TALKING POINT: Even Leinster struggle competing across two fronts

rugby21 May 2024 05:30
By:Gavin Rich
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“You have to make up your mind what to focus on, you can’t do both.”

That was Gloucester coach George Skivington after he was being criticised on some fronts for selecting an understrength team for his team’s recent Gallagher Premiership clash with Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens. The Hollywoodbets Sharks’ opponents in Friday night’s EPCR Challenge Cup final in London fielded a fledgling side and lost 90-0, causing intense embarrassment for their supporters.

Ironically, that humiliation and the controversy coincided with a game played at the same field and against the same opponents as the controversy around the Vodacom Bulls’ selection for their Investec Champions Cup quarterfinal. Just over a month on from Bulls director of rugby Jake White being pilloried by mostly British critics for fielding a second string side, it all looks even more ridiculous.

I do get the feeling that the Champions Cup is an important competition and if you get as far as a quarterfinal you should give it everything you’ve got, but Skivington was right if the above quote is intended to convey the message that you can’t commit the same players to two different competitions this late in the season and be successful.


That won’t be news to the South African coaches who have guided their teams through the two seasons where local sides have been playing in both the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and in one of the two European competitions. It was one of the driving forces behind DHL Stormers coach John Dobson making a big effort last season to spread his selection mix.

At the halfway mark of last season’s URC the Stormers had fielded more players, or put another way had made more changes than any other team in the competition. And Dobson was boastful about it. The Stormers coach also admitted after his team exited that season’s Champions Cup at the quarterfinal stage against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park that his URC challenge would have been compromised had his men got through to the semifinal stage.

Okay, so there is a travel issue with the South African teams that the overseas clubs are less justified in using as an excuse. Gloucester haven’t travelled out of Europe this season. The balancing act they have had to do, or they say they have to do, in order to be as fresh as they want to be for Friday’s final does not revolve around travel. It just revolves around the players being overplayed.


And that is a global challenge across all the clubs or provinces who play in the Cup competitions in addition to playing in their domestic leagues. Not even Leinster, the so-called benchmark of what is needed to do well in both, with their massive squad and playing depth the envy of everyone else, are holding up as much of an example of what needs to be done.

Leinster have gone to the final day of the European Cup season in all three of the seasons that the four South Africans have been part of what used to be the PRO14 to make it the URC. They have not lifted a single trophy in that time. And the team that beat them in both Champions Cup finals, La Rochelle, didn’t win the Top 14 in that period.

The Irish province is honest too about not committing the same resources across two fronts. After their high of beating La Rochelle in the most recent Champions Cup quarterfinal in Dublin, Leinster came to South Africa with several of their frontline players left behind to rest in preparation for the semifinal.

It was a critical juncture in the URC season and there was a lot on the line for Leinster this time, who unlike in season’s past were being threatened for their hitherto perennial position at the top of the log.

But because they did what Skivington did, namely recognise that you can’t do both, they were prepared to take the risk inherent in their URC selection. And they took the hit. Both the Emirates Lions and the Stormers beat them by more than 30 points. They returned home with not a solitary log point to show for their efforts.


Those two losses led to Leinster including some of their frontline players in what had become a must win URC game against the Ospreys a week after they had beaten Northampton in the European semifinal. But if you look at their selections across the two games played in the URC in the window between the Champions Cup semifinal and this week’s final, it will be noted that they have been a long way from full strength in either of the two fixtures.

Most of their star players were missing when they lost a thrilling derby against Ulster in Belfast. The result has effectively cost Leinster the chance of finishing top of the URC log, or at the very least they have to rely on other teams to get them there. Leinster weren’t travelling over the last fortnight so the travel factor can’t be reckoned in as an excuse.

The message we get from Leinster’s poor recent form in the URC is that not even Leinster, with their big squad, find it easy to commit across two competitions. It used to be said that the Leinster second team is good enough to come second in the URC, but on recent evidence that is questionable.


They do have a clear run after this week’s final against Toulouse, so are arguably better poised this season to win the double than they were previously in that sense. But at the critical juncture of their respective campaigns across the two competitions they made their choice, as Skivington did, and did not play their top players across both.

No-one does. Sharks coach John Plumtree wanted to see his team finish their home URC season with a flourish so he opted to go relatively full strength against Benetton two weeks ahead of Friday’s final. He quickly regretted it though when three key players came across injured and he took other players off early to protect them.

By the end of the second half, when Benetton came back to win, the side was very different to the one that started. Then this past weekend, a week out from the Challenge Cup decider, Plumtree went with a complete second string, or even in some areas third string, combination. Clearly the Durban rugby faithful understood the policy, and did not turn on their coach like some Gloucester fans did on Skivington, because there was a decent crowd at what was effectively a nothing game against Cardiff.

The upshot of all of this is that Friday’s final will be between two teams that have both used their top players sparingly in recent weeks and which have both sustained a hit, in terms of results, as a consequence of that.

Given that the French policy of sending second string sides to away games is almost enshrined in their culture, the main event this weekend, meaning the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse the day after the final of the EPCR’s secondary competition, will be between similarly “fresh” teams.

The message to the South African teams, who are still relative newcomers to playing across two competitions, is clear - building massive depth is an imperative if you want to compete in both the URC and the Champions Cup. While there has been some impressive building going on, particularly at the Bulls and Stormers, none of them yet have that depth and that is why we have yet to see teams being competitive at the business end of both the URC and Champions Cup.

It may not be a coincidence that the one team still alive in Europe is the one team not still in contention in the URC. That is not a criticism though - as we’ve seen, it is debatable that even Leinster can get it right.