the Bulls and Lions, then returning a week before their opening European games away to Wasps and at home to Castres.

The Munster head coach will be acutely mindful that the province took a full squad to South Africa for a two-game mini tour in April 2018 and a week later couldn’t get out of the blocks in their Champions Cup semi-final against Racing in Bordeaux.

Van Graan has said Munster will have to be creative. One imagines the bulk of their 10 Irish squad members will be excused duty from their South African safari but they daren’t afford to have players go into the Wasps tie without any game time for six weeks. Some balancing act.

By contrast, Leinster have home derbies against Connacht and Ulster, who each face the Ospreys on those two weekends, before starting their respective European campaigns.

Nevertheless, whereas the Irish provinces will play only two matches between now and then, their English and French counterparts (who have already had six and eight rounds respectively) will each keep ticking over with another four games prior to the start of the Heineken Champions Cup. The Premiership and Top 14 sides will be better primed for Europe.

Admittedly, month-long tours in Europe are just as tough on the South African sides and there is probably no ideal time for a trek there.

Ulster travel to South Africa immediately after the Six Nations, during which time they’ll have played just two games in seven weeks, and immediately prior to the two-legged round of 16 in the Champions Cup. Leinster and Connacht go there for the last two weeks in April, just after those European last-16 games and prior to potential European quarter-finals and semi-finals.

Cullen may well have to be creative and juggle his resources then too. Keeping a big squad happy has always been one of his trickier tasks but the new seasonal structures have made this more problematic for him.

While providing 18 players to the Irish squad for the next four weeks, in normal times like everyone else Leinster would have had another two games in this window to keep the remainder of their players ticking over. Instead, whereas a chunk of his squad will be doing just that against Japan, New Zealand and South Africa, the rest will be idle.

It will be a similar scenario during the seven-week window for the Six Nations, when the provinces will play two rather than the customary four matches.

Ah, but a reduced workload for players should be welcomed, not least with player welfare in mind? Hmm.

Outhalves

Players train to play matches, not to sit watch them on the TV. Take, as an example, the Irish outhalves on duty over the last weekend. Ross Byrne was exceptional in orchestrating Leinster’s 31-15 bonus point win away to Glasgow, and landing five from five as usual. Jack Carty has reveled in regular game time (five starts and 387 minutes to date) and captaining Connacht so assuredly against Munster and Ulster.

Jack Crowley showed some lovely touches in a belated first start while Billy Burns had an uncomfortable evening with little in the way of go-forward ball and in the face of Connacht’s intense defence, being picked off twice for intercept tries.

By contrast, the three outhalves in the Irish squad, Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne had their feet up over the weekend. Carty and the older Byrne have been in better form than the latter two this season but clearly Andy Farrell and Mike Catt believe Carbery and Harry Byrne have the higher ceilings.

Yet not having games over the next month, and a reduced number of matches overall, will add to the frustrations of Carty and Ross Byrne. The latter has averaged over 23 games per year for province and country over the last four seasons. Maybe that will be maintained. Maybe, through little fault of his own, it won’t.

Carty is 29, Ross Byrne is 26. Goal-kicking outhalves are a prized commodity. Each outhalf, like a vast swathe of others who signed one-year deals, is out of contract at the end of this season.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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