Tuesday 24 September 2019

Squeezed derbies worth far more than bragging rights

Garry Ringrose being tackled by two Munster players in April’s derby; however, he may make way for Rory O’Loughlin in Monday’s clash. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose being tackled by two Munster players in April’s derby; however, he may make way for Rory O’Loughlin in Monday’s clash. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The presence of Joe Schmidt hangs over the Christmas derbies once again this year with the Ireland coach's pragmatic approach to the national team's success dampening the spirits around the big interprovincial fixtures designed to light up the festive season.

Everyone in Irish rugby wants a successful Six Nations, but it seems a shame that it must come at the price of what should be gilt-edged fixtures that grab the full attention of the sport's fans.

With emigrés home for the season and people looking for events to attend, the clashes are an easy sell in terms of tickets, but when it comes to star quality the names in the jerseys can't always be guaranteed.

At this stage, we don't know which internationals will be allowed to play when Ulster host Connacht on Friday night and Munster welcome Leinster on St Stephen's Day, before Leinster face Ulster and Connacht take on Munster on New Year's Eve.

Managed

What we do know is that most of the front-line internationals will be allowed to take time off during the two weeks ahead and their minutes will be managed accordingly.

"We can't play them in both games," Stuart Lancaster said of Leinster's large contingent of internationals. "It is a question of: do you play Jack McGrath the first day or Cian Healy? Do you play Sean Cronin or James Tracy?

"It is where you need the depth in your squad and that's what Leinster have done really well.

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"They've not only got a deep squad, but also the opportunity through the selection process and injuries to give younger players opportunities to step in the hole.

"Say with Rory O'Loughlin and Garry Ringrose, I would be confident with Rory to play in a game of this type because he's had the experience already."

In the past, coaches have chosen their away fixture to rest their big names and it has resulted in lop-sided scorelines.

Given the number of internationals at their disposal, Leinster are perhaps best set to juggle their resources.

Since he is an ex-international coach and is relatively new on the scene, it's perhaps no surprise to hear that the Englishman isn't too perturbed by the notion that the game, which has already attracted a record Thomond Park crowd, is devalued.

"I don't think this game will be diluted," he said. "The trick on selection is to make sure, particularly at Leinster where there are so many Ireland internationals, that we are competitive in both games. I am pretty sure it will be a competitive team."

The other issue affecting preparations is Schmidt's decision to hold a one-day pre-Six Nations camp on Monday.

Les Kiss stopped short of criticising the timing of the get-together, but the under-pressure Ulster coach is already dealing with a five-day turnaround after a bruising defeat to Clermont Auvergne and doesn't sound overly happy with the scheduling.

"We only get one training session this week as there's a national camp on," he said.

"We've got a Friday night game. Connacht will be on a high and we've got to make sure we make the time that we do have matter.

"(The camp) has been in the diary for a long time. We've known, we've had to plan around it. We're sorting through the bodies and we'll see how we stack up for that one session."

Given their European hopes hang by a thread, the Guinness Pro12 is of increased importance for Ulster who lie in fifth place with a game in hand.

As Kiss alluded to, Connacht will travel north in good spirits having run Ulster close on their last two visits to the Ravenhill and are eyeing an historic first double over their neighbours.

They've had a day extra to rest and will have had fewer players involved in the Irish camp. Back in eighth place, the Pro12 champions are looking to close the gap their early-season form opened up between them and their rivals.

Resurgence

The championship reaches the halfway stage this weekend and with Munster and Leinster joint-top on 37 points, there is a chance for one to take the turn ahead of the pack at Thomond Park.

With both sides enjoying a resurgence, you'd have to go back a few years to recall a time when they both came into this fixture in such rude health. Both Sky Sports and TG4 are in town and the Pro12 organisers are pushing the 'Big Weekend' theme for the games.

However, that would appear to be undermined by the expected absence of so many internationals, something the league's chief Martin Anayi wants to prevent in future.

The provinces are serving the greater good of international success, but that comes with a price.

Irish Independent

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