Ulster boss defends diluted PRO14 panels

It’s a testament to the hold provincial rugby now has on a section of the Irish sporting public that over 18,000 fans were willing to turn up at the RDS to watch two sides that had been stripped of well over 20 fit Ireland internationals.

However the fact that so many jerseys for this interpro were filled by youngsters in what could have been a highlight of the Guinness PRO14 calendar gives rise yet again to the accusation that this is a competition with a major credibility issue.

It’s been that way all season. Go back to September and Ospreys coach Allan Clarke felt the need to defend his weakened selection for an away game against Munster. The ‘pick and choose’ nature of team lists since then seems to have been more pronounced than ever and it just doesn’t look good.

Dan McFarland, like Leo Cullen, opted to withhold a bunch of his Test stars for Ulster’s meeting with Leinster on Saturday evening. problem was that Ulster don’t enjoy the same strength in depth and they paid the price with a 33-point loss than could have been much worse.

But that credibility question? McFarland wasn’t buying it.

“No. I’m not going to address that really,” the Ulster head coach said. “We have competitive teams, we play some good rugby in this league, people want to come and watch it. A team like Leinster would cause problems in any league.

I actually like - and I think a lot of people will like it - that they come out see and young Irish players playing. It was talked about during the week, it’s exciting to see this young blood, putting together some lovely rugby as well.

It’s not difficult to find reason in it.

The bigger picture here, as it always is, has been and will be with the provinces, is the European Cup and Ulster need every man jack fit and fresh for next Saturday’s Pool 4 showdown with a high-flying Racing 92 side in Belfast.

It could be argued that the wisdom of their diluted offering in Dublin was revealed with the injuries to full-back Michael Lowry who failed to reappear after exiting for a first-half HIA and prop Kyle McCall who twisted his leg and had to be carried off after the interval.

The possible return to action of Jacob Stockdale for the first time since the second of the back-to-back Scarlets Champions Cup ties last month would be a huge boost to the province’s chances of closing the five-point gap on the French and edging towards a quarter-final slot.

Ulster have a mixed record at home against Top 14 opposition, beating La Rochelle and Oyonnax but losing to Bordeaux and Toulon, but lock Alan O’Connor sounded the clarion call.

“We’re sitting in a good place in Europe at the moment so it’s in our hands.”

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