Wednesday 15 August 2018

Strength in numbers the key to Leinster's final push

All-action Byrne tops charts as squad effort puts Cullen’s men on brink of unique double

Ross Byrne leads the way in league appearances for Leinster this season. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ross Byrne leads the way in league appearances for Leinster this season. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When, in March, the rugby writers in this parish sharpened their pencils and settled a pub debate as to what is Leinster's best 23 if all of the players were fit, not one of us picked Ross Byrne.

Across the board, Johnny Sexton was the first-choice out-half and Joey Carbery was his back-up, yet no player has played a greater role in the province's march to tomorrow's Guinness PRO14 final than the 23-year-old No 10 who was called into Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad earlier this week.

Byrne stands alone with the most appearances in blue in the league this season, edging Rory O'Loughlin, Noel Reid, Jordi Murphy and Scott Fardy who have all played a sizeable role in getting the team to tomorrow's final.

The average member of the starting XV from the Champions Cup final featured in just seven of the 22 games in the PRO14 campaign, meaning others have picked up the slack.

It's been a numbers game that adds up to a final appearance for Leo Cullen's men. The IRFU's player welfare scheme dictates that front-line internationals are stood down during certain windows of the season and the provinces choose to rest their stars during the league.

Read more: We don't want to be known as a one-season wonder - Pivac

Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

They must also do without their leading lights as the season ploughs on during Test windows, meaning the quality of your young players and overseas signings is key to succeeding in this competition.

As bulk suppliers to the national team, Leinster have used 55 players over the course of this campaign and it has been notable this week how the players and coaches are talking about winning the tournament for everyone who played a part in getting them to this stage.

Proud

"We're playing for those 55 guys who got us to this point," Ireland prop Jack McGrath said earlier this week.

Scrum coach John Fogarty added: "We're very proud that we're in a final. We're very proud that 55 players were involved to get us to this point. We want to do right by the group, and we want to do right by Isa (Nacewa) as well."

Everyone's squad is tested; fellow Champions Cup competitors Munster and Ulster have used 51 and 47 players each over their course of their campaigns. The story of Leinster's success has been told often this season; their clever recruitment, prodigious academy, solid coaching and coterie of top-class international players have gelled into a relentless winning machine.

Victory over the Scarlets tomorrow would hand them a piece of history.

Even at their most dominant during their golden years between 2009 and 2012, the Blues could not make it a double. No one has ever managed to win the European title and Celtic League in the same season, although they did manage the Challenge Cup and PRO12 in 2013.

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic

This would be special and for Leo Cullen it is important to recognise the squad effort.

That was part of the reason behind Byrne's starting spot in last week's semi-final against Munster.

Johnny Sexton may have been injured in the end, but he was only ever down to come off the bench having played just three times in the competition over the course of the campaign.

Byrne was being rewarded for his contribution and he responded with an excellent performance at the RDS. He may yet hold on to the starting shirt for tomorrow's game when the team is named at noon.

"We want to reward guys who have actually gotten us to this position," Cullen (below) said of the decision to pick the St Michael's graduate.

"Ross, even in Europe, played in the six pool games. He started the Montpellier game here, the Montpellier game away.

"He came on in the first two minutes of the game against Exeter at the Aviva. He came on in the other three games as well, he played a huge part.

"He had to deal with the disappointment of not being involved in the quarter, semi and final of Europe even though he'd been involved in all six pool games.

"That's been a bit of the story over the course of the season with a lot of players that have got the team into position, they've done the bulk of the work and then sometimes don't get to play in the big games and this is another big game for us, a huge game.

"The work that goes into getting us to this point, we use a lot of players... it's been well documented and talked about when guys are away playing with Ireland etc, etc.

"So, it's trying to reward players for the right reasons and show that level of loyalty to them because they've put in a huge amount of work to get us to this point, so it's not a straightforward selection for us at all."

Byrne, Fardy and Murphy are likely to be involved tomorrow, but other big contributors to Leinster's campaign are likely to be watching from the stands at the Aviva Stadium.

Involved

Unless Isa Nacewa fails to make it back, Noel Reid is unlikely to be involved, while top try scorer Barry Daly is on the cut line in the competitive back three department. Between them Ross Molony and Michael Bent played 32 times in the league season, but neither is likely to be involved.

It is the last push of a long and already successful season for the men in blue and they are hungry to deliver a fitting finale.

They have plenty to play for; history beckons and a legend is retiring, but there is also a determination to finish the squad effort with a fitting reward for the 55 players who have played their part in getting them into position to win the double.

Irish Independent

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