Rugby Stats: Contrasting preparations by four provinces for start of Pro14

Munster and Connacht turn to ‘A’ interprovincials to give players game time

Niall Scannell takes a lineout throw during the “A” Interprovincial at Thomond Park in Limerick between Munster A and Connacht Eagles. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

Niall Scannell takes a lineout throw during the “A” Interprovincial at Thomond Park in Limerick between Munster A and Connacht Eagles. Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

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The four Irish provinces have enjoyed contrasting preparation for the start of the Pro14 tournament at the weekend. Munster and Connacht used what were termed “A” interprovincial matches to provide game time for as many players as possible, including the senior cohort and international contingent, in a brace of games, the first of which took place at the Sportsground followed by one at Thomond Park.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the rugby landscape in many ways, one of which was a clamour for the recent “A” interprovincial matches to be transmitted through a live feed to satisfy an appetite from supporters. Connacht and Munster deserve credit for accommodating those wishes.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan used 48 players across the two games – young centre Alex McHenry (120) was afforded the most minutes – a godsend for a province that hadn’t played competitively since their Pro14 semi-final defeat to Leinster at the Aviva stadium on September 4th.

His Connacht counterpart Andy Friend took a similar view, providing game time for 42 players and bridging a playing hiatus that dated back to a Pro14 game coincidentally against Munster on August 30th. Munster won the first match narrowly but were convincing winners in Limerick.

By virtue of the fact that Leinster and Ulster made the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, their recent A interpro at the RDS, was contested largely by the players who hadn’t been on duty – the Ulster trio of Matt Faddes, Kieran Treadwell and Ross Kane exceptions – in those European ties. Leinster gave game time to 27 players at the RDS, Ulster 19 in a match the visitors won 29-14.

While there will be a degree of rotation personnel-wise on a weekly basis it is not until the international Test match window begins when Ireland host Italy in the first of two rescheduled Six Nations matches on October 24th that the provinces will be required to dip extensively into the wider squad base.

There are six rounds of Pro14 games from October 23rd- November 28th during which time Andy Farrell’s Ireland will play Italy, France, Wales, England and Georgia, followed by a final Test on December 5th in the crossover final match in the Autumn Nations Cup.

Grab a jersey

That Pro14 slot represents a huge opportunity for young and “fringe first team” players across the four provinces to try and grab a jersey and hang onto it. The jostling in terms of the pecking order in the provincial playing rosters will have short and long-term ramifications at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a hugely financially debilitating effect on Irish rugby.

The IRFU and Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) agreed on a 10 per cent salary reduction and a 10 per cent salary deferral, with 5 per cent subject to a retrospective salary reduction pending the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, from July 1st- December 31st, 2020, for players earning over €25,000 per annum.

Provincial squads contract and use – including those in academies – more than 50 players in a season, something that will become increasingly difficult if revenue streams continue to be curtailed. It accentuates the requirement to become a “player of importance” as quickly as possible in that environment. Players have to push hard irrespective of who is further up the line.

Deciding on equivalence between a handful of academy contracts and one senior one to trim budgets is something that Leo Cullen, Johann van Graan, Andy Friend and Dan McFarland would prefer to avoid. Given that Leinster will be the biggest contributors to Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad, the likelihood is that they will drill deeper into their resources during the Test window, which taken from the stance of an individual is a plus; more game time.

Young players

Conversely Connacht won’t be as affected but it would be nice to think that Diarmuid Kilgallen and Oran McNulty, to highlight a couple of young players, will get some meaningful game time. A number of academy players will participate in interprovincial sevens tournaments at the IRFU’s high performance centre – four matches per day – on October 17th and 31st and November 7th.

The next series of “A” interprovincial matches is pencilled in for December 12th and 19th, weekends on which next season’s Heineken Champions Cup pool games are to be played. At that point the Pro14 conference tables will have some shape on them with eight rounds of matches completed and all four provincial coaches with a better practical appreciation of who has excelled during that time frame.

The status quo shouldn’t remain from season to season, there should always be one or two new faces pushing up and through to drive the group. The challenge in the four provincial squads is to be one of those individuals. For players, young and older, the future starts now.

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