Gordon D’Arcy: No URC games during international window hit Leinster the hardest

Ulster’s James Hume capitalised on sluggish hosts to outduel both Henshaw and Frawley

 

It seems a rugby lifetime ago to the first five rounds of the United Rugby Championship (URC) with the last game in that block taking place a week before the end of October.

At that point Leinster were unbeaten coming off a fine win in Glasgow, Connacht thumped Ulster at the Aviva stadium and Munster lost for the first time, away to the Ospreys. Players then came together in the form of Ireland to produce a memorable Autumn Nations Series before returning to their provincial colours.

Five weeks is a pretty long time to go without much or in some cases any competitive rugby and there was always going to be a level of uncertainty in how rusty in a match context the provinces would be returning from that break. The short answer is that there was a significant discrepancy between their respective performances.

Connacht were superb, playing brilliant rugby in atrocious conditions to beat the Ospreys. A well-drilled Ulster team were more dominant winners than the final score-line suggested at the RDS, while Munster’s nightmare trip to South Africa may have knock-on connotations in relation to the Heineken Champions Cup. The priority now is that Munster players and coaching staff return safely to Ireland.

Taking a closer look at the matches and putting them in the context of the new fixture format for the URC, Leinster will be concerned by the weekend’s events. As bulk suppliers to the national team Leo Cullen will have to rely to a far greater extent than his other provincial counterparts on squad depth. To illustrate this point for Ireland’s game against Japan, Leinster supplied 12 of the starting 15.

The fact that the URC largely shuts down for the two international Test windows, the Autumn Nations series and five of the seven weeks in the Six Nations Championship - the two rest weeks aside - most URC clubs will be in a position to field stronger teams for the majority of the 18 rounds of matches in the league stage of the tournament.

From a numbers and player welfare perspective Leinster may have to be more judicious in how they manage their playing roster. There could be five or six matches in which they will field a team similar to the one that took the pitch against Ulster.

In seasons past they were able to mix and match during the international windows without compromising the ability to get a result because generally speaking their opponents were also missing personnel. That won’t be the case under the new format.

Ulster, Munster and Connacht are less constrained and currently have the capacity to play a more settled team, rotating when required; injuries notwithstanding. It’s akin to what they do in the English Premiership, retaining a front-line core where possible.

A problem common to all four provinces, albeit to varying degrees, is that it is going to be harder for fringe and academy players to force their way into the team; players will be playing fewer games than previous seasons with longer gaps in between and that scenario helps no one.

Being on the fringe of a squad is rarely a good place with the exception of starting from there in career terms and then being able to quickly force the narrative in your favour. The way the season is falling now, the large squads may be confined to the past with teams favouring smaller, more settled rosters.

Leinster’s starting hooker James Tracy has played 106 minutes this season, two of his three appearances coming from the bench. He is normally a reliable lineout operator but the lack of match minutes, individually and also in terms of the unit skills, was evident. There is pressure across the provinces to ensure that all players get game time so as to avoid being undercooked when they are thrust into the match environment.

I remember in my last year as a player, Matt O’Connor asked me to play against Ulster during a designated rest period. I hadn’t trained much, never mind played with many of the players. Paddy Jackson picked us apart and I lost my spot on the team, never able to recover subsequently because I didn’t get a run of games to play my way back in.

Some of the Leinster team won’t get a chance to play again until the URC match against Munster at Thomond Park on December 26th. That’s a long time to stew. Confidence is a fickle mistress. When things weren’t clicking for me, at various points in my career, I had enough credit in the bank to get selected. The immediate priority in those circumstances was to do the basics, no mistakes and play my way back into form. That requires a run of matches.

Ulster’s victory at the RDS was a reward for an excellent performance and one that will give them plenty of impetus to take into this weekend and then Europe. Nitpicking, I’d point to the fact that they didn’t translate their dominance into enough points. Scoreboard pressure suffocates the opposition and forces them into increasingly desperate measures.

Leinster’s character and culture helped them to hang in there longer than they might have expected. The takeaway for Ulster is the need to capitalise when dominant particularly if they wish to fulfil Champions Cup ambitions.

Ulster centre James Hume’s performance was of particular interest to me. I thought he was the best player on the pitch, no mean achievement when facing a Leinster midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Ciarán Frawley. It’s a pity that he didn’t get a chance in the Autumn Nations Series with Ireland but he responded exactly as Ireland head coach Andy Farrell would have wished.

James Hume in flight during Ulster’s upset of Leinster. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
James Hume in flight during Ulster’s upset of Leinster. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Hume’s challenge is to offer that performance as a base level while continuing to add little refinements. The Ulster player was the form 13 from the weekend, eclipsing a muscular effort in defeat by Henshaw and an impressive Connacht debut from 21-year-old Shayne Bolton.

Given the way the fixtures fall and Ulster’s capacity to play at full strength barring injury, Hume should be a principal beneficiary of this type of approach. He will probably have played eight times for the province by the time the next Irish squad is announced and should Ulster’s performance reflect Hume’s then there is a lot to be excited about in the coming months.

Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell will doubtless respond but it is an impressive opening salvo from the Ulster centre. The tougher part is to maintain or improve upon those levels. He brings a bit of personality to what he says and does and appears to have that bulletproof confidence of youth. His progress will be fun to watch.

Connacht’s win against the Ospreys reaffirmed head coach Andy Friend’s gameplan, one underpinned by pace, width and tempo while keeping the ball alive. It was brilliant to watch; the players look like they are enjoying themselves, in particular Mack Hansen, a catalyst in a different guise to Leinster’s James Lowe but a game breaker nonetheless.

Mack Hansen continues to impress out in Galway. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho
Mack Hansen continues to impress out in Galway. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

Visiting the RDS this week, Connacht will pose a very different set of questions for Leinster. Lighter, with a less physical approach than Ulster, they will look to maintain their high tempo. It won’t have gone unnoticed how Ulster caused Leinster huge problems at the breakdown.

Connacht’s playing rhythm is very evident and they’ll look to maintain the qualities they have displayed in abundance in wins over Ulster and the Ospreys.

Leinster will bring back the rest of their international contingent, excluding the injured, for a three game block of matches that will include European games at home to Bath and a trip to Montpellier. The absence of Johnny Sexton leaves Leo Cullen with an interesting selection decision in choosing which of the Byrne brothers, Ross or Harry, deserves the starting jersey.

Despite the fact that Leinster were on the back foot for large periods of the game against Ulster, I still expected Ross to be able to find a way to nudge his team over the line. It is ridiculously hard to achieve that when the team is misfiring. The focus tends to be on the outhalf because he is the principal game manager; sometimes a match is beyond rescue for a variety of reasons. However, the overriding feeling before he was substituted was that he would get a chance to draw or win the match.

I am still shocked that Harry has played less than 40 minutes for Leinster this season and it is December 1st. On his introduction he tried to accelerate from first to fifth without going through the other gears. He’s got all the attributes but has to learn how to use them to best effect.

It will be instructive to see if being surrounded by Jamison Gibson-Park on one side and Henshaw and Ringrose on the other can help him with the decision making process.

The three provinces all go into this weekend’s URC matches with slightly different performance agendas but united in a common goal and that is to take some momentum in going into the back to back European fixtures. Within that collective breathes individual aspirations which will be interesting to note and follow.

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