Tuesday 20 November 2018

Comment: Long PRO14 season is a test of a squad's depth above all else

Rotation of players is not popular, but every team in the competition is forced to go deep into their panel in the race to Celtic Park in May

Munster head coach Johann van Graan has had his squad's depths tested already this season. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster head coach Johann van Graan has had his squad's depths tested already this season. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

All last week, Johann van Graan and the Munster squad prepared to face the Ospreys. At noon on Thursday, their plans went out the window.

It didn't matter much in the end, but the hours of tape on Alun Wyn Jones and Co was utterly useless when head coach Allen Clarke took a strategic decision to risk the result at Irish Independent Park for the greater good of the season to come.

It robbed Friday night's game of any sense of a contest, Munster were simply too strong for the understrength side from Wales.

If, after six games, former Ulster and Ireland hooker Clarke is reflecting on five wins, he will do so in the knowledge that his decision to rest his stars for the trip to Cork was right.

Rotation is standard in the Guinness PRO14. It serves a purpose for the unions who run it, serves the players who play in it well but it comes at a cost in terms of marketability.

Over in England and France, the big names are rolled out on a weekly basis. It puts bums on seats and brings in big television revenue, but the sustainability of it all is questionable. It also undermines the national teams in both countries.

Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The reality for Ospreys and every team chasing a place in the Celtic Park final next May is that the PRO14 is test of squad depth above all else.

Over the 21 games of last season's campaign, the Ospreys used 55 players; the same number as Leinster. They lost five more games than the eventual champions.

On opening night, Leinster copped plenty of flak for sending an understrength team to the Arms Park but had the last laugh when they came away with a bonus-point win.

Given the top team in each conference earns a week off and a home semi-final, consistent results over the 21 games have never been so important.

Winning when your big names are away is the key to PRO14 success, particularly for teams who serve their national teams as bulk suppliers.

Sensible

In the aftermath of the 49-13 loss, Clarke gave a sensible and reasonable argument for his decision.

"Everyone knows it's World Cup year next year. In Ireland and Wales now, they're looking after those players quite rightly," he said.

"As Ospreys, we want to look after them, we want to ensure that the Alun Wyns, the Justin Tipurics, the George Norths are playing for the Ospreys for another two, three, four, five and if you're George North even, six seasons.

"Doing that while at the same time bringing through a number of young players in that changing room who can well become players of that esteem.

"We've got our performance targets as a club and don't get me wrong. I didn't come here to throw a game, we didn't come here to throw a game,

"I didn't come here to concede 49 points, nor did I expect to but that's the reality of what happened tonight. I'm not going to persecute the players for that.

"It's on me and as head coach, what I believe is best for the team. It's about the season and we have to get enough wins throughout the season while managing our player group without having two squads within the squad if you like, that's not what we're about."

The problem Clarke has is that his squad is not as strong as the top teams in the competition and when he rotates his front-liners out of the team the next men in can't compete with a close-to-full-strength Munster.

A week previously, Johann van Graan was caught in a similar bind as his team underperformed hugely in Glasgow.

With Peter O'Mahony, Keith Earls, CJ Stander and Conor Murray yet to return and Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne sitting on the bench, Munster were blown away by the Warriors in Scotland.

A week later, O'Mahony made a huge impact on his comeback as the team got back to winning ways.

Although they have recruited well in the off-season, there are still key positions in which Munster's depth is below that of their rivals but as part of the Irish system they must manage their internationals to ensure they are primed and ready for the Tests to come.

The instructions do not just come from Lansdowne Road; last weekend saw Rory Scannell drop out of the match-day 23 despite an excellent start to the season.

The centre last won a cap in November 2017, but Munster are mindful of the minutes he accumulated in the red jersey last season and gave him a break despite his being fully fit.

They hope to be repaid for their decisions later in the campaign.

"Last season we used more than 50 guys in our squad," Van Graan said.

"Even in the warm-up games against (London) Irish and Exeter we had to use our squad there's no way you are going to play from the 17th of August right through to the 26th of May with the same squad.

"Even this weekend we will have to make changes to make sure we look after our players as best we can.

"I think that's the beauty of sport, you have got to grow your squad, you've got to coach them and the signings you make, and the players you retain and release the plan has got to be well into the future and hopefully we will do a good job of that going into the future and I am happy with our squad at this stage and the main thing is to keep them fresh and manage around injuries.

"You can never plan around that."

Increasingly, teams are choosing home games to field their strongest teams which has created fears of a French-style imbalance.

There were three away wins in round one, none in round two and two in round three, both of which came in South Africa where the early indications are that the Southern Kings and Cheetahs are in for long seasons.

Full-strength

The coming weeks, however, should see teams at close to full strength as Europe approaches.

While the Christmas interprovincial games are hampered by players being rested, the October clashes are almost always full tilt and this weekend we can expect to see the last of Ireland's Australia tourists on the pitch.

After Europe, however, the November internationals take centre stage and four rounds of fixtures are likely to be influenced by the national selectors.

That's when the calibre of a club's overseas signings and young players comes to the fore as coaches look to keep the show on the road until their big guns return for the December Heineken Cup games.

The size of a team's budget is important, but the Scarlets have shown how far clever recruitment can go in recent years.

By the time we reach Celtic Park, some of those who played a big role in qualifying will be long forgotten by all but their coaches who know how important a role they'll have played.

May the best squad win.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport