Sharks and Stormers shouldn’t buy Leinster weak team theory

rugby19 April 2022 06:21| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Leo Cullen © Gallo Images

As might have been anticipated, Irish giants and Vodacom United Rugby Championship leaders Leinster have sent an understrength squad to South Africa for their clashes against the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers.

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While Leinster sent out what appeared to be a loud warning to their South African opponents ahead of their two-match tour when they thrashed Connacht in the second leg of their round-of-16 Champions Cup tie in Dublin at the weekend, there were only six survivors from the team that started that game on the flight to Durban.

Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa, Josh Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Ciaran Frawley are the only survivors from the 56-20 thrashing delivered to their Irish rivals at the RDS Arena. It was a game where Leinster hit their stride with an impressive performance after scraping through by just five points in the first leg tie in Galway.

Some of the visiting teams have fortified their squads during the course of their tours to South Africa, so perhaps the Stormers should be wary about what they may face at DHL Stadium on 30 April, but certainly the Sharks can anticipate a severely understrength Leinster team for their clash at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on Saturday.

The understrength squad is bad news for the Vodacom Bulls, who might have been hoping that Leinster would bring them back into the race for South African Shield honours. However, those who have followed the URC in its previous incarnation as the Pro14 down the years will warn the Sharks and the Stormers that understrength might not mean too much when it comes to Leinster.

One of the downsides of the URC in comparison to the Super Rugby tournament that South Africa was part of in the first 26 years of professionalism in rugby is that a lot of it is played understrength. Whereas Super Rugby fell outside of the southern hemisphere international season, the Pro14, and now the URC, is played through international windows and there is also the Champions Cup that comes into the thinking when it comes to selection.

Having pretty much assured themselves of top spot on the final URC log, it is with their eyes on a potentially perilous Champions Cup quarterfinal clash with Leicester Tigers in three weeks' time that Leinster coach Leo Cullen has opted to give his youngsters a chance over the next fortnight.

But the Cheetahs players and coaches who were involved in matches against understrength teams that toured here when they were part of the URC might point out that it doesn’t mean you take anything for granted against them. For the demands of the competition call for deep squads, and Leinster have that. It is one of the reasons they have been dominant for so long.

Much of the work done to get them to the top of the log was done with so-called understrength teams, though the Leinster coaches will tell you that there is no such thing as understrength with them - they have two teams of equal strength.

So, it is not as if the Stormers and Sharks will be up against scratch teams and combinations that haven’t played together, and the last thing anyone in either of the coastal camps should think is that their chances have been boosted. That could be a fatal mistake against a team as strong and as proud as Leinster, and the Dublin team never travels anywhere contemplating that they might lose and that such a result is an acceptable outcome.

Flanker Rhys Ruddock will captain the squad in South Africa. One area that Leinster will still be strong in the sense of having international players is the front-row, where, although they are missing players, they still have Ireland front-rankers Porter and Kelleher, who have just returned to fitness after being injured in the Six Nations.

“As we know, if you want to stay alive in the two competitions you need a good chunk of guys, and Caelan (Doris) and some of the guys were taking it easy in camp during the Six Nations,” said Cullen to the RTE Sports website.

“We had some guys with their shoulders to the wheel back in base camp trying to push us up the mountain and carrying the load for all these guys. Huge credit goes into that group because they've done a fantastic job to get us into the situation that we have that bit of a lead (in the URC), so it’s important to reward some of those guys with some more games as well. Those guys are itching to play now.”

Leinster comfortably top the URC standings with 60 points after 15 games, 10 points clear of second-placed Ulster, and they have just one game to play when they return from South Africa - that being the return derby against Munster in Dublin in the last round of league play.

Leinster tour squad:

Forwards:Ed Byrne, Peter Dooley, Michael Milne, Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, John McKee, James Tracy, Vakh Abdaladze, Michael Ala'alatoa, Thomas Clarkson, Brian Deeny, Jack Dunne, Josh Murphy, Martin Moloney, Rhys Ruddock, Sean O'Brien, Scott Penny, Max Deegan, Alex Soroka

Backs:Cormac Foley, Nick McCarthy, Harry Byrne, David Hawkshaw, Tommy O'Brien, Rob Russell, Ciarán Frawley, Rory O'Loughlin, Jamie Osborne, Adam Byrne, Chris Cosgrave, Max O'Reilly