If you get to the Pro14 final, and you’re not Leinster, odds are that you’re going to face them there. The Big East have appeared in eight of ten finals since the competition adopted the playoff format.
The league has been critical to the development of a rugby culture specific to the province and informs the identity of the modern Leinster set-up emotionally, procedurally and mechanically.
Emotion, §1: I Am Hi-i-i-i-igh on Emotion
It was the first trophy that Leinster won in the professional era. Back in December 2001, Reggie Corrigan captained 14 men to a famous victory over rivals Munster in Lansdowne Road, winning the inaugural Celtic League. There were two good teams out on the floodlit sward that afternoon, but when Eric Miller was sent off after 25 minutes [he kicked the late Anthony Foley in the balls in a fit of pique], it looked like a well-matched start to the game would collapse to a one-sided rout.
It never happened. Leinster’s under-rated pack stuck at it, and Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan – playing in each other’s long term positions, incidentally – scored late, long-range tries to upset Munster and take the spoils in front of a large and well-entertained crowd. In retrospect, that 14-man victory over Munster seems like a little bit of a false start, but you never forget your first time.
Emotion, §2: Another Time, Another Team
However, the foundation stone of Leinster’s dominance over the last decade was laid down in the league campaign of 2007-08. Back then, the competition was ‘just’ the Celtic League: there were no playoffs, no Italian sides, and the South African influence was restricted to sole traders spread amongst the ten teams of the league.
It’s a story that has been told before: Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings arrived back in Dublin from Leicester, where they had spent two seasons embedded in the fierce, second-generation Leicester pack: Ayerza, Chuter, Castrogiovanni, White, Kay, Moody and Corry*. In Donnybrook, Michael Cheika was making some progress [and as many missteps] in dismantling the pack that had been embarrassed by Munster in the landmark 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final.
A hard-barking coach now had tough and able lieutenants on the training pitch and in the dressing room, and those three men brought their characters to bear on the front half of the Leinster squad. The good-time charlies and second-rate journeymen were sidelined.
Like any notable event, the timing of their return sits within a wider context; in this case, the contemporary state of Irish rugby. Blood from the RWC07 debacle was on the walls. The domestic season started late, and Leinster’s first match took place the day after Ireland had been practically nilled by France [it finished 25-3, but it felt like a nilling]. Eddie O’Sullivan had only selected one Leinster forward in his tournament squad. Sixteen forwards, and only one of them from Leinster.
Emotion, §3: Pissed Offedness As Emotional Stimulant: A Working Group
Cullen and Jennings had been brought back into the Irish fold at the end of their stints with Leicester, making a late May tour to Argentina with O’Sullivan’s shadow squad as soon as they had finished their terms in England. Keith Gleeson [then 31] and Jamie Heaslip [then 23] were at the opposite ends of their respective careers. They too travelled to Argentina in May – Heaslip winning his second cap and Gleeson his second last on that tour – but both missed out on the Irish RWC07 squad at the final cut. So did Bernard Jackman, the Coolkenna-born hooker who, after a peripatetic career, had returned to his home province as he entered into his fourth decade. Jackman played in both tests off the bench in Santa Fe and Buenos Aires but couldn’t force his way into the squad for France. Six Leinster forwards were on the fringes of O’Sullivan’s squad, and only one of them – veteran lock Mal O’Kelly, who had been squeezed out of the starting line-up by Donncha O’Callaghan after the 2006 Six Nations – got the nod.
It didn’t feel like it at the time, but there was a significant upside for the province. The returning ex-Tigers had considerable time on the training pitch with their new team-mates; there was a core of pack members who were there or thereabouts in terms of international quality, most of whom must have been nursing grievances over missing the World Cup squad [especially the backrowers, who had all missed out on Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad of blindsides]; a high proportion of those same forwards had garnered experience outside the province [Cullen and Jennings at Leicester, Jackman at Sale, Gleeson for the Waratahs in Sydney]; and in any case, that RWC07 was a sh*t-show that they were well out of. The province was just short on props, and the couple of missing pieces came from unlikely sources.
Emotion, §4: Positivity With The Cheeky Chappies And Tough Customers
29 year old Cook Islander Stan Wright had arrived in Dublin in late 2006 as a joker, but sweated off a vat of blubber over a brutal pre-season and came back a different player. There was always a big strong islander hidden beneath the roly-poly, and in the days of seven-man benches, Wright’s versatility and toughness was invaluable. He played in 23 of Leinster’s 24 games that season, starting 21 of them and averaging better than 75mins/start.
The key part of the puzzle was Ollie le Roux, an enormous baby-faced smiler who defied all sorts of conventions. He was overweight but a phenomenal athlete, a schoolboy international at rugby, squash and waterpolo. He was old – 34 when he arrived – and had been discarded by the Springboks in 2002 after more than 50 test caps, but had a phenomenal capacity for work on the pitch. Obviously good natured to the point of gregariousness, he was a fierce competitor who took no guff from anybody at all, and frequently bullied opposite numbers.
Le Roux arrived into Ireland at the end of October after the Currie Cup and immediately set the tone with a bravura performance against Ulster. He went on to win four Man of the Match awards, but his influence wasn’t restricted to solo turns. He made a deep impact on the play of his fellow front rowers in Leinster. Everyone got better when Ollie was in the team. It’s no surprise that Birch Jackman had the best season of his career, or that Stan Wright turned from an easy punch-line into a serious competitor, or that a young Cian Healy came to him for tips.
He also showed in a late-season interview with Gerry Thornley that behind the convivial nature there was an appreciation of the role of sport in life, and a perceptive – even prescient – rugby mind:
“You want to be part of something that’s on the verge of something big, and I think if Leinster play their cards right they’re going to be one of the big clubs in Europe over the next five or 10 years. I just think if things go right here then I think they can be on a par with the Toulouses, Wasps and Leicesters of the game.”
Emotion, §5: One Of The Big Clubs In Europe
In tone, that’s the general sort of valediction that lots of departing players offer to an employer if they’ve enjoyed their stay, but the particulars catch the eye.
Leinster were on the verge of something big: they would tie up the league the following week, and the following season they dumped rivals and European champions Munster out of the Heineken Cup in the biggest game of club rugby Ireland has ever seen.
Le Roux gave that interview when Leinster essentially had the league in the bag: all they needed to tie it up was to get a single point from a home fixture against the Dragons. The big fella duly delivered two tries in the opening ten minutes and set the tone for a romp to the trophy.
Since that campaign, Leinster have have won four European Cups, four leagues under three different nomenclatures [Celtic, Pro12 and Pro14] and the European Challenge Cup, as well as two British & Irish Cups and the Celtic Cup at ‘A’ level – nine major trophies and three minors.
Of the six trophies the province have competed for over the last two seasons, they’ve won four – the Heineken Cup in 2017-18, the Pro14 in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and the Celtic Cup in 2018-19 – and been beaten finalists in the remaining two competitions [the 2018-19 Heineken Cup and the 2017-18 British & Irish Cup]. It’s a level of consistent excellence that few teams in Europe have ever attained.
Mechanics, §1: Never See How Laws Or Sausages Are Made
How can a competition affect the culture of an outfit ‘mechanically’? What’s that supposed to mean?
By mechanics, I’m trying to describe the working practices of the rugby side of the Leinster organisation that don’t take place in-game. It’s not on-pitch performance, nor the strategic, tactical or skill-based side of coaching; it has something to do with the administration of Leinster as a business, but not a huge amount to do with the other elements of that side of the organisation [i.e. marketing and governance].
On the most basic level, it’s the process of assembling and maintaining a viable and competitive squad. In this regard, the working practices of Leinster – as with all provinces – are limited by significant strictures placed upon them by the IRFU. Leinster do not operate in an open market for players; the province can only recruit low numbers of players from outside the Irish market and even then, these select view have to be signed off by an authority outside the organisation.Within the limited Irish market of players [for clarity’s sake, a theoretical market composed of Irish-qualified players playing professionally in Ireland], the province is bound by a strict trade agreement. There are three-plus-one levels of contract within the pro game in Ireland: Academy [i], Development [ii], Senior [iii] and Central [+1]. Because the IRFU funds the baseline of each province equally, the union has no interest in what would essentially be internal bidding wars between provinces for a player’s services. That’s only rational. So if a player is on a senior deal [iii] with one province at a certain pay-grade, another province can’t come in and offer him more money. They can still make an offer, and he can still move, but it will be on the monetary terms offered by the province he’s leaving.
However, if a player is on a development deal [ii] with a province, another province can offer him a senior deal [iii] on more money; likewise if a player is on an academy contract [i], another province can come in and offer him a development [ii] or senior [iii] deal for considerably more money. It doesn’t mean he has to take it, but he now has options and leverage with his own province.
Just because another province can’t offer a player more money, it doesn’t mean that they can’t offer him things that he’s looking for: it might be guaranteed minimum starts, or guaranteed minutes, or guaranteed games in a specific position, or a combination of all three.
Mechanics, §2: How To Keep Your Employees? Keep Them Happy
Leinster’s squad always shows changes year-to-year. Their players are in demand across every other province in Ireland and in every league in Europe [and now the United States, viz. Cathal Marsh]. Aside from the banalities of commerce, rugby is a brutal sport which runs people into the ground before their time.
Players in Leinster have shown that they will leave a successful team for a less successful one – for no additional money – if the province isn’t meeting very specific demands. Sometimes those demands aren’t quite in line with what the key decision-makers [in this situation, essentially the head coaches] in the organisation feel are the needs of the province as a competitive squad. This dissatisfaction might be based on minutes, it might be based on starts, it might be based on positional selection, it might be based on competition, it might be based on specific positional selection in a specific competition in a specific match.
Three current Irish internationals have walked away from Leinster [two mid-contract, one with an offer on the table] in the last year because they felt that they weren’t being selected often enough in specific positions in specific games. All three players played significant roles in hugely successful seasons, but felt that their ambitions and interests weren’t being best served in their current situation. It’s a reality that every province has faced at one stage or another: Simon Zebo left Munster to play in Paris, Tommy Bowe left Ulster to play in Swansea [the Paris of Wales] and Robbie Henshaw left Connacht to play for Leinster.
You can’t keep everyone happy, and you can’t keep everyone.
Mechanics, §3: Addition By Subtraction
Leinster sent Ian Nagle and Tom Daly out on loan before Christmas 2018: Nagle went to Ulster in November, and Daly went to Connacht in December. It turned out to be a win-win-win-win-win scenario for everyone involved. Daly and Nagle got games; Ulster and Connacht got players in positions of need; fans of those provinces got a little bit of mid-season excitement from seeing new players added to their respective rosters; Leinster were able to reduce their wage bill by passing on the costs of players for whom they didn’t really have plans; and the IRFU got value for money, paying players to play rather than just train.
“… the player and coach market continues to inflate at a greater rate than general inflation. As we have seen the participation of the South African teams in PRO14 resulted in an increase in funding to the four Provincial teams which has helped to keep pace with inflation but we cannot reasonably anticipate such increases every year.”
Financial prudence isn’t the reason that anybody gets into the game, but somebody’s got to look after the pennies so the pounds can spend themselves.
Mechanics, §4: Replace From Within, And Quickly
In rugby, you genuinely cannae win anything with kids. With that said, you cannae win anything without kids either, especially in the Irish provincial system. No team can afford to be a slave to the market, because the market is, in the wholly pejorative sense, provincial.
The 2017-18 season was lit up by break-out stars James Ryan, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter. Ryan and Porter made their test debuts the summer before the season started – Ryan famously playing for Ireland before he had played for Leinster – and Larmour broke into the Six Nations squad in February.
Shooting stars of that kind are by their nature rare. Leinster didn’t send any nippers to Joe Schmidt in the 2018-19 season, but coaches Cullen and Lancaster put in a significant amount of groundwork for the mid-term, selecting 13 of 19 academy players for Pro14 fixtures over the course of 33 weeks.
Players promoted before their time also made a significant impression: Max ‘Clifford Chance’ Deegan, who entered the academy before the 2016-17 season [and thus would be in Year 3 had he bided by a regular rate of progression] was named Leinster’s Young Player of the Year, and fellow backrower Caelan Doris, fresh out of Year 1, banked 15 games, including 11 starts at No8.
The likes of Conor O’Brien [b.1996], Ciaran Frawley [b.1997], Hughie O’Sullivan [b.1998] and Scott Penny [b.1999] assumed more important roles, and illustrated the varied circumstances which coaches are required to counter via selection.
O’Brien had shown glimpses of his potential during his second year in the academy over the 2017-18 season. But there’s a swing in expectation within camp over the course of the summer: third year is a season-long audition for any academy player. If they can’t positively contribute at Pro14 level in their last year, they can find themselves out of the job before they’ve ever really held it. Cullen’s plan for the Mullingar man was well-conceived and coherently mapped out, and O’Brien passed all tests with flying colours. His performances allowed for a confident transition from an experienced veteran [Reid] to a talented youngster with a higher ceiling. It was the ideal situation.
A less ideal situation was Joey Carbery deciding to leave Leinster mid-contract at the end of the season. Having just finished his first year in the academy, Ciaran Frawley was fast-tracked into Carbery’s wide-ranging role, with the Skerries youngster starting four games at outhalf and filling in further at fullback and first centre when signalled off the bench.
Another different scenario was presented to Cullen when Munster announced early in term that they had signed Nick McCarthy for the 2019-20 season. Having broken his wrist late in pre-season, and with Munster releasing the contract news in mid-October, McCarthy essentially spent the entire season as Leinster’s lame duck. That titular role became literal when he broke his foot in his first start of the season. The forty minutes he managed against the Ospreys in mid-November was the last competitive rugby he would see for more than four months. Hughie O’Sullivan, another player fresh from his first year in the academy, was pushed into service as his replacement. The Belvedere College stand-out had split his schoolboy rugby between scrum-half and fullback and was a real neophyte of a pro scrum-half, but Cullen made the decision to back him rather than trying to bring in a more experienced player from outside the province.
The teenage Scott Penny was put into play as various serious injuries to opensides Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Sean O’Brien and Will Connors stressed the Leinster depth chart. At fifth choice in the depth chart and in his first year in the academy, any level of involvement in the Pro14 is unexpected: five starts and three 80-minute performances is unheralded for a forward.
Mechanics, §5: Identifying Value, Cost and Price
Noel Reid played 91 [58+33] games and 4602 mins over the last five seasons for Leinster. Sean O’Brien played 36 [31+5] and 2230 mins for the province over the same period.
Was Reider more valuable to Leinster than O’Brien in that timeframe? That depends on how you define value. In theory, value is what something is worth to whoever is using it. It’s not the same thing as price; price is a figure that you pay for something. Leinster didn’t have to pay O’Brien, because the IRFU were footing the bill for his salary. In the abstract, whatever his salary, Reid was a bigger monetary cost to Leinster than O’Brien.
But rugby teams aren’t competing to make a profit, they’re competing to win trophies, so cost is more difficult to pin down than price. To start with first principles [and an obvious point], rugby is a team game. Players rely on each other, and coaches rely on players relying on each other, i.e. playing within a defensive system and not just freelancing around “after the same ball – like they do in children’s rugby. And grown-up Gaelic football.”
O’Brien’s frequent unavailability for selection [because of both IRFU player management protocols and his own injury issues] was a rugby cost for Leinster: it didn’t just impact him, it impacted the players and organisation around him. It disrupted the province’s ability to field their strongest players in a given match [for example, O’Brien only started one of the eight league finals Leinster competed in during his provincial career, and only played in one more]; it negatively impacted on the coaches’ preparation for games; it cannot but have damaged cohesion in unit training; and it probably disrupted morale at certain stages of the season. So while O’Brien’s price [to Leinster] was low, his cost was inversely high.
In contrast, Reid was regularly available for selection and, as a single-position player for the majority of the time in question, a known quantity. He had strengths and weaknesses – every player does – but they were evident and accounted for. His price to Leinster [in terms of salary] would not have been considered high, and those costs were mitigated to a fairly large extent by his reliability. He kept himself in excellent condition, he didn’t pick up many injuries, and he never brought any controversy or bad publicity on himself or the organisation.
But where does that leave the argument for value, or a method of establishing a player’s value? Value is not just a matter of being available for selection. Being available to perform isn’t the same as performing.
At his best, O’Brien was one of the greatest players to have worn the blue; only Slattery could rival him as an openside flanker. During the peak of his career [2011-13], his ability to influence matches was practically peerless in European competition. His value to Leinster was immense, and immensely obvious. He was a game changer and a match winner.
Reid never hit those heights. 107 [88.4%] of his 121 Leinster appearances came in the league, the hierarchical inferior of the cup. He has worked through his career in relative obscurity in comparison with O’Brien, a superstar of the game on the world stage. However, that doesn’t mean that his career wasn’t valuable to Leinster.
Both players have recently left Leinster for English clubs, leaving curiously similar records:
- O’Brien: Played 126, Scored 100 pts.
- Reid: Played 121, Scored 103pts.
Those pat summary figures are reductive: they actively ignore the moments, the attitudes and actions and that made Sean O’Brien such a touchstone for the province during its most successful era to date. But the equivalence of those figures makes one reconsider the importance – and the value – of what could be termed the supporting cast: the likes of Reid, James Tracy [89 appearances in the four seasons from 2015-16 to 2018-19 inclusive], Ross Molony and Michael Bent [80 and 72 respective appearances in the same period] and Rory O’Loughlin [61 appearances in the last three seasons].
These are the players on whom Cullen and Lancaster rely so heavily during the season, players who put in unglamourous stints in Rodney Parade and the Stadio Comunale di Monigo in November and February. They play a lot of games for the province; more than their internationally-recognised peers, in most cases. Wins in those quickly-forgotten fixtures get Leinster to the top of the pile, time after time … and then, more often than not, the majority of these players are sidelined when trophies are up for grabs at the end of the season. But those winning records over the course of the season show the value of those players. There is more than a touch of Milton to it: “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best … they also serve who only stand and wait”.
As we wrote before, “having a long professional career means that you’re a top quality player, even if you don’t necessarily rack up a lot of test caps.” There are always talented youngsters coming into and through the academy in the Leinster structure, and fan feeling runs high on getting them into the squad at the expense of a non-international veteran. But age-grade rugby is a protected system, and pro rugby isn’t. Making your way successfully in the absoluto division of the pros is a harder task than starring in the weight-classes of schools or U20s rugby. A successful squad needs a corps of experienced role-players. Their value is understated but essential.
Mechanics, §6: Incentivisation and Disincentivisation
Test rugby provides the IRFU with approximately 80% of its revenue [Ibid. p.42]: that’s a figure of around €68.56m from last year’s total revenues of approximately €85.7m. Gracer outlines total costs to the union at €84.5m, with the professional game costed at €42.3m. Beyond that, the IRFU puts almost €11m into Elite Player Development: that encompasses the National Talent Squad [broadly speaking, young players selected for U18 Schools, U18 Clubs and U19 squads]; the provincial sub-academies; and the provincial academies.
It’s important to stress that this EPD money is coming from a central source and being distributed, without bias or resentment, amongst all the provincial bodies mentioned above. It’s also important to stress the difference in return on investment that is being generated by the Leinster Academy in comparison to the three other provincial academies. The IRFU is reliant on Leinster to the point of the country not being a viable top ten-ranked nation without it. There’s no comparison with the other provinces.
Every province benefits from the same central source of funding, but the IRFU in no way sees equal returns, even allowing for population and demographic inequalities, from their investment in difference branches. To improve the situation in the other provinces, the union have to work out a better scheme of incentives … and disincentives. They’re the ones putting cash on the barrelhead, so they are the ones who should define an improved program.
The production of players for your own purposes is its own reward only to a certain extent, because it’s no reward when they go somewhere else, especially not to a competitor. It’s an active handicap. In the abstract, one has essentially produced a player for one’s opponents, and given them an insight into your preparation, strategy and tactics [and more: the shorthand of ‘intellectual property’ is an appropriate if pompous cover-all]. That’s on top of losing not just the player’s abilities on the pitch, but the time that you invested in him, which could have been invested in another player.
If a Leinster player decides to up sticks and move mid-contract to another province, Leinster should get a transfer fee from wherever he winds up. Any other proposal – including the status quo – is irrational: Leinster are essentially being penalised for operating efficiently, while other provinces are being rewarded for their ineptitude. The money is staying within the provincial system, so there’s nothing that runs contrary to IRFU norms.
Procedure, §1: Who Knows The Plans And Why They Were Drawn Up?
When Joe Schmidt took over at Leinster job in 2010, he essentially drew up the blueprint for how Leinster would approach competing on two fronts whilst being denuded of their best players for the guts of a third of the season. His arrival coincided with the advent of two Italian teams, Benetton Treviso and Aironi, joining the league and the resultant addition of four games to the regular season fixture list.
Michael Cheika operated in an 11-team league for his first two years in charge of Leinster, and then a 10-team competition from the start of the 2007-08 when the Border Reivers folded. In his last season in charge, there were no games in November and only one game in February. He essentially operated under Charlie McCreevy’s maxim: “When I have it, I spend it.” When Cheika had access to his internationals, he picked them. When he didn’t, he’d send a team of kids out with some left-overs.
Schmidt came from the Top14, and better understood the long haul of a 20+ game regular season. Knowing that there were times when he’d have no access at all to his internationals, his priority in selection [not necessarily in terms of his overall job] was to improve his depth. He did that by balancing his league selections, picking a handful of younger players spread through a reasonably experienced starting fifteen. The Mole can only speculate, but it seems very likely that his reasoning was that young players would improve at a faster rate if they were a] selected in stronger teams, and b] selected more frequently in stronger teams. The first year of his tenure was notable for these ‘half-and-half’ selections.
It’s difficult to pick them out now by looking over the teamsheets, because so many of those young players went on to have [and some are still having] big Leinster careers.
- Richardt Strauss [24 @ start of 10-11 season]: 1+5 in 09-10; 29+1 in 10-11| +1963mins
- Devin Toner : 7+5 in 2009-10, 17+5 in 2010-11 | +852 mins
- Rhys Ruddock : 3+0 in 2009-10; 10+7 in 2010-11 | +656 mins
- Dominic Ryan : 2+1 in 2009-10; 15+8 in 2010-11 | +1105 mins
- Sean O’Brien : 10+5 in 2009-10; 21+1 in 2010-11 | +771 mins
- Ian Madigan : 1+3 in 2009-10; 7+11 in 2010-11 | + 527 mins
- Eoin O’Malley : 4+3 in 2009-10;17+3 in 2010-11 | + 1032 mins
- Fergus McFadden : 10+6 in 2009-10; 20+8 in 2010-11 | +909 mins
- Dave Kearney : 3+0 in 2009-10; 7+6 in 2010-11 | +499 mins
Schmidt didn’t bring a single one of those players to the squad with him. They were all in situ. He just started picking them. He did find particular value in two signings which had been made in the off-season prior to his arrival, however: Isaac Boss  played in 29 games [17+12], and Heinke van der Merwe  played in 31 [18+13].
Again, Schmidt brought his experience from the Top14 to bear. While the Heineken Cup switched to the Top14-style 8-man bench for the 2009-10 season, the Celtic League regulations still maintained a 7-man bench [and the Six Nations still had a 7-man bench in 2012 … yikes]. Though Vern Cotter was in command of the forwards at Clermont, Schmidt had obviously picked up a few details, namely that tiring front rowers led to spaces in defense, penalties at scrum-time and an increased likelihood of injury as the season wore on. Cian Healy went 70+ minutes 14 times in 2009-10 [including eight 80-minute efforts]; the following season, he went over 70 minutes just twice in 21 games.
Schmidt was not only the first coach of an Irish province to start utilising the possibilities of the second prop on the bench effectively, but the first to ‘rotate’ Irish starters on to the bench. Van der Merwe spelled Cian Healy brilliantly, making a one-two punch out of the loosehead position. Stan Wright’s ruptured Achilles meant that his season didn’t start until late February, but once he was fit to play he featured in 11 [5+6] of the 13 remaining games, and eased the heavy load on Mike Ross [8+13 in 2009-10; 22+5 in 2010-11|+ 926 mins]. Ross had fallen foul of Michael Cheika shortly after arriving at Leinster with a bad mistake against London Irish in the RDS and found himself on the wrong side of the Australian for the rest of the season; it should be said that his period in the bad books coincided with the best season of Wright’s career, when the big Cook Islander played both sides of the scrum and was a rampaging presence in the loose. However, the roundabout came back to Ross and he became the anchor in Schmidt’s scrum for the 2010-11 season.
Procedure, §2: Fast-Track and On-Track
The Mole has written dozens of times before about the need for provincial staff to have a plan for every player under their remit. Selection has to be the key element of this plan. Any dedicated supporter would love to sit in on just one selection meeting … certainly I would. It’s never going to happen. You’ve got to make do with what you can read between the lines from Bren Fanning or Peter O’Reilly. So it was with some fascination that The Mole read this snippet of information from The 42’s most recent question and answer session with Lancaster:
‘While Lancaster pushes for continuity in the team’s make-up, he credits head coach Leo Cullen with providing resistance to unchanged teams and combinations by bubbling names up from the depth chart to earn their shot in the matchday squad … “Leo does a brilliant job of giving other players opportunities. So we keep a freshness in the squad, keep a hunger in the squad… I can’t think of many occasions in my time here that we’ve put out the same team two or three weeks on the bounce. It rarely happens.”‘
Lancaster’s comments shine a sidelight on Leinster’s selection practices, and it’s arresting to see Cullen as the driver for the consistent turnover in teams and through-put of talent. Cullen tends to be a little sidelined by the media in favour of Lancaster when discussing Leinster’s recent and ongoing success, but the fact that he maintains the final say in selection means the value of his input has probably been under-represented.There’s further evidence of his nuanced and thoughtful approach to selection in the performance of a small cadre of unheralded players over Leinster’s unbeaten start to the 2019-20 season. Will Connors and Josh Murphy [both born 1995], and Hugo Keenan and Jimmy O’Brien [both born 1996] were all U20 internationals – Murphy played in three tournaments over two seasons – so they were hardly stray waifs off the street, but none of them were age-grade superstars. Their respective progressions through the various vetting posts of the Leinster Academy were safely on the speed limit rather than supersonic.
Cullen’s deliberate [in both senses of the word] promotion of these unheralded players is not motivated by chasing praise for selecting a younger player ahead of an older one. It’s not the excitement of seeing just how good a starlet like Garry Ringrose or James Ryan or Jordan Larmour or Caelan Doris is when thrown into the mix in a first grade game way ahead of schedule. It comes from a rational belief in the responsibilities delegated to the academy system to improve players through various strands and methods of development; it comes from having seen the players’ rate of progress as measured against both their age-grade peers and senior players in training; and it comes from the necessary realisation that not all players are going to be superstars, and that not all players need to be superstars. These are, in their way, procedural selections: they indicate how the Leinster system functions when the vagaries of individual talent and positional need are set at neutral values.
Procedure, §3: Game Of Thrones/League Of Windows
Most Irish rugby fans will have heard one provincial head coach or another reference ‘this window’ when discussing their team’s performance in a seasonal context post-match. Making sense of the concept is as easy as comparing a schedule with a calendar.
For example, Leinster’s first ‘window’ of the 2018-19 season ran all the way from Friday 31 August to Sunday 4th November: a match every weekend for 10 weeks in a row. They then had two weekends off before entering into the second window, another 10 game stretch – this one running from Friday 23rd November to Friday 25 January – and then another two weekends off.
The rigour of the system breaks down a little at this point, as the all-encompassing Six Nations brings itself to bear on the season. Following their two weekends off [2nd/3rd and 9th/10th of February], Leinster were back in the saddle for three weekends of rugby, and then had another two weekends off [9th/10th and 16th/17th of March]. Then it was six weeks in a row [in Leinster’s case, from the 22nd of March until the 27th April], with a week off before finals rugby in May. Obviously it’s not six weeks in a row for every team: only sixteen teams from the three leagues have European quarter-finals in which to compete, and [surprise] only eight make the semi-finals.From the outside looking in, the window system makes sense from the start of the season until the mid-point, and then it fragments, as ancient scheduling and knock-out rugby takes precedence. The Mole has no issue with this. I think that rugby is more suited to knock-out competitions than leagues, because the physical demands entail an emotional demand.
Procedure, §4: Procedural Drama
The Mole mentioned early in this article about how the procedure of the league had informed the culture of Leinster Rugby.
The ‘windows’ of the first half of the season provide a rational, if arduous, framework. It’s when you consider the league as stand-alone tournament that the procedural difficulties kick in for provincial coaches. Take the calendar as a base layer: the ‘window’ system is the first overlay, and the league schedule a second overlay. The introduction of South African teams and a long-haul ‘mini-tour’ to factor in provides a final overlay of organisational requirements. A cursory examination through that gauze shows all kinds of external factors bringing significant nuance to the season.
Procedurally the league is a season of stops and starts. There’s a run of six games from the start of September to mid-October – ‘Back to School’ rugby. Then the league halts for a couple of European games. Then there’s a collection of four games over a seven-week period which span the first and second ‘windows’ and are essentially run in tandem with the November test series. The matches are hit and miss in terms of direct scheduling conflicts with the internationals, but coaches are aware that they’re completely in the ha’penny place when it comes to their selection needs against the needs of the national side.
Then there’s the second fortnight of Heineken Cup games – another break in the league – and then into the Christmas/New Year interprovincial fixtures, a run of mid-winter derby games in front of big crowds. That’s the third run of league games, bang in the middle of the second ‘window’ of the season. The last fortnight of Heineken Cup pool games follows in mid-January, and then it’s back into the fourth course of the league, an eight-week run from late January through February and into mid-March in tandem with the Six Nations. This is an on-off period for everyone bar test players.
The fifth course of the league – Spring rugby through late March and April – is splintered by European knock-out games or rest weekends, depending on how competitive your team is.
Leinster headed Conference B last season on 76 points with a P21|W15|L5|D1 record, but the narrative behind the numbers is worth bearing in mind. The Blue Meanies qualified for their home semi-final as early as Round 17, clinching top spot in the conference by beating the Cheetahs in the RDS on the 1st March. After that game, their record ran P17|W15|L2|D0 [they’d lost away to the Scarlets in Round 2 in early September and then at the Christmas bunfight in Thomond ], an 88% win rate which is perhaps more reflective of the nature of their campaign than the 71% with which they actually ended their regular season.
Over the course of the eight weeks following that win over the Cheetahs, Leinster had no fewer that four dud league fixtures to fulfil their regular season obligations, before they could restart the process of trying to win the tournament. They promptly went out and lost three out of four them, drawing at home to Treviso in Round 19.
But to be frank, those games had become as meaningful as pre-season friendlies … at least to one of the teams involved. In contrast to the previous 17 fixtures, winning those remaining four games was absolutely inconsequential to Leinster’s attempt to win the league. They had secured their home semi-final in that victory over the Cheetahs: all of a sudden the staff’s sophisticated consideration of the league as a shifting mass composed of a huge number of variable factors was entirely simplified. Most of those variables became irrelevant, and the importance of fixtures in Rounds 18-21 collapsed.
Having all that slack on the rope in the league meant that Cullen and Lancaster could concentrate on the European fixtures without having to sweat results in the intervening weeks. It limited drama. It meant that internationals were afforded extra recuperation time, and that high-value players didn’t need to be risked in less important matches. It allowed for extensive game-planning for the three knock-out fixtures, optimising the team’s chances in each.
The end-of-season stressors aren’t the number of games, or their adjacencies; in the abstract, the programme isn’t dissimilar from the start of the season. However, the games themselves are more heavily freighted with importance. Your own players are operating at the point where there instincts and reactions are honed, but their bodies are beginning to wear out; they’ve paid big mental and physical tolls at this stage of the season. The opposition teams are at their strongest [in terms of personnel – no holding back players for bigger days down the line] and most motivated, and there are more ‘better’ teams on the opposition side of the whitewash. In short, the matches are tougher. Anything that a coach can do to save unnecessary mental stress or physical wear-and-tear is an advantage.
The league is a stop-start and jerry-rigged entity that can underwhelm, frustrate and engage in equal measure. It doesn’t have the history, wealth, clarity, or national importance of the Top14 – or even the French league’s trans-channel junior, the Premiership – and has thus always had a public relations struggle for a sense of legitimacy. The fact that it has gone through a staggering number of iterations since its initial formation has been a hindrance to its widespread acceptance as a coherent competition.
With that said, its existence is vital to the existence of professional rugby in Ireland – more so than the adored Heineken Cup. Without a 6-to-9 game competition, the league would only become more important, with stronger teams picked more frequently; without a 21-to-24 game competition, it’s quite likely there would be no professional teams in Ireland.
Taking its structural import to the unions out of the equation, the league is still viable as an abstract competition: it’s difficult to win. The Pro12/14 has been won by four different teams in the last five years, and six different teams in the last ten. The Premiership has had the same number of winners over the longer period, but only two in the last five years [and Saracens have won four of them], while the Top14 has had a different winner in each of the last five seasons and [again] six winners over a ten-year period.
In their fourth season together at Leinster, Cullen and Lancaster have continued to refine their approach to the league, both as a testing ground for tactics and a proving ground for players. There is no sense of wilful experimentalism, or of playing an ideologically ‘pure’ brand of rugby; the ideas that are tested are ideas concerned with making Leinster a more threatening opponent, a more difficult match-up and a more competitive outfit. Their approach to selection balances progression against internal competition whilst taking into account the standard issues of playing time, depth, age profile and form. There’s no shortage of factors to take into account. The ability of the coaches to place these different factors within a hierarchical system, and their response time to changing conditions, marks them out as both the most nuanced and the most adventurous selectors in the Irish system.