So here’s a question - what advantage will the two DHL Stormers Springbok props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe have over their Ireland counterparts from the Leinster team once we get deep into the Rugby World Cup? The answer is that the two Stormers would have on several occasions faced the multiple-week playoff scenario required to win the Webb Ellis trophy.
They most famously did it in Japan in 2019. The Boks played the hosts in the Tokyo quarterfinal, a week later they edged out Wales in Yokohama, and then just six days after that Sunday semifinal they beat England in the World Cup final.
We won’t know until 27 May whether the Stormers’ Bok duo will complete a third sequence like that, at franchise level this time. And anyway, using this current Vodacom United Rugby Championship playoff phase on its own as a dry run for what will be experienced in the knock-out rounds of the World Cup wouldn’t be entirely on point. There are two weeks between the URC semifinal this year and the final. You don’t get that at the World Cup.
But Kitshoff and Malherbe did have it when the Stormers won the trophy last year, as did Damian Willemse, who did not play in the playoff phase of the Japan World Cup but can be expected to be a big part of the Bok challenge in France later this year.
HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO HELP WORLD CUP CHALLENGE
Maybe it’s a bit disingenuous to even use the Stormers as a comparison when trying to illustrate where Leinster may have dropped the ball for Ireland rugby. For there are only a smattering of Boks in the Stormers team. Leinster, by comparison, is almost a shadow Ireland team.
This means that with that team still committed to both their URC challenge and their Champions Cup final against La-Rochelle at the start of last weekend, Leo Cullen had the opportunity to put the Irish players through a dry run of what they will have to experience at the World Cup if they want to win it. Playing a full-strength team in the URC quarterfinal followed by the Champions Cup and URC deciders would have given them that.
Leinster had three playoff games still to play before they played Munster. That should surely have been the time when they went full-strength, just like Ireland will have to do over three consecutive weekends later this year if they are to have any hope of backing up their current No 1 world ranking by winning the World Cup for the first time.
ERRING ON THE SIDE OF REST
Some people with a good knowledge of the workings of Irish rugby have suggested in conversation that the Irish have too much of a preoccupation with resting. And Leinster are the flag-bearers of that approach.
After bombing out in a home semifinal for the second successive season of the URC, a period of soul-searching and a proper post-mortem will be necessary regardless of whether Leinster win what they consider the main prize by beating La-Rochelle in the European final. The reality is that an adjusted selection strategy would have given them a good chance of winning both.
The Leinster side that lost to Munster was not a completely second-string side, and neither was the one that lost to the Bulls at the same stage last year (that one was much stronger), but there were way too many players being rested. These players were also all resting when Leinster were in South Africa for two weeks, meaning at least three weeks of no rugby, at the end of the URC league season.
We have had two years of the URC now and by the end of this second season, Leinster have still not sent their top players to South Africa. Yes, it was because of their degree of comfort on the log, but last year their policy of wrapping players in cotton wool just before the business end of the competition did not translate into a trophy. And it won’t this year either if they don’t win against La-Rochelle.
MUNSTER HAVE BECOME BATTLE-HARDENED
Not that Leinster’s exit from the URC has robbed Ireland of the chance of still winning the trophy. But contrast the Munster attitude to that of Leinster and it may tell you something. In looking ahead to next week’s final against the Stormers soon after the emotional win over Leinster, Munster coach Graham Rowntree spoke of both finalists being battle-hardened.
His team, largely unchanged, has come through fire to make the final, with their unbeaten sequence away from home - their game against the Sharks was a draw - now extending to six. Munster have had key players injured, but those Irish national players who have been part of the Munster turnaround will have benefitted ahead of the World Cup from the attrition and the pressure they have gone through to win two away playoff games.
The international-laden Leinster team, admittedly facing a tighter schedule due to them still being in both competitions, isn’t battle-hardened to the extent that Munster is and while a Champions Cup triumph will be great for them and a confidence booster for Irish rugby, their erring on the side of rest has robbed them of a great opportunity to help Ireland’s quest for rugby’s Holy Grail.
THREE WEEKS OF PLAYOFF IS ESSENCE OF RWC CHALLENGE
To win the World Cup, your team needs to win three tough games on consecutive weekends. That is the essence of the World Cup challenge, it’s almost as much about endurance and ability to face down pressure over a three-week period as it is about skill. The Six Nations, which runs in a two-game then bye sequence, meaning there are never three games in three weekends, doesn’t provide that.
The Irish might argue that they did have three games in succession when they pulled off their famous series win in New Zealand last year. But then they’d be forgetting an important point - they lost the first game in that rubber. If that was the World Cup, they would have been making their exit in the quarterfinal, which is that nation’s usual cut-off point at the global showpiece event.
The URC and Champions Cup playoffs are all happening at the same time because it is a World Cup year, and apparently it was mainly Ireland that drove the change of schedule that saw the competition moved forward so that there’d be no rugby in June. Again, the emphasis on that precious rest (SA wanted the URC to finish in June, like last year).
The result of that condensing of the respective playoff phases has led to a crazy sequence of games that Leinster could have used to give their national team a step up by making the intense pressure of sudden-death rugby more familiar to the key players. They didn’t take the opportunity.