With Saracens coming to town, do Leinster need to worry about the lingering effects of Ireland’s Grand Slam victory?
The Six Nations window is a tricky one for all Champions Cup teams. Losing players to the national team requires coaches to perform a careful balancing act. They need to manage with a depleted squad, not overplay anyone and also pick up league points along the way. Then comes the job of reintroducing the national players in time for the Champions Cup quarterfinals.
For Leinster, this is a more difficult challenge than most this year. They had 19 players involved in matchday squads for Ireland. Robbie Henshaw, Luke McGrath and Josh van der Flier were injured, only McGrath is expected back this season. We have since learned that exciting young star Jordan Larmour is also an injury absentee.
On top of the simple player numbers involved with Ireland, they won the championship… the Grand Slam… in Twickenham… on St Patrick’s Day. That is a huge emotional high, at the end of a draining campaign. Surely a comedown is inevitable.
Leo Cullen and his fellow coaches have the task of inserting these returning internationals. Plus Sean O’Brien and Rhys Ruddock who are back from injury. The first step came against Ospreys in the Pro 14. Eight players that featured off the bench in the Six Nations were selected. But, this Ospreys game added more uncertainty with further injuries to Dave Kearney, Noel Reid and Fergus McFadden.
Many of Leinster’s top players head into the Champions Cup quarterfinal cold. Will they be mentally and physically right?
Leinster’s returning players fall into two camps. Seasoned campaigners like Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney played big minutes for Ireland, but have seen it all before. While newcomers like James Ryan and Dan Leavy have known nothing but success.
Strangely, it may be the older players that find it tougher to focus on the task at hand. There is no doubting their professionalism, but they were the leaders and surely mentally fatigued. The younger players – James Ryan in particular – seem to be a new breed, hitting the ground running and taking every challenge in stride.
Fatigue versus focus
It may be that Saracens are the team that struggles to recover from the Six Nations. Unlike their Irish counterparts, they have no player management minutes restrictions in place. Maro Itoje played on Saturday against Harlequins with no break after the Six Nations, while key men Owen Farrell and George Kruis missed the match with injury. Having finished fifth in the Six Nations, the English players will surely be deflated. Will they be able to rally themselves, dig deep and deliver against so many of the team that beat them in Twickenham?
Leinster have some advantages for keeping minds focused. Quality young players like Max Deegan and Joey Carbery will be eager to show Joe Schmidt that they should be in his plans for the summer tour to Australia. Also, times like these are precisely the reason for big foreign signings like Scott Fardy and Isa Nacewa. To keep the show on the road while the Irish internationals are away and to provide continuity and focus when they return.
Questions for Cullen
Leo Cullen has a few selection decisions to ponder. Does James Ryan start ahead of Devin Toner as he did for Joe Schmidt? Is there room on the pitch for Joey Carbery? Does Sean O’Brien start ahead of Dan Leavy or Jordi Murphy? Finally, he can only select two from James Lowe, Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park? Do the recent backline injuries push Lowe’s case?
The Leinster coaches certainly have their work cut out for them. But, with the quality in the squad and the professionalism of the players, Leinster should be able to meet the challenge.
Author: Stephen Kavanagh
I love most sports, but rugby is my passion. Having retired from a long and underwhelming rugby career as a too short 2nd row, I can dedicate more of my time to watching and talking (endlessly) about it. I was encouraged to start writing about sport by my wife and friends. I think they had a vain hope that I would write more and talk less, how wrong they were.