Sunday 22 September 2019

Tony Ward: Leinster's selection for Munster clash is disrespectful to everyone involved

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Between the opening international in Chicago against New Zealand and the final Test of the November series at home to Australia, Joe Schmidt used 20 players in his run-on team.

By the time the Wallabies came to the Aviva, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton and Jordi Murphy had been ruled out through injury, while Iain Henderson and Keith Earls were back in pole position in the second-row and on the left wing.

Were the opening game of the Six Nations just around the corner, I think you can take it as read that Henderson, Henshaw and Sexton would be in the front line to start.

Now while we have moved on some way from the political shenanigans of the past in terms of provincial breakdown, only five of that 20 come from outside of Leinster or Munster, the all-Ulster quintet comprising Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Paddy Jackson, Henderson and Rory Best.

With the exception of Payne because of longer-term injury, Henderson and Best if fit will both definitely start while Trimble, if he can fully recover from that ankle injury shipped against the Wallabies, will be in the frame with the very much in-form Jackson on the bench.

On the assumption that Trimble, Henderson and Best make it to Murrayfield injury-free, that leaves 12 remaining starting places to be filled. Enter the festive derbies. Or so we thought.

The Final Trial is dead and buried and, with respect to Ulster and Connacht who were first into action last night, the biggest game of the four Christmas inter-provincials - and from Schmidt's point of view the most informative one - should be taking place at Thomond Park on Monday.

Now it will still be mouthwatering contest with a full house guaranteed but the biggest fixture on the Pro12 domestic calendar has had the rug pulled from under it by the Leinster selection for the game as Leo Cullen seeks to fulfill the IRFU's player management agreement.

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Munster v Leinster, given the international elite on both teams, should effectively be Irish rugby's Final Trial leading into 2017. And lest we forget they are the top two in the table, sharing the lead with only points difference separating them going into this game.

Add to that the man in the middle. Once you see the name Nigel Owens listed you know that above everything else the game will flow. He has become something of a celebrity off the pitch but on the back of what he does between the white lines and at every level for 80-plus minutes week in, week out.

He knows when to speak and how. Players recognise that trait and react accordingly. It is an innate sense better described as a feel for the game. He is not infallible but is more than anything a match-friendly referee through whom players and spectators benefit every time. He will add to the occasion in his own inimitable, player-driven way.

However, Leinster having to field an understrength side smacks of disrespect towards a traditionally great fixture - regardless of the outcome.

Stuart Lancaster paved the way in midweek when hinting at Leinster "judiciously using players" and at Northampton in his eyes doing the same against Leinster in the Champions Cup at the Aviva the previous week. To paraphrase the Leinster assistant coach, he doesn't think the game (in Limerick) will be diluted providing Leinster are competitive.

No doubt it will be competitive (that's a given) but I'm not sure 26,000-plus fans have forked out good money to leave their homes on St Stephen's Day in search of 'competitiveness'. They are travelling to witness the creme de la creme of Irish rugby compete for places and points and are quite within their rights to do so with that objective in mind.

This time last year in the corresponding fixture, the Leinster team read: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, G Ringrose, L Fitzgerald, I Nacewa; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, T Denton; D Ryan, S O'Brien and J Heaslip.

Twelve months on Leinster rugby is unquestionably in a different place with probably its greatest strength in depth ever but this type of shadow selection doesn't wash for me. It is disrespectful to everyone involved, not least the Pro12 competition itself.

As one who took a long time to come around to the merits of the reincarnated Celtic League, this devalues the competition.


The difference between Northampton travelling to the Aviva understrength and Leinster doing the same now will not be reflected in the same lopsided scoreline but the impact on so many supporters going along to see in the flesh what they believed to be the best will be exactly the same.

Make no mistake, this is still a powerful Leinster squad, littered with experience at the highest level and one that will certainly be competitive, but the best Leinster team for the biggest domestic fixture of the Pro12 season it is not.

Back in October before some 40,000 fans in the Aviva, both sides lined out pretty close to full strength. Why then and not now?

Bear in mind too that Munster have by far the more difficult fixture list immediately ahead. Next up it's Connacht in the Sportsground, followed by Racing in the rescheduled fixture in Paris and then what is effectively the Champions Cup Pool decider against Glasgow in Scotstoun.

That's three exceedingly tough fixtures on the road. By contrast (and full credit to them for putting themselves in this position), Leinster will be at home to Ulster in the RDS to be followed by Zebre at the same venue (surely the most obvious opportunity to field an emerging line-up) before entertaining Montpellier in the Champions Cup also in the RDS making for three home fixtures in a row.

But even apart from all that surely our rugby equivalent of Celtic/Rangers, of Barca/Real Madrid, of Liverpool/ManU is worthy of the highest mutual respect being reflected every time in as close to full selection as doesn't matter?

I need no convincing of the merits or potential of Ross Molony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Ross Byrne, Barry Daly, Rory O'Loughlin or Charlie Rock but I repeat the principle of selection in a fixture of this magnitude is wrong - irrespective of the performance and/or result.

Munster, by comparison, make but three changes from the side that lost to Leicester at Welford Road. Keith Earls is in effect the only big name missing out, while in Ronan O'Mahony the replacement wing is far from shabby.

Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, Jack O'Donoghue and, most eagerly of all, Francis Saili will be chomping at the bit to get involved mid-match. For some reason I detect a loss of faith amongst Munster fans in Saili. Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell have been a revelation in his absence but Saili still has that creative ability of which Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones are only too well aware.

Whatever the outcome, this injudicious approach to selection has let a lot of people down.

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