Rugby Stats: Gavin Coombes and Scott Penny could lay down markers in Pro14 final

Coaches face tough decisions with Ireland players returning and heavy schedule

If Saturday’s Guinness Pro 14 final at the RDS (5.0) was a season-ending, one-off match, there would be little debate; play the strongest teams and the devil take the hindmost.

It is not that straightforward and while there is a commonality to several issues that the respective head coaches face, one or two are divergent.

Superficially selection is complicated by a number of ancillary concerns. This is the start of what both coaches will hope is a three-game block of matches that will include back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures. Preparation this week will be confined to a couple of training sessions to reintegrate those returning from international duty.

Leinster had six starters – they had another seven on the bench – while Munster had five, with Peter O'Mahony among the replacements in the Ireland team that beat England. It was the second consecutive weekend of Six Nations fare for some and the attendant bumps and bruises will inform selection for the weekend.

Johann van Graan has stated that his sole focus this week is winning the Pro 14 final – Munster have a seven -day turnaround to the Toulouse Champions Cup match – and in doing so bridge a gap that's a couple of months shy of 10 years since the province last won silverware. In terms of the Irish contingent Conor Murray (injury) and O'Mahony (suspension) are lightly raced of late while Keith Earls must have a picture in the attic given his age-defying excellence.

Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander have endured heavy workloads historically but boast remarkable physical resilience. Dave Kilcoyne's (HIA) participation is doubtful. The composition of the back three (Mike Haley, Earls, Andrew Conway and Shane Daly) and the identity of the outhalf (JJ Hanrahan or Joey Carbery) may have taken up more time than other selection calls, so too that of number eight.

As the graphic illustrates, Gavin Coombes, has been an outstanding contributor to the Munster cause this season and a standout from an Irish perspective in the league. He is joint top of the 'successful carries' category (78), along with Leinster's Scott Penny and also features prominently in the try scoring (eight) and turnovers (eight) metrics. The statistics complement the evidence of performances.

When Munster faced Leinster in January the 23-year-old Skibbereen native was selected at blindside flanker; he's more influential at number eight where he has played the majority of games and seven of his eight tries have come while wearing that jersey. In general play it won't make a huge difference but the comfy familiarity of operating in the middle of the backrow might in confidence terms.

Stander, as he has demonstrated so capably for Ireland and most recently at the weekend, is a very accomplished blindside flanker. Some might view it as semantics but psychologically to hand the young player the number eight jersey just might elicit the performance for which Van Graan will be looking.

Cullen’s Leinster resources are a little depleted in terms of backline cover and in the absence of several marquee players through injury and concussion issues, he must also figure out how many of his recently returned Irish internationals to include in the starting line-up.

The ramifications of a six-day turnaround to Toulon in the Champions Cup must be considered but Leinster won't be keen to hand over a trophy at the RDS, no matter how many times they have won it recently. Leo Cullen has proved in the past that he is willing to entrust responsibility to those outside the international cohort.

Penny could be a beneficiary and on the merit of his recent form it would be a fitting reward. He's scored nine tries in 11 matches this season, joint highest in the league, so too the successful carries (78) metric. He became just the fifth player to make 20-plus carries and tackles in a Pro 14 game against the Glasgow Warriors since Opta started recording this data in 2009-10.

The 21-year-old Grand Slam winner with the Irish 20s in 2019 has been in excellent form of late and games of this ilk are an important benchmarking process in his development. Cullen will weigh that decision carefully.

The problem for all those Irish players who have excelled in the league is the probable cancellation of a summer tour to Tonga and Fiji. It remains on the table for the time being but with each passing week is more unlikely. World Rugby is expected to make a statement on summer tours in the next week.

That’s why games like Saturday’s final, quite apart from the collective honour and glory, contain personal strands and important markers in the careers of young players.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer