The 'war on two fronts' South African teams face next season
REACTION: Leinster coach Leo Cullen has warned South African teams that they will have an entirely new set of challenges to deal with when they compete in the European Cup and Challenge Cup competitions next season.
Cullen, speaking after Leinster ran the Sharks close before losing 23-28 to a Springbok-laden Sharks team at Kings Park at the weekend, said trying to stay alive in the United Rugby Championship and European Cup competitions requires some ‘clever juggling’ of your resources.
In Durban, the focus was on the absence of star players like Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong, Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, James Lowe, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne.
Starters Brian Deeny, John McKee and replacement Lee Barron were all making their provincial debuts.
The experimental nature of the 31-man Leinster squad meant the Sharks were heavily favoured, but were made to hang on grimly in the end.
It was very close though, as Leinster, trailing by five points and hot on the attack for the last few minutes, were held up over the Sharks’ tryline in injury time, with the hosts’ defence denying the visitors a dramatic win.
The Leinster coach, Cullen, said getting held up over the tryline is one of the most frustrating ways to end a game.
However, he was full of praise for the many young academy players on their first trip to the Republic.
“It was a pretty special day for our young guys, with some rich learnings,” the coach said, adding that there was also “frustration at not getting the winning score in the end”.
Cullen said that while the SA teams have had to deal with two competitions – the Currie Cup and URC – moving into Europe and managing squads for both URC and Europe will take the challenge up another level.
“At the moment they don’t have the ‘distraction’ of the European competitions as well,” Cullen said.
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He added that this season SA teams had weekends to “recharge their batteries” when other URC teams competed in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions.
“That is an advantage the South African teams won’t have and will have to deal with next season,” the 32-times capped former Ireland lock said.
“It’s the dual focus, or war on two fronts,” he said, adding: “It is part of the beauty of the competition in many ways.”
Cullen explained that competing in two such high-profile competitions – URC and European Cup – is a challenge that requires “smart juggling” of your player resources.
“South African teams will have that challenge next year when they are in Europe,” the Leinster coach said.
“If you make the play-off games in Europe and you want to be successful there, it is a challenge.
“Your attention is drawn to two different competitions.
“That is the price you have to pay and for us to get that experience of some of our younger players fronting up to World Cup-winning Springboks is really positive.
“They were in there fighting to the very end and we could easily have come away with the win, which would have guaranteed us a top seeding for the URC quarterfinals.
“We now still need another couple of points to do that. We have the Stormers in Cape Town [this coming Friday] and a big game against Munster in Dublin in a few weeks’ time.
“We have a European Cup quarterfinal away to Leicester Tigers a week after the Stormers game, so we are just trying to juggle our resources.
“If you want to be successful in two competitions you need a strong squad, because there is also the travel challenge now.
“We are trying to stay alive into two competitions and that is the logic of what we have done,” he said of the decision behind the squad named for the South African leg of their URC campaign.
The Sharks had to dig deep to beat an inexperienced Leinster side in a very tense clash played in difficult conditions in Durban.
The hosts scored four tries to two, but it was a tough match against the pace-setters in the competition.
𝗘𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗦𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗸 𝘁𝗮𝗻𝗸 🦈
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 24, 2022