MICHAEL CHEIKA copped a fair share of flak for resting his frontline troops last week but final judgment will rest on tomorrow’s crucial Heineken Cup tie in Llanelli.
With so many of his first-choice players coming off the back of the three autumn internationals, Cheika went with a second-string selection for last week’s trip to face the Newport Gwent Dragons.
CJ van der Linde was the only starter in that game who can expect to be in the starting side when the Australian names his selection today and Leinster paid the price with a comprehensive defeat.
Munster took the opposite approach by fielding most of their big names for the trip to the Ospreys, although a handful of marquee players were missing through injury and Tony McGahan’s men also left Wales at a loss.
Injuries were a universal issue for the Irish sides. Ulster were also shorn of some of their brightest lights with Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris absent from the side which took on the Glasgow Warriors at Ravenhill.
Injuries aside, it is an ongoing conundrum for the provincial coaches when it comes to juggling their resources ahead of crucial European ties.
Do you field your top players and risk more injuries or do you leave them out and risk going into season-defining fixtures with a side that, effectively, hasn’t played together for six weeks?
“There was no right or wrong way to go about these things,” said Cheika.
“Munster played most of their guys, Ulster were probably forced to leave theirs out through injury and we made the decision to rest the team and start preparing for this week’s game.
“As long as you have got a plan and the players are confident in that plan then that is the way you have got to proceed because there is no right way or wrong way to do it.
“I can understand why I got a bit of criticism because it wasn’t the scenario I would like to have. I would have liked to have the younger players playing with Girvan, Shaun, Bernard and maybe Shane Jennings if he was available.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the extra depth because of those injuries or suspensions so it didn’t really work out the way I wanted it in my mind’s eye but I have confidence in those players.”
As Cheika pointed out, provincial coaches also have to work within the framework set out by the IRFU to protect their international players from burnout.
The ‘six-from-eight’ games rule meant that the Dragons tie was always going to be one where Leinster left out a chunk of their best talent, what with four European games and two Irish derbies to come.
“We made a calculated decision to play that way last week and I will still back those players. Okay, we had a horror first-half but they gave everything they could and they will learn from it even if we didn’t get any competition points.
“We understand that in the league now we have had five away games out of eight and we only have to leave the country twice more. We have two local away games and then one at Cardiff and one at Glasgow.
“The rest of our league games are at home so we are trying to calculate our run, basically. Hopefully, we have got it right.”
Win tomorrow in Parc Y Scarlets and no-one will remember that Magners League reversal 70 miles to the west last Sunday but it won’t be easy against a Scarlets side that likes to keep its best for these European occasions.
Cheika described Nigel Davies’ side as “carefree” earlier this week and pointed in particular to operators lie Stephen Jones, Martin Roberts and David Lyons who he believes is playing superior rugby in Europe than he did in Australia.
“They’ve got a great off-load game and they’ve got lots of pace on the edges of the pitch. If you saw the game against London Irish – they were losing with five minutes to go. They chipped the ball over the top from in their own half. Irish got it, they got it back.
“They chipped it again, chipped it ahead again and got the penalty. So they’re not scared to go on the attack. You’ll see it in the way they score tries. Irish got an intercept on them because they were looking to attack. That’s pretty much the way Llanelli have always played.”
It is an intriguing pool with Leinster, Irish and Scarlets all having won games away from home thus far and the holders can ill afford to slip up again having already suffered defeat in round one at the RDS against the English side.
“It’s now a situation that the teams in this group are pretty much staring each other down and it’s going to be who blinks first,” said Cheika. “It’s an interesting set of circumstances.
“Irish will have to go to Scarlets, Scarlets have to come here, Brive have to come here, we have to go to Irish. It’s pretty complicated. It’s going to go down to the last day.”
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