The four provinces return to centre stage this week in the wake of Ireland’s dramatic retention of the Six Nations championship five days ago and with Leinster the only one of the quartet still fighting a war on both the PRO12 and Rugby Champions Cup fronts.
O’Connor’s side lies fifth in the league, one spot outside the play-off places after a Six Nations period in which they were denuded of so many players and claimed just a win and a draw in four outings. Victory is a must this evening when they take on Glasgow Warriors in the RDS.
A European quarter-final against Bath at the Aviva lies seven days further down the line which makes this, as O’Connor all but said yesterday, make-or-break time but their preparations have been hindered by the absence this week of six of the men who started in Murrayfield last week.
Rob Kearney, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Jack McGrath have all been designated as unavailable to the province for this date with the Scottish side and will thus have to reintegrate next week just days before the club season’s biggest game.
It is obviously a far from satisfactory situation. O’Brien, for example, hasn’t played for his club since September due to injury. His is an extreme example, certainly, but it is one that highlights the difficulties facing O’Connor and his squad right now.
Ross and McGrath haven’t worn blue since January 3 while Heaslip, Kearney and Toner last represented their province in the Champions Cup pool decider away to Wasps in Coventry. Nine weeks ago. A lifetime, in other words, in the context of a season.
“There was a conversation,” said the Australian as to who the Irish management decided would and would not be made available for this week’s vital PRO12 game against the side they defeated in last season’s final. “How two-way it was is debatable.”
O’Connor was careful to paint the scenario as one in which the league would be the one to suffer most. “There’s no point in whinging about it,” he added before offering the sort of stuff about focus and strength in adversity so beloved of coaches.
The subtext was obvious, that said. No team supplies the sort of numbers to Team Ireland that Leinster do and the province is effectively being given no latitude in terms of their personnel even if they are far from denuded of talent this evening.
Indeed, O’Connor can still call on some serious reinforcements tonight. Seven of those from Schmidt’s 23 last week have been added to the mix, among them Ian Madigan, Marty Moore, Jordi Murph, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Luke Fitzgerald.
The contrast with Glasgow is interesting, however.
Nine of Vern Cotter’s squad has been given the green light this week and, though most of those named to start are backs, there has been flexibility shown with Jonny Gray and Adam Ashe, both of whom started up front against Ireland, allowed to feature on the bench.
“The management system needs to be restructured,” said O’Connor of a setup whereby the senior Irish management regulates the amount of games the top Irish players play and when they play them. “I think it hurts the league. There’s a lot of games in the PRO12 that are impacted on by the lack of availability from test players.
“If we’re talking about competing with the bigger Leagues in Europe, in relation to the Top 14 and the Premiership and the ability to maximise the commercial potential of those, we need to look at how often the very best marquee players are playing PRO12 rugby for Leinster.”
The situation isn’t likely to improve next season what with the World Cup looming on the horizon and O’Connor’s reply was succinct when asked if the IRFU were open to debating the matter.
“Well, they haven’t been to this point. Hopefully, there’s growth in that.”
To be continued. Undoubtedly.
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, B Te’o, I Madigan, D Kearney; J Gopperth, E Reddan; M Bent, R Strauss, M Moore; T Denton, M McCarthy; J Murphy, S Jennings, J Conan.
Replacements: S Cronin, C Healy, T Furlong, B Marshall, D Ryan, I Boss, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: S Hogg; T Seymour, M Bennett, P Horne, DTH van der Merwe; F Russell, N Matawalu; A Allan, F Brown, Z Fagerson; T Swinson, A Kellock; R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss.
Replacements: P MacArthur, J Yanuyanutawa, M Cusack, J Gray, A Ashe, H Pyrgos, C Braid, R Vernon.