As the Leinster squad disembarked from their charter flight from Treviso on Saturday night, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster must have wondered what state their leading players will be in when they next get to influence them on the training pitch.
For the next eight weeks, the Leinster management will have no impact or influence on the core of their squad, 19 of whom — including development players Ryan Baird, Will Connors, and Harry Byrne — are now ensconced in Andy Farrell’s Ireland camp. That’s a full team and half a bench.
The change in shape of the Heineken Cup four years ago had a significant impact on squads losing multiple players to their national squad. Where once there was three weeks between the last round of Six Nations action and a European quarter-final, they changed it to two.
At least the EPCR saw the folly of their ways, in that and the three-week gap was reintroduced a few seasons ago. Leinster will need all of that time to get back up to speed. This season, Cullen faces an additional complication in that Leinster are scheduled to play the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in South Africa in the fortnight prior to the Saracens quarter-final.
It is vital that he gets the planning and structure around that period right. In doing so he would benefit from picking up the phone to Johann van Graan, who faced a similar issue before Munster played Racing 92 in their Champions Cup semi-final in Bordeaux in 2018.
With a heavy schedule of travel already behind them, boarding another flight five days after returning from South Africa was hardly ideal. Munster failed to get out of the blocks in the opening 30 minutes at the Stade Chaban-Delmas. The game was as good as over by half time. At least Leinster have avoided having to travel again, within days of their return, by bagging a home quarter-final.
Having the squad together on a mini-tour of South Africa, with beautiful weather and surroundings for training, offers Cullen the perfect opportunity to get everyone back up to speed and singing off the same hymn sheet. Managing the travel and training load will dictate how they perform in that quarter-final.
If Cullen felt slightly vulnerable getting into his car in Dublin Airport, he would have felt even more uncomfortable watching Saracens’ bristling game against Racing 92 on Sunday. A win for Racing would have resulted in Leinster facing Glasgow Warriors in Dublin. When big Will Skelton was sent off for a reckless high tackle on Brice Dulin, a minute before the break, Cullen’s half-time cup of tea would have felt all the sweeter.
Rocked by confirmation less than 24 hours earlier that they will be visiting clubs such as Ealing Trailfinders, Ampthill, and Hartpury RFC in the Green King IPA Championship next season, Saracens are in a mess entirely of their own making. Yet, despite falling seven points behind early in the second half, they still found a way to beat Racing. This crew are not prepared to go quietly.
The continued failure to satisfy the Gallagher Premiership salary cap months after the imposition of a massive fine and a 35-point deduction forced this dramatic action and the remainder of Saracens domestic season will be filled with games of no relevance for them. Even if they retain the Champions Cup in May, there will be no European rugby either for them next season.
The fact that Saracens took the relegation route rather than release their financial data says a lot. The club was afforded the opportunity to open their accounts and have them forensically audited by the governing body, Premiership Rugby, and an independent auditor but choosing not to was pretty revealing in itself.
Instead their board has chosen to lick their wounds and start again. Their high-achieving squad will now be broken up. Interestingly, England captain Owen Farrell was first out of the blocks to pledge his allegiance to the club and commit to a season in Championship rugby. No doubt some other high profile players will follow his lead but others will choose to move on.
There has been talk about the impact playing in the Championship will have on their England careers. Will Eddie Jones pick players based on their performances in a lower tier of club rugby? Will Warren Gatland select them for the 2021 Lions tour to South Africa without playing at the highest level in Europe?
Whatever about Jones, if I was in Gatland’s shoes I would be quietly pleased at the prospect of selecting a cohort of fresh and hungry players such as Farrell and the likes of Maro Itoje, Mako and Billy Vunipola, even if they choose to commit to Saracens next season. It’s not the players’ fault that their employers broke the rules.
What Saracens’ last two performances in Europe has shown is that their squad is more united than ever, despite the crisis that has shattered the club’s reputation at home and abroad. Time will tell whether they will back that up by taking a salary cut and stay. Others will choose to move on or go abroad for a year before returning once their inevitable promotion is achieved.
There was a time when Munster’s entire existence in Europe was driven by a cause, a massive chip on the shoulder to beat the flashy boys from Wasps or Harlequins or to down the colours of the big-spending French clubs. It’s only since Munster has been portrayed as an iconic European club, respected by all, that the mongrel element has been diluted.
Saracens went to Liberty Stadium in round five of the Champions Cup with a very under strength team as they were still fighting to avoid the drop in the Premiership at that stage. They beat Ospreys despite having their Welsh loose head prop Rhys Carrie sent off after four minutes.
Playing the entire second half against a side of Racing’s quality with 14 men is another matter altogether. When Skelton was shown his red card by referee Nigel Owens, every other contender for Champions Cup honours this season breathed a sigh of relief.
No doubt, Cullen had his pen and paper in hand at the time, working out the various permutations for Leinster’s likely quarter-final opponents. Removing Saracens from that mix would have made life a little easier. Not that Leinster won’t feel they are more than capable of beating Mark McCall’s men.
They did so at this juncture in Dublin two seasons ago and, but for a poor 10-minute phase either side of the break in the final in Newcastle last May, could have done so again. The difference this time is that Saracens have nothing left to play for. Lose to Leinster and they will be out of the Champions Cup for at least two years.
While they made serious errors in the way they went about it, Saracens have always been a club where the welfare of their players, on and off the field, became their point of difference. That will keep them together, at least in the short term, despite the fact that the board will have no choice but to preside over a culling of their sizeable squad. They have used 42 players already in Europe this season.
Like Leinster, Saracens will have a serious number of players scattered around Six Nations squads in Wales, Scotland and England. In that, McCall faces the same challenge as Cullen in getting his players ready for what promises to be an explosive quarter-final, fueled by a raucous atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium.
Should Leinster emerge from that, they will face either Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92 back in Dublin before a final, most likely against Toulouse or Exeter Chiefs, in Marseilles. If Leinster do add a fifth star to that blue jersey next May, truly, they will have earned it.