Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Leinster Rugby season reboot

Obviously threats to a rugby schedule are the very least of our fears regarding COVID-19, but whatever happens in the near future, this will be remembered as an amazing time to be following a rugby club with so much talent all the way down to the third string and beyond in so many positions.  All Leo, Stuart & co can do is prepare them for each match as they come.  All we can do as fans is enjoy them.

Monday, March 02, 2020 

  
So, that's where we left off.  Since Leinster's 19th win from 19 this season, we have tried to fill the COVID19 void on these pages with RetroRugby, a new feature called The Pod Of Three, a plethora of Twitter polls to determine the most popular all time jerseys for both Leinster and Ireland, and most recently, a return to weekly match writeups as we followed the Blues' progress in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

But as interesting and as lockdown-time-passing as all of that has been, none of it comes close to the raison d'être of this site, namely harpin' on Leinster & Ireland Rugby, and fingers crossed, we are a matter of days away from being able to do just that yet again.

On Sunday night Virgin Media aired their documentary "Leinster Rugby's Double : Their Story", which charted the course of that incredible 2017/18 season using footage as well as interviews with a host of players and coaches.  For someone with a critical eye for sports presentations it was a far cry from the likes of The Last Dance, but for someone who is first and foremost a fan of the boys in blue, it was exactly what we needed at this moment in time.

Even though that campaign was only a couple of years ago, given all that has happened this past six months, it still qualifies as "nostalgia" as I don't know when we're going to see professional rugby being played in front of big crowds like that again.  Probably the match that hit home the most was the Pro14 semifinal at the RDS against Munster.  It was both awesome and sad to get a taste once more of the matchday atmosphere in D4, knowing how different it will be when the same two sides meet on August 22.

But the flip side of that has to be positive.  Having rugby Leinster Rugby back under different circumstances is of course infinitely better than not having it back at all, and with all the usual caveats surrounding COVID safety for everyone involved, the return is definitely something to be celebrated.

Another comparison I noted was the fact that motivation for the 2017/18 winning season can be traced back to defeats the previous May to both Clérmont and the Scarlets.  This latest vintage is in a similar situation having been stunned by our showing in Newcastle against Sarries.

So...what are we to expect from the actual action on the pitch?  Well you can hardly choose a better match to restart the season than Leinster v Munster, even without a crowd.  And while our squad has had its ups and downs on the injury front with James Ryan requiring surgery and Dan Leavy coming back to fitness, Johann van Graan's pool of players has enjoyed a significant upgrade.

I suppose you could make an argument that teams should only use players from the season that was already in progress, but that's just not how rugby works.  Decisions to uproot from one hemisphere to another, or even one province to another, have to be made months and months in advance, so it's not like Munster's addition of the likes of De Allende and Snyman to their ranks was nefarious in any way.  The Pro14 is all the better for having their quality in it and I look forward to watching them compete.

As for us, well in one way we have two "free hits" with these interpros at HQ.  Win or lose we'll be in the semifinals as number one seed so this effectively makes them akin to preseason friendlies.  But on the other hand, our winning streak which stretches back to last year's semifinal clash with Munster is on the line, and knowing the competitive streak throughout the squad,  that is something they will want to continue.  So what a restart match we have in prospect!

One good thing about this revamped calendar layout is that it gives a sliver of a taste of what northern hemisphere rugby would be like if it adopted the kind of calendar I have been harping on for over a decade, namely one that plays its torunaments in dedicated blocks.  The Pro14 will be done and dusted in four consecutive weekends.  If Leinster win the third and fourth ones, a "three-peat" of titles will be complete.

But then the matches get even tougher.  Whatever may have happened to Saracens off the pitch over the past 12 months, nothing can be taken for granted against them on it, and with this Champions Cup literally the only major trophy they have to play for until 2022, you can bet your bottom euro they'll be giving it their all at the Aviva on September 19.  We need to be so focused on that clash that we shouldn't even contemplate any matches after it until the full time whistle is blown.

Next after that comes the completion of the 2020 Six Nations, with Ireland still well in the hunt for the title.  Then the new Pro14 campaign kicks off with a re-jigged Champions Cup format soon to follow, so the rugby is definitely going to come thick and fast in the coming weeks.

On this week's episode of the HarpinOnRugby Podcast, I'll be chatting to Conor Cronin about the options available to us for matchday squads throughout this period, so I won't dwell too much on individuals here.  The main reason for this post was to get back to writing about Leinster and have a quick look at the challenges we have ahead.  I reckon my work is done!  Next week it will be back to the regular rotation of previews and writeups - none of it can come quickly enough!!!  JLP

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019