Wednesday 19 December 2018

Interpro table doesn't lie for Leinster

Derby demolitions shows just how far rivals are lagging behind Cullen's side this year

Leinster’s Max Deegan hands off Ulster’s Rob Herring during their one-sided PRO14 clash at the RDS in January. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Max Deegan hands off Ulster’s Rob Herring during their one-sided PRO14 clash at the RDS in January. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There is no longer a trophy handed out for finishing top of the interpro table but if there was it would be going Leinster's way regardless of results in Limerick and Galway on Saturday.

The Champions Cup finalists' dominance over their rivals is laid bare by the fact that they have an 11-point lead over Connacht in second and are the only province with a positive points difference from the derbies to date.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile

Given three rounds of interpros were scheduled in and around Christmas when internationals are given breaks and clubs must delve into their squads, it favours Leo Cullen's men, who are on course for a European and Guinness PRO14 double, having reached the final in Bilbao and topped Conference B of the league.

Their success saw them dominate Joe Schmidt's Grand Slam-winning Ireland squad. If they win their final regular-season game in Galway this Saturday, they will have swept the boards against Irish opposition for the first time since 2012 when they beat Ulster in the Heineken Cup final. This will be the first time they've topped the interpro table since winning the PRO12 in 2014.

As we reach the end of a historically successful season for Irish rugby, the key concern for the IRFU must be the gap emerging between the eastern province and the rest.

With their frightening production line, superb facilities, geographical and economic advantages and ability to attract top talent from abroad, the Blues have their house in order and it is an impressive set-up.

It is just two season since Connacht won the PRO12, but the western province have gone backwards at a rate of knots. Ulster are, in the words of Brian O'Driscoll, "a bit of a basket-case" and are still without a coach and are scrambling for the security of top-level European rugby next season.

Despite winning just one interpro all season, Munster do not belong in the same conversation as the other two and although they have hit a glass ceiling at the semi-final stage of Europe they remain the most likely to stay competitive with Leinster.

Indeed, many fans of Johann van Graan's side will be rolling their eyes at the idea of a big gap existing between the rivals after reaching the last four for the second successive season.

Although Leinster's form dipped since their three titles in four seasons between 2009 and 2012, the overall strength of Irish rugby appeared to be on the rise during that time and the 2016 season was the most competitive interpro series of all.

There is an argument to be made that Leinster came back to the pack during their lull, but while they and Munster have strengthened considerably in the years since the same cannot be said of Ulster and Connacht.

Discussions

One IRFU solution is to spread Leinster's resources and the recent chapter involving discussions over moving either Joey Carbery or Ross Byrne to Ulster are an example of that.

All three of the other provinces have players from Leinster on their books, but it is rare that they let one of their shining lights escape.

For IRFU performance director David Nucifora and Schmidt, spreading talent through the provinces is a necessity to ensure the national team has as many players to choose from as possible.

From their perspective, having Carbery in Ulster avoids a repeat of the 2015 World Cup scenario when Ian Madigan started the quarter-final with very little game-time under his belt.

But while they feed into the collective effort for international success which, ultimately, fuels the game financially Leinster are right to look after their own house.

After all, Johnny Sexton plays precious few games over the course of a long season and they don't want to be left short of cover.

And, having gotten their house in order and made the most of their resources they could be forgiven for wondering why they're being asked to bail out others who have not done the same. Ulster's problems are well-documented this season, but there are deep-seated issues below the surface to compound the high-profile elements and the performance of the senior clubs in this year's All Ireland League is a real concern.

A new coach will help, but whoever they appoint will have a major job in changing the culture of an organisation that has endured a toxic year and has not won any silverware since the 2006 Celtic League success.

Connacht's 2016 achievement is looking better by the year and this season was more reminiscent of the bad old days than the progress made under Pat Lam.

Although their talismanic leader John Muldoon is leaving, they at least have been busy in the transfer market and David Horwitz, Kyle Godwin and Robin Copeland will add something next season. It can hardly be worse than this year's effort.

In the short-term, Munster are by far the most likely to close the gap.

With Van Graan getting a full crack at the campaign after taking over mid-season, a strong core of leaders, a competitive squad and a ready-made star in Tadhg Beirne on the way they are best positioned to challenge Leinster's pre-eminence.

Indeed, if they can get to a PRO14 semi-final at the RDS a week after the Champions Cup final they would quietly fancy their chances of making a lie of their interpro record by winning the one that matters.

The table, however, rarely lies. This has been Leinster's year and their rivals all have work to do to knock them off their perch.

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