By Phil Rice
Leinster duly scraped their way into the final of the Pro14 last Saturday, with a deserved victory over Munster. Midway through the second half the Leinster players were dead on their feet, driven on by sheer determination and adrenaline.
It was a credit to their professionalism that they kept their momentum going until the final whistle against a highly motivated Munster team.
Unlike most other sports rugby’s most successful teams have to battle attrition at a ridiculous level when they reach the latter stages of the season. This particularly applies when competing at the final stages of more than one competition.
In the past five weeks Leinster have played a quarter-final, two semi-finals and this Saturday will play their second final when they face Scarlets at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium (kick-off 6pm) in the Guinness Pro14 finale.
This is club rugby at the highest level in Europe.
To their credit, Leinster have won all of these matches to date, but the battle scars were evident for all to see as the players were visibly wilting during the final 20 minutes at the weekend.
Munster, who have had their battles in recent weeks themselves but to a lesser extent, looked far fresher in those closing minutes but Leinster’s defence was awesome despite their fatigue.
The prospect of a further battle this weekend against an in-form Scarlets team, who are hell-bent on gaining revenge for their defeat at the hands of Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-final, is surely a bridge too far for these players.
The administrators need to look at the schedule successful teams have to face at the end of the season. Is it necessary that both competitions have to conclude at the same time?
Racing 92 were battle weary when they played Leinster in the Champions Cup final, as they tried to compete for the French Top14 title simultaneously.
Rugby is not like other sports. The level of physical attrition is off the scale for these players. Most of them were involved in the Six Nations which concluded just two weeks prior to this intensive five-week period.
One cannot expect to see rugby of the highest standard if the players are physically and mentally exhausted before the matches even begin. Player burn-out is becoming a real factor and the game’s administrators need to take action sooner rather than later.
Ireland’s best players will begin a three Test tour of Australia just two weeks after this week’s Pro14 final. The Leinster players, in particular, should not be asked to keep performing at the highest level without a reasonable break, it will take its toll on the players no matter how fit they may be.
Scarlets seem to have a fifth gear when they reach this stage of the season. They completely out-played Glasgow in the Pro14 semi-final last weekend and they will not lack for motivation when they face Leinster at the Aviva on Saturday.
Just as Leinster learned much from their defeat by Scarlets in last season’s Pro12 semi-final, Scarlets head coach, Wayne Pivac, says they were taught a lesson by Leinster a few weeks ago and he believes they will be well prepared this time around.
The question is, can Leinster be well prepared to play at all this week? Some of their players will not have recovered from injuries sustained in the Champions Cup final.
Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy and Isa Nacewa are highly unlikely to play, while Johnny Sexton is quoted as 50:50. If Leinster succeed in the circumstances it will be a momentous achievement.
Elsewhere, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is due to announce his squad for the Australia tour on Wednesday (May 23). It is expected that Scarlet’s outstanding forward, Tadhg Beirne, will be included and may well earn his first cap on the tour.
He has been a revelation since he moved from Leinster to the Welsh club and Munster will welcome him with open arms when he joins them for next season.
In recent encounters between Australia and Ireland, particularly since Michael Cheika has become head coach of the Wallabies, Johnny Sexton has been targeted for special treatment.
Given the proximity of the next World Cup there is some logic in giving Ireland’s play-maker a summer off. The problem with that plan is that since Paddy Jackson’s self-inflicted absence from the game, the fly-half cupboard is distinctly bare.
Joey Carbery has had little time in the position and his form at fullback has been less than impressive. Beyond that Ross Byrne, JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley all fall well short of the required standard, given the evidence to date.
To Sexton’s credit he seems unable to play without 100 percent commitment, but these matches are likely to be very physical as the teams vie for pre-World Cup advantage.
Ireland’s flyhalf has had an incredibly demanding 2018 and is such a key player for his country that at 32 he could do without three demanding Test matches in Australia.
Possible Ireland squad for three-Test tour of Australia
Full backs. Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour
Wings. Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale
Centres. Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Bundes Aki
Fly Halves. Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Ian Keatley
Scrum Halves. Conor Murray, Luke McGrath, Keiran Marmion
Props. Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter
Hookers. Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell
Second rows. James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Devin Toner
Back rows. Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan.