Gerry Thornley: These are the fruits of Irish youth programme
Provinces place far greater trust in youngsters to help them punch above their weight
Adam Byrne celebrates his try against Toulouse with Leinster teammate’s Jordan Larmour and Josh van der Flier Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
For only the second time in the competition’s history there could be five Pro14 clubs in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Champions Cup.
No doubt this will prompt the usual Anglo-French bleatings about there being no relegation in the Pro14 as the primary reason for this. But the penny may have started to drop that the reasons go deeper than that.
Dimitri Yachvili, the former Biarritz and France scrum-half with the spindly legs and deadly left boot, was in the RDS last Saturday as a television analyst with beIN Sport.
On foot of Leinster’s 29-13 bonus point win, Yachvili admitted that the French clubs have fallen behind their Pro14 rivals. The “restrictive” game which most of the clubs adhere to is enough to shine in the Top 14 but, he believes, the French do not look at what is being done elsewhere.
In the Pro14, he maintains, the games are faster, the intensity is higher and sequences of play are longer. Despite less financial resources than the French clubs, Yachvili has come to the view that Celtic teams are a couple of steps ahead in their thinking on the game.
He notes that whereas there were no Celtic teams in the knockout stages three seasons ago, there were three two seasons ago and again last season, which could now rise to five after next weekend’s final round of pool matches.
Admittedly, none of them are there yet. As things stand, Munster, Ulster and Leinster all need to win, at home to Exeter, away to Leicester and away to Wasps, to nail down qualification.
But this could be the third time this decade, following on from the 2011-12 (when accompanied by Edinburgh and Cardiff) and 2013-14 seasons, when all three advance.
In those campaigns Connacht also competed in the Heineken Champions Cup but failed to qualify, so if they were to beat Bordeaux on Saturday and reach the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup, it would be the first time all four advanced.
Conceivably, Scotland could provide two quarter-finalists for the first time ever. By contrast, there may only be one or two French teams, although there could be three if Montpellier win away to Edinburgh.
After the Premiership provided five quarter-finalists three seasons ago, as was the case last year Saracens may be the only English team in the last eight, although Exeter are still in the mix too.
But Leinster probably possess the healthiest strength in depth in Europe, and all their replacements had plenty of experience
That the Pro14 could well be the bulk suppliers for the knock-out stages is no surprise to Yachvili. The Pro14 is generally played at a higher tempo, he believes, with more elaborate strike plays, and individual technique is superior to that of the Top 14.
It’s good to hear an leading ex-French international with a voice say such things. So, not for the first time in these pages, let’s hear it for the Guinness Pro14, and specifically the Irish provinces.
There’s been a few occasions too many this year when some Pro14 coaches have sent notably under-strength teams for away fixtures, notably against Leinster and Munster, but the rugby is of an unappreciated quality.
The Welsh regions, it’s true, have taken a backward step, especially the Scarlets. So too the Cheetahs.
But Treviso and Zebre have improved significantly in the last two seasons. Zebre may not compete for the play-offs, but they play the enterprising brand of rugby Yachvili talks about.
Christmas time quality
Few games have underlined the quality of the Pro14, and the Irish provinces, than some of the derbies over Christmas. The Leinster-Connacht, Munster-Leinster and Connacht-Munster were truly high quality affairs.
In addition to the prevailing quality of rugby in the Pro14, Yachvili added, the Pro14 clubs make the Heineken Champions Cup their priority and, granted, the last point undoubtedly has some validity.
Each of the provincial coaching staffs plot for blocks of the season, with management of player minutes (meticulously overseen from on high) designed to enable them to be fully loaded with frontliners come the return to European action.
It’s striking to note that last weekend’s Irish four-timer in round five, emulated an unbeaten round one (when Munster drew away against Exeter) and the four wins in round three as well.
The return to Europe has found all four provinces primed and ready, albeit round two should serve as a cautionary tale, when three of the four lost.
Furthermore, for all the plotting, Leinster were still handicapped by injuries to a host of experienced internationals in Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney, as well as James Lowe. That’s almost half their normal starting team.
But Leinster probably possess the healthiest strength in depth in Europe, and all their replacements had plenty of experience at this level, even the relatively younger ones such as Ross Byrne (23), Rory O’Loughlin (24) and Jordan Larmour (21).
They have already accumulated 61, 53 and 32 caps for Leinster, and for Byrne (who started both European wins over Montpellier last season as well as the Pro14 semi-final win over Munster) this was a 14th Champions Cup appearance, an eighth for O’Loughlin and an 11th for Larmour.
England are regular finalists in the Under-20 World Cup and France won it last year, but their clubs seem compelled to play more expensively assembled players, often brought in from abroad.
With the exception of Toulouse again of late, the Irish provinces place a far greater trust in young players. Meantime, the investment in Joey Carbery has been augmented by player movement, and is already reaping a rich dividend.
It’s why it’s not the end of the world if a provincial team in the Pro14 is not stacked with stellar names. It’s partly why the provinces punch way above their financial weight in Europe, and why Ireland do so as well internationally.
There’s the odd complaint out there when provincial teams are less than fully loaded, especially for derby games, but by and large most of us are with the programme now.
It’s working too.