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FEATURE Can Leinster be classed as a true European great?

Can Leinster be classed as a true European great?
10 months ago

Should Leinster beat La Rochelle in Dublin on Saturday they will equal Toulouse’s feat of five Champions Cup titles. Some achievement, and the Irish side will deserve all the accolades for their outstanding performances this season.

But let’s be honest, they’ve done it the easy way, as they have with all their previous triumphs in Europe. It’s why Leinster, in this writers’ opinion, don’t deserve to rank alongside Toulouse, or even Saracens or Toulon, as Champions Cup royalty.

The French and the English clubs juggle Europe with their domestic leagues which, in the case of the Top 14, is widely accepted to be the most physically demanding club competition in world rugby. Leinster, on the other hand, have one squad for the Champions Cup and one for the United Rugby Championship [URC]. So I can respectfully answer the question raised by my RugbyPass colleague Russell Forbes, why Leinster are so far ahead of the chasing pack?

I can hear the guffaws and indignation already from Ireland so I’ll state my case with cold hard statistics. Let’s start with the 2017 European final between Saracens and Clermont, which the English club won 28-17. If we select two backs and two forwards from each side and tot up the minutes of club rugby they played in the 2016-17 season they are strikingly similar. In the back-row Billy Vunipola played 1,607 minutes of rugby, 154 minutes fewer than Damien Chouly. In other words over the course of the season, the Clermont flanker played just under two matches more than his English rival.

The two hookers, Jamie George and Benjamin Kayser, played 1,531 and 1,598 minutes respectively, a difference of just 67 minutes.

It was even closer in the backs: Clermont centre Remi Lamerat totalled 1,723 minutes of game time over the season, while Brad Barritt racked up 1,816 minutes.

Gregory Alldritt
Gregory Alldritt was integral to La Rochelle sneaking past Leinster in last year’s Champions Cup semi-final (Photo By Julien Poupart/Getty Images)

At fly-half there was barely anything to choose between Owen Farrell and Camille Lopez, who between them accumulated 4,332 minutes of rugby in the 2016-17 season. The Frenchman played 2,184 of those minutes, 36 more than the Saracens fly-half.

Two years later Saracens played Leinster in the Champions Cup final, but this time the disparity in playing time was striking.

Saracens’ full-back Andy Goode played 2,343 minutes of rugby in the 2018-19 season, 1,213 more than his opposite number, Rob Kearney. Or framed another way: the Englishman played 15 games more that season than the Irishman.

Locks George Kruis and Devon Toner played 1,933 and 1,098 minutes of rugby respectively, and Maro Itoje totted up 1,719 minutes compared to Sean O’Brien’s 817. Physically and mentally, Leinster were far fresher than their English opponents, Saracens

At fly-half Owen Farrell played 2,130 minutes and Jonny Sexton 1,248, a difference of 11 matches over the season.

The gulf was as wide in the pack. Locks George Kruis and Devon Toner played 1,933 and 1,098 minutes of rugby respectively, and Maro Itoje totted up 1,719 minutes compared to Sean O’Brien’s 817. Physically and mentally, Leinster were far fresher than their English opponents and it says much for Saracens’ stamina that they were still able to grind out a 20-10 victory.

This pattern was repeated in last year’s final between La Rochelle and Leinster. If one selects three internationals from each side in similar positions: French prop Uini Atonio, No 8 Grégory Alldritt and centre Jonathan Danty, and Irishmen Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw, there is a glaring divergence in game time over the 2021-22 season.

Maro Itoje
Maro Itoje racked up more minutes than any Leinster player during 2018-19 as they defeated the province 20-10 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Atonio played 626 more minutes than Furlong (the equivalent of eight matches), Alldritt 990 more than Conan (12 matches) and Danty 668 more minutes than Henshaw (8 matches). And these are hard minutes against some of the best club sides in the world.

The one exception was second-row Ross Molony, the only uncapped player in the Leinster pack. He played 1517 minutes of rugby last season, 96 more than La Rochelle’s giant Australian lock Will Skelton. That was because Molony was a regular in the URC matches, starting 12 matches. Between them, Furlong, Conan and Henshaw started just 13 URC matches in the 2021-22 season.

In his well-researched article last month, Russell Forbes cited Leinster’s squad depth as “one of their biggest strengths…[as] it highlights Leinster’s ability to be able to successfully utilise their squad size and maintain their standards”.

But aren’t they able to maintain their standards because the URC is a much less demanding league than the Top 14? It’s three weeks shorter for a start. There’s not the threat of relegation and, with the greatest of respect, at least half a dozen clubs in the URC would struggle to survive in the ProD2, the French second division, let alone the Top 14. As a result Leinster can put out a second string XV in most URC matches, keeping their first choice players free for Ireland internationals and the Champions Cup.

This Leinster squad are no doubt a highly-talented unit, as Forbes highlighted in his article. Off-the-field and on it, they are fit, disciplined and cohesive. They have been the most consistent side in this season’s Champions Cup

The French clubs don’t have that luxury. A week after they had thrashed Toulouse 41-22 in their Champions Cup semi-final, Leinster rested nine of that starting XV for the URC quarter-final clash against the Sharks. Perhaps that is why only 15,000 fans turned up to the Aviva.

One of the few Leinstermen who played in both matches was full-back Hugo Keenan, though the Sharks game was only his fourth URC start this season – the same number as prop Andrew Porter and loose forward Jack Conan; Brice Dulin has made 17 Top 14 starts for La Rochelle this season, Uini Atonio 11 and Gregory Alldritt ten.

This Leinster squad are no doubt a highly-talented unit, as Forbes highlighted in his article. Off-the-field and on it, they are fit, disciplined and cohesive. They have been the most consistent side in this season’s Champions Cup and few neutral fans would begrudge them winning their fifth European crown on Saturday in front of their magnificently raucous supporters in Dublin.

Leinster v Munster
Leinster’s gamble of playing a weakened side against Munster backfired to rest players for this weekend’s Heineken Cup final (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

But one shouldn’t dodge the fact that Leinster have a clear advantage over their French and English rivals; it’s not an unfair advantage because that would imply that they’re bending the rules. They’re not; they just play in a domestic competition that while improving with the injection of South African power, is still sufficiently weak enough to allow them to field a second string XV for most matches, and keep their first string fresh and fit for Europe.

“We want to be successful on both fronts, which is not easy,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, in the build up to the URC quarter-final against Sharks.  That ambition is no more after Leinster’s B team lost to Munster’s A team at the weekend in the URC semi-final, by a point.

La Rochelle are still in the hunt for a domestic and European double, and should they do it, they will join Toulouse (1996 & 2021) and Toulon (2014) as the only French clubs to achieve the feat. That is true greatness.

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