In the week leading up to their PRO14 opener, the Cardiff Blues helped ratchet up excitement for the new campaign by dispatching first-team players to hand deliver season tickets to fans across the region.
The Blues’ Twitter feed last Wednesday and Thursday featured a stream of beaming faces, a few awkward poses and a lot of bonhomie as supporters received their prized passes.
What was missing were the ‘after’ shots once those fans had seen the squad Leinster were sending to the Cardiff Arms Park.
In hindsight the tagline used to promote the game ‘Champions Collide’ looks a little hollow. While the hosts included 17 of the 23-man squad that had helped secure Challenge Cup success in May, their visitors travelled with only seven players that had featured in their Champions Cup final win over Racing 92, six who played in the PRO14 title win over the Scarlets.
But unlike the Scarlets, who were already missing 14 first-team players for their trip to Ulster before Jonathan Davies pulled out in the warm-up, Leinster have not had to contend with an overflowing treatment room.
Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy do remain long-term absentees, while Johnny Sexton is likely to be kept in cotton wool with a protective layer of bubble wrap in the lead-up to his final Rugby World Cup, but news on the injury front had been positive on the whole.
Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier both returned to training last week, but like their team-mates who toured Australia with Ireland this summer they will be kept on the sidelines for the opening few weeks of the PRO14 season.
It is hardly an ideal scenario for those trying to market the league at a time when it has signed deals with new broadcast partners at home and abroad.
When selecting Friday night’s match to kick off their coverage of the competition, Premier Sports, for example, would undoubtedly have expected a few more stellar names involved, especially considering Robbie Henshaw, Jordan Larmour, James Ryan et al are all fit.
But while broadcasters and Blues fans might have had reason to grumble, is the approach taken by Leinster and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) wrong?
The 23-man squad that lined up at the Arms Park contained 12 players who had been capped at Test level, and was ultimately good enough to win the match in thrilling fashion. Forget the names who filled the jerseys, no one who watched the match can feel cheated.
Moreover, at a time when concerns over player welfare are ever increasing surely the IRFU is well within its rights to protect those it employs.
For Leinster fans the uproar that greeted Thursday’s team announcement from sections of social media was strange, they have experienced the benefits of the system in place.
Under the IRFU’s player management programme, which Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has proudly claimed is the envy of the world, frontline Test stars’ involvement with their province in the PRO14 is restricted to a reported 640 minutes a season. Given Leinster’s affinity with the Champions Cup, it can often be less as players regularly play more in Europe than in the league.
Last season, the quartet of Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Rob Kearney, which started together three times for Ireland during the Six Nations, were named in a Leinster team just once in the PRO14 – the final against Scarlets.
The rewards for Ireland and Leinster of holding back their players in the first few weeks of the season are twofold. Not only do those players arrive at a crucial stage of the season – the Six Nations, PRO14 and Champions Cup play-offs – fresh but their absence creates opportunity for future stars to emerge.
Leinster has the biggest player base of any European club in the PRO14, and since the start of last season alone Larmour, Leavy and Ryan have all excelled when given an opportunity in the absence of a more senior player. On Friday night it was uncapped hooker Bryan Byrne who took his chance, scoring two tries as a replacement.
“A lot of the success, provincially and nationally, has been created by competition for places and that’s come about through being given opportunity, putting pressure on some of the more established players and people vying for selection,” IRFU performance director David Nucifora said. “That’s a great formula for performance.”
The proof of the Leinster-IRFU system is, of course, in the trophy cabinet and while the champions keep winning few at the RDS Arena will complain.
All of which offers no panacea to those attempting to ensure the PRO14 can compete with the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14, and avoid becoming a de facto development league.
The fact that the competition has so many stakeholders, with different funding models and goals in place, means that creating a level playing field will never be straightforward. But until a more competitive structure is found then Leinster and the IRFU will continue to play the system to their advantage.
Which takes us back to the real losers of Friday night, the Blues fans. Home supporters at the Arms Park have not witnessed a victory over Leinster for seven years, and it is doubtful they will get a better opportunity to put that right in the next seven.
There were plenty of positives for John Mulvihill and his team to take from defeat, but having led by 15 points with just 20 minutes to go this was a game the Blues should have seen out.
The hosts, who were missing several key players themselves, did very little wrong but the fact that Leinster’s second-string replacements’ bench had a greater impact on proceedings than their own merely highlights the gulf between these two champion teams.
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