A Rugby Clean Sweep to rival the Grand Slam – URC Round 17 Review…

Ulster 40 Dragons 19

Lions 36 Leinster 39

Stormers 24 Munster 26

Connacht 38 Cardiff 19

The Irish provinces have won clean sweeps in the URC and its previous incarnations before, but never a clean sweep, all with try bonus points, since the advent of the South African franchises. Indeed, victories in South Africa have been as rare as hen’s teeth – this was Leinster’s first – and let us not forget the Stormers are the reigning URC champions.

So winning an all bonus clean sweep including two away victories in South Africa is the club rugby equivalent of winning the Grand Slam, and all the more remarkable having been achieved by a Leinster XXIII missing about 30 international class players back in Dublin either injured or preparing for the European Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

The Leinster team had 4 academy players – Cosgrave, Brownlee, Barron, and Prendergast – starting, and five more on the bench – Russell, Culhane, Soroka, Murphy, and Tector – not to mention short term signing McIlroy, the very definition of a journeyman pro, having had spells at Connacht, Saracens, Bedford Blues, Bristol Bears, Ealing Trailfinders, and London Irish.

Indeed, Prendergast was making his Leinster debut, having starred for the Irish u.20s, and played as if he had been in the team for years, orchestrating the team and missing hardly a kick at goal or around the pitch. Many already see him as Sexton’s long term successor. A pity the World Cup will probably come to soon for him, but the Byrne brothers, Crowley, and Carbery et al had better watch out. There is a new kid on the block.

While senior players Ruddock, Deegan, Connors, and Jenkins led from the front, it was the academy players Cosgrave and Russell, who caught the eye, with the other neophytes contributing handsomely. And lest it be thought that Scottish referee Adamson favoured Leinster, he yellow carded two Leinster players for deliberate knock-ons, while awarding not a single penalty against the Lions in the first half.

Munster’s win against the Champions, Stormers, in their Cape Town den where they were unbeaten in 21 games since 2021, was no less meritorious. Even if aided by the curious decision by the Stormers to keep kicking for goal when their primary goal-kicker, Libbok, was clearly having an off day, missing a sitter as well as several more difficult ones. Stormers scored a fine try at the death when it was too late, clearly demonstrating their ability to take on a (by then tiring) Munster defence.

It was good to see RG Snyman, starting only his first league match since he made his Munster debut back in August 2020, making a major contribution, but the entire Munster team did their bit in a very physical encounter. Indeed, Stormers winger, Seabelo Senatla, was lucky to escape a red for a direct shoulder on head hit on Munster Captain Peter O’Mahony, moments after home lock Marvin Orie used a hand on O’Mahony’s face to support his considerable weight at the bottom of a ruck. Many refs would have interpreted that as making contact with the eye area or close to it and brandished a yellow card.

Munster sealed their win with fine tries by Daly getting outside the Stormers defence and Coombes doing his usual running through a brick wall trick to score his tenth try of the season. Healy made a big contribution when he came on as substitute for Crowley and showed he will be a loss to Munster next season. Carbery didn’t even make the match day squad.

Ulster’s win over the Dragons was a somewhat more pedestrian affair – they almost managed to make the Dragons look good, which would have been a considerable achievement. McCloskey remains the adult in the room in most of their back line moves and hat trick hero Tom Stewart picked up yet another MOTM award.

It is unlikely the IRFU will forgive Cooney now, given his Scottish dalliance, but for me he remains one of the top three 9s in Ireland. It’s good to see Stockdale recover some of his mojo and Gilroy showed he still has something to offer at this level. Toomega-Allen has been a very astute signing and played most of the match as O’Toole came off injured very early.

Combined with Munster’s win in Cape Town, this win guarantees Ulster second place in the table and a home Semi Final in the knockout stages provided they can beat Edinburgh at home in the last round. Edinburgh have just told 16 of their squad their services won’t be needed next season, so their morale may not be that high.

Connacht showed they are clearly a better side than Cardiff at the moment, even though the Welsh club will qualify for next season’s Champion’s Cup ahead of them by virtue of being the leading Welsh side in the league – albeit in 11th. place overall, 10 points behind Connacht. Caolin Blade, Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Diarmuid Kilgallen all had good games, and Mack Hansen did his usual impression of an energiser bunny popping up all over the place, and generally in the right place at the same time.­­­

Connacht have a lot of good young talent coming through, including Sam’s older brother Cian Prendergast, Dylan Tierney-Martin, the Murray brothers, Cathal Forde and David Hawkshaw. They have recruited well for next season with Santiago Cordero (45 caps for Argentina), Joe Joyce (over 100 caps for Bristol Bears) and Sean Jansen (joining them from Leicester). However, Marmion (going to Bristol Bears) is a big loss, and Andy Friend will be missed, even though he has left behind a sound legacy.

Leinster’s success with very much a second or third string XV again raises the question of whether the playing and financial resources are distributed too unevenly in Ireland. Having the largest population, biggest crowds, and most opportunities for commercial advertising and sponsorship, Leinster are always going to have the biggest budget overall.

We are told the IRFU support all four provinces with equal block grants of about €4 million, but club finances are virtually a state secret, so attention has been focused on the unequal distribution of central contracts.

But can we finally put to bed the constant complaint that the IRFU unfairly favour Leinster through the central contract system? Despite providing 17 of the 23 players in the first choice match day squad, Leinster have only 6 centrally contracted players – Sexton, Ringrose, Henshaw, Furlong, Porter and Ryan. Even Van Der Flier only joins that list as Sexton drops out after the world cup. Leinster regularly lose 20 players to the national squad, and yet get paid for only 6 of them.

Lowe has just had his provincial contract renewed but didn’t get a central contract. Leinster won’t see him next season until December if he makes the world cup squad. And that is only if he doesn’t get injured playing for Ireland. Most professionals only play a maximum 20 games a season, and if 10 of those are for the Irish team, that leaves a maximum of 10 for Leinster. If anything, Leinster are subsidising the national team, and not the other way around.

Leinster also develop almost all their own talent, which means they have very few expensive foreign imports. There is no one at Leinster remotely close to Finn Russell’s £1 Million p.a. or Charles Piutau’s, Maro Itoje’s, or Owen Farrell’s £800,000 p.a. across the water. I doubt any Irish central contract is that high.

It was also a bit rich for Leicester manager Wigglesworth to complain about Leinster’s superior financial resources given he was a beneficiary of Saracens breaches of the salary cap when he was a player there, and even now Leicester can afford to pay Handre Pollard £600k p.a. over and above their salary cap. If you want to earn the big bucks, go to England or France. Leinster players prefer to win stuff…

The fact is, that if you want to compete at the top end of Club rugby, you need a large squad and be able to attract and retain top players. Leinster have 44 senior and 19 Academy players. With 20 players away in international camp for much of the season, they need a squad that big, and therefore a big budget. Their 30 man squad for their South African tour even includes three Irish u.20 players not yet in the academy. Leinster’s strength is their ability to identify, develop, and retain local Leinster talent, not the very occasional signing of an expensive marquee player.

As I said club finances and budgets are a virtually a state secret in Ireland. The highest estimate I have seen of Leinster’s budget is €9.1 million – considerably less that the French salary cap of c. €10 million, and much of it is devoted to developing younger players. Leinster will also play up to 7 knock-out matches this season, whereas a lowly ranked club will play none. That adds up to a lot of extra crowd, television, and prize revenue. Why shouldn’t it be spent on the better players and a larger squad that makes those extra matches and extra revenue possible?

Yes, the other provinces need better players and more resources to compete on a more level playing pitch. But attracting larger crowds and playing more knock-out matches should be the prime means of achieving it. Robbing Peter to pay Paul has the potential to make us all poorer.

But no doubt there will again be pressure on Leinster to release more players to the other provinces at the end of this season. Connacht have already recruited two Leinster academy players to go with the four senior and several academy players they recruited from Leinster last year. But let us not forget that few of the Leinster players who have left have been an outstanding success elsewhere. The quality of coaching at Leinster must also have been a factor in their performance.

We are coming to the stage in the season where the clubs announce who will be leaving and joining for next season. Ulster have recruited World Cup winner Kitshoff from Stormers and Dave Ewers from Exeter Chiefs. Jordi Murphy is retiring and surprisingly, Rob Lyttle, is being released. Connacht have Alex Wootton and Shane Delahunt retiring while still in their 20s, and have released Ciaran Booth, Adam Byrne, Leva Fifita, Conor Fitzgerald and Seán Masterson. Professional sport can be a hard and a cruel game.

Munster have re-recruited John Ryan and Alex Nankivell from NZ Chiefs, while losing Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Healy to Benetton and Glasgow, respectively. Leinster have made no announcement yet, perhaps because they have so many possible matches outstanding, although it is presumed Sexton will retire from club rugby. Sam Prendergast hasn’t emerged a moment too soon!


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