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Is the Pro14 failing to prepare Ireland players for test rugby?

While there were a couple of silver linings, the truth is that Ireland were comprehensively out-muscled by England in their Autumn Nations Cup encounter.

Despite having a huge amount of possession and territory, Andy Farrell’s Ireland were unable to break down the English defence.

While any team would struggle against John Mitchell’s excellent defensive system, it was clear to see that Ireland were taken aback by the opposition’s ferocity, especially in the game’s early stages.

It wasn’t for the first time either. Their encounter in the Six Nations earlier this year was eerily similar.

England came charging out of the blocks, bringin enormous intensity in the game’s opening quarter and scored two tries within 25 minutes.

A similar thing happened when Leinster played Saracens in the quarter-final of the Heineken Champions Cup in September.

Despite Leo Cullen’s side being favourites to win the European crown, they were undone by a Saracens side missing Owen Farrell and a raft of other players who left due to the salary cap breach.

Again, the English side raced out to an early lead and went in 16 point ahead at half time.

In all three of those games the Irish improved as the game went on and lost by a respectable margin in the end.

However, on each occasion they acclimatised to the English intensity when the game was as good as gone, scoring only consolation tries in the end.

The Irish players looked simply underprepared for the physicality their opponents brought to each encounter and the Pro14 may be to blame for that.

In this season’s Pro14 the Irish provinces have won 23 of their 25 matches so far. Connacht have lost two while the other sides remain unbeaten.

Leinster have picked up a try-scoring bonus point in each of their seven wins, winning by an average of 29 points this season.

The closest they have come to defeat this season was against Benetton, who they beat by 12 points.

It wasn’t much different last season for Leinster, who won all 17 of their league matches by an average of 20 points.

While the other provinces weren’t as dominant last season, Ulster and Munster joined Leinster in the competition’s knock-out stages and each were eventually beaten by their eastern rivals.

The Pro14, or Celtic League as it was originally known, has been long appreciated for its ability to blood new players.

However, it now appears as if it may be failing to prepare Irish players for the intensity that top-tier opposition such as England can produce.

Out of Europe’s three most prestigious leagues, the Pro14 is without doubt the least competitive.

In the French Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership, clubs play close to their strongest sides each and every week, unlike the squad rotation that is commonplace in the Pro14.

While this does come with its own negatives, such as increased chance of injury and player fatigue, it does help to condition players for test-match intensity.

With the IRFU refusing to select players who ply their trade abroad for the national team, the Heineken Champions Cup is the only place where Ireland players can play in an environment resembling a test match.

Although most pool matches in Europe’s top club competition will fail to reproduce that intensity, especially when one side knows their progression in the tournament is impossible.

The good news is that Irish rugby may not have long to wait before the issue of the Pro14’s uncompetitive nature is resolved.

The top South African sides in Super Rugby, the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions, look set to join an expanded Pro14 very soon.

South African teams full of Springboks will undoubtedly bring added intensity to the tournament, as well as potential added spectator interest.

While the Irish provinces, especially Leinster, should still expect to compete for silverware in the league, their dominance will certainly be questioned.

The coming seasons may see a significantly reduced trophy haul for the likes of Leinster, but expect their players ability to deal with pressure to improve under South African scrutiny.

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