The Guinness PRO14 rarely fares well when observers from across the Irish Sea compare it to their own Gallagher Premiership.
Such exercises are usually limited in their usefelness, and all but compromised from the off given the vast disparities between the competition structures and the make-up of the clubs involved, but there are times when this comparison of apples and oranges can’t help but make the old Celtic League look bad.
Both leagues offered up what could be described as their marquee games last weekend with Leinster making the trip down to face Munster at Thomond Park and Exeter Chiefs hosting the biggest grudge match of them all, given recent events, when Saracens came a calling.
Both games were tense and tight affairs, with just a converted try proving the difference in a pair of venues bulging at the seams with spectators, but the discrepancies in terms of the personnel involved could have hardly been greater.
Leinster and Munster provided 26 players to the Ireland squad that featured at the 2019 World Cup but only four of them were on duty in Limerick. Andrew Porter and Dave Kilcoyne started in the respective front rows with Sean Cronin and Joey Carbery called off the bench.
It was a thin representation for a game that was once the jewel in the crown of the provincial scene and a who’s who of Irish rugby. And it looked all the more frugal when an eye was thrown at the corresponding fixture earlier that day at Sandy Park.
Exeter and Saracens provided 22 players to the recent tournament in Japan, the vast majority of them serving with England. All but four of those – Henry Slade and Tomas Francis for the Chiefs, and Juan Figallo and Titi Lamositele for Sarries – made an appearance there.
Nobody doubts the need for the provinces to cut their top players some slack, not least in a World Cup season that saw them report for duty back in mid-June, but it seems careless in the extreme that these billboard games should have to be diluted to this extent.
Robin McBryde is new to all this. Assistant coach with Wales for more than a decade before joining Leinster a few months ago, he was keen to lean towards the undoubted benefits of a player management system that has Leinster nursing a relatively small casualty list right now.
“I think that’s because we’ve got rotation of player. No player has been asked too much of, otherwise you start breaking down. That’s one of the reasons why South Africa were successful in the World Cup. They had a good rotation system. They had six forwards on the bench. They kept rotating those forwards in the big games, you know. But when you’ve got quality in depth, why don’t you choose to use it? And you’ve got to look to the future. You look at the quality that is coming through the academy in Leinster, the future is looking rosy.”
That’s all well and good but nine of the 23 players Leinster brought to Limerick last weekend had never played in Thomond Park before. Two of the three interpro rounds have been put to bed now and 19 of the 33 players who represented Ireland in Japan have not played a single minute.
Injuries to the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Jack Conan and Tahdg Beirne, and Rory Best’s retirement, have gone some way towards that stat, and we’ll surely see others return this weekend after that fortnight off, but it’s hard not to wish that something fundamental could change.
Finding a spot in the fixture list is no easy fix. Efforts to magic up a global calendar have taken on a complexity that administrators in the GAA would sympathise with but such is the situation when too many stakeholders are shoe-horning too many games into any one season.
What can’t be denied, even by those in England, is the continuing attractiveness of ‘local’ rivalries across the PRO14. Five of the six games last weekend – at Thomond, Kingspan Stadium, Cardiff Arms Park, Parc Y Scarlets and Stadio Monigo – were sellouts because they had national pride and points at stake.
The biggest crowd of them all was at Murrayfield where 27,437 watched Edinburgh see to Glasgow. Look at it like that and the competition organisers are probably entitled to claim that there isn’t actually anything broken or in need of fixing.
“You can’t have everything, can you?” said McBryde. “You can’t keep everyone happy, otherwise you keep nobody happy. Your most important commodity is your players and they’ve got to feel that they’re valued. The minute that you lose that and the player feels that he’s been taken advantage of and not looked after, you’re on a slippery slope then.”