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Gordon D’Arcy: Taxing weeks ahead for the provinces as business end of club season looms

Leinster face a tough schedule but Jacques Nienaber could well be the key that unlocks the barrier to European silverware

The United Rugby Championship’s (URC) revamped format, that effectively removed as many games as possible from the international Test match windows, was done with the best of intentions so that competing teams would have their best players on the pitch more often.

The knock-on effects were thought to be manifold, better matches and higher standards in the URC and guaranteeing the supporter base that they would see more of the marquee players. The practical application of the theory has been relatively successful, especially when coupled with the new dimension brought by the South African teams.

The most recent round of matches in the tournament offered a salutary reminder of how tough it is to win in this league. Nearly every match had something at stake and there are now only five points separating seven teams in the top 11 places in the URC standings.

It was a particularly harrowing weekend for Connacht and Ulster, both of whom turned in substandard performances in failing to get to grips with South African opponents. Connacht were poor, bullied and beaten by a 14-man Lions team who had a player sent off early in the game.


It’s hard to recall a quieter atmosphere in Galway, although the supporters could hardly be blamed given what they were subjected to watching. It’s been a season of peaks and troughs for Connacht and that has made for a frustrating campaign. That inconsistency is a real concern, the yo-yo nature difficult to fathom given the extremes.

Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins will be desperate to try to resolve the issues on the fly in the coming weeks against a tough backdrop as four of their last five URC matches are on the road. Losing ground to the Lions, who now sit one point above the Irish province after their win in Galway, is a reminder that there is no wriggle room for those hoping to make the playoffs.

Ulster will enjoy slightly more home comfort in the later stages of the URC but for now the task at hand this weekend is the second of two games in South Africa. A loss to the Sharks, who had won just one of their previous 11 matches, was disappointing and showed how far the visitors have regressed. Ulster at least fought hard but were outmuscled.

The sight of Tom O’Toole being ‘given his wings’ by Springbok loose head prop Ox Nche was disconcerting. Scrums are technical but they also provide emotive moments in games that can galvanise or deflate. Think back to Andrew Porter shooting out the side of a scrum after winning a penalty against Scotland during the Six Nations.

Ulster need to change their body language this weekend as they travel to the Stormers. Interim head coach Richie Murphy is somewhat limited in what’s at his disposal; there aren’t too many players that he can look to swap in or out.

All he can do is try to set the right tone this week and free them up to play. Winning might be beyond them given the current state of flux, but walking off the field with the head held high will go a long way later in the season. Ulster have to push to one side what’s happening off the pitch and control the controllables, as a former national team coach was given to saying.

Leinster and Munster have a similar challenge in the next four weeks, albeit on slightly different paths. There are returning internationals and Champions Cup rugby to deal with, followed by a two-week jaunt down to South Africa as the jostling continues for home comfort in the knockout stages of the URC.

Munster will reintegrate their Ireland squad contingent over the coming weeks having been able to afford them a little time to rest and recover. Craig Casey is already up and running as of last week. The goal is to carry the momentum of the win over the Ospreys into this weekend and beyond as they then undertake a Champions Cup trip to the Northampton Saints on Sunday week.

Jack Crowley, Peter O’Mahony, Tadgh Beirne, Conor Murray and Calvin Nash may not all play against Cardiff on Saturday night but there should be minimal disruption when reintegrated. Munster’s URC focus is on trying to get a home semi-final.

In contrast, Leinster, the main contributor to the Ireland squad, face a selection dilemma over the next couple of weeks in trying to manage the workloads of players coming off the back of the Six Nations with the need to get back into Leinster systems, complete with match minutes with their team-mates.

In previous years Leinster have opted for rotation, with a heavy focus on the Champions Cup games. Fringe players are getting less exposure now than ever before and this without doubt impacts Leinster and their ability to compete in two competitions if they continue with a heavy rotational policy. However, Champions Cup regrets and URC losses may feed into the way players are managed now.

The paradigm has evolved, and the ‘rest, peak, perform model’ in Ireland is being tested. The next few weeks look more akin to a French Top 14 run-in, where size and durability yields results.

It will be interesting to see how and when players are reintroduced. There was a general tiredness creeping into some players towards the end of the Six Nations, yet we are already knocking on the business end of the club season.

Leinster’s obsessive quest to provide a happier ending to their European campaigns of late doesn’t get any easier if they manage to get past the Leicester Tigers as their bête noire La Rochelle or the Stormers await in a potential quarter-final before a two-match URC trip to South Africa.

They have been here before, and those memories are still raw. There is a need for something different. They opted not to go to the market for players, instead persuaded a double World Cup-winning coach to join them. Jacques Nienaber could well be the key that unlocks the barrier to silverware.