As Toby Booth prepared his Ospreys side for their trip to Belfast to face Ulster tonight, the Welsh region’s head coach found himself being asked about the quality of the Guinness PRO14 rugby played during this and recent international windows.
A question prompted by the less-than-gripping 10-0 win over Zebre in horrible conditions that his side enjoyed and television viewers endured last weekend, Booth pointed the finger firmly in the direction of the elephant in the room.
At this time of year, most of this competition’s best players are otherwise engaged with the Six Nations, a long-running issue for the league both now and through the autumn.
“I am concerned. Let’s be clear about it,” said the former Bath man of both performance and product during prolonged spells without his international stars.
“Winning really matters, that’s the currency coaches keep or lose their jobs over, and that’s important. But where we are going, the style of play and how we want to get there, is directly linked to that journey.
“On the whole, watching the Premiership and the PRO14 this (past) weekend, ultimately you can see when lots of quality comes out of squads and (you have) lots of change and gaps in playing programmes, you get a different product.
“That’s part of the issues that we as coaches have to overcome, and how we prepare squads and depths of squads is important to sustain the quality of the product.
“Every coach wants the best resources available to them to produce the most competitive performance they can and get a good product at the end of it.
“These conversations (criticising the league) have been knocking around but the time of year we play is as much a factor as the quality.
“When the fans are allowed back in they want to watch good rugby and their best players.
“We need to make sure, where we can, those overlaps are as minimal as they can be.”
An issue to be addressed for sure, not that you’d know it with the strength of selection put forward by tonight’s opposition.
Indeed, you figure Booth might just cast an envious eye towards the man sat in the adjacent coaching box this evening.
For while he and the rest of the PRO14’s selectors try and piece together line-ups from what is left behind by the national sides, the team Dan McFarland sends out this evening is a reminder of the relative riches at his disposal — 10 capped internationals in his 23 and with one in particular sure to catch the eye.
If the attention of the rugby world is often elsewhere at this time of year, there will be plenty of added interest focused upon Kingspan Stadium come 8pm from those keen to see how Jacob Stockdale pitches up after almost two months out with injury.
The star wing had hoped for a quick return after hobbling out of the new year’s inter-pro with Munster but bruising around the knee took longer than expected to heal.
As a result, he has been forced to watch on as Ireland struggled for tries in his absence through the first two rounds of the Six Nations, and it will be the Leinster duo of James Lowe and Jordan Larmour who occupy the wing berths for tomorrow’s meeting with Italy in Rome.
As we have already seen during this Championship though, Andy Farrell has not been shy in throwing those with little or no recent PRO14 game time back into the Test mix.
Tadhg Furlong had just 40 minutes in Leinster colours under his belt after a year out of action before he was coming off the bench in rounds one and two, and he’ll start in the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow.
Ulster’s own Iain Henderson, meanwhile, had no rugby for his province between getting injured on Ireland duty in the first weekend of December and putting in a lung-busting 57-minute stint as an early replacement against Wales in Cardiff.
There is no reason to suggest, then, that Stockdale would not be right in the frame for the concluding games should he come through this week unscathed.
While perhaps not pressing for quite such an immediate international call, the presence of Robert Baloucoune in an Ulster team for the first time in over a year is sure to catch Farrell’s eye too.
The Ireland head coach is a known admirer of the Enniskillen native and had him training with his Six Nations squad last season.
With lockdown halting Baloucoune’s momentum towards the green jersey in the first instance, a serious hamstring injury on the eve of rugby’s return has kept him on the sidelines since August.
On the bench this evening, the 23-year-old’s readiness for action is another massive boost to the Ulster cause as the season enters its final run of games.
Throw in the fact that ever-reliable flanker Sean Reidy is back in harness too after a shoulder problem, as well as the continued lack of international caps for the likes of John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey and Ian Madigan, and the northern province could hardly be better placed for the four games that remain in this abridged season.
While others are having to move players around like pieces on a chess board to find a suitable 23, McFarland is really missing only Henderson, Billy Burns and Rob Herring from his starting line-up regarding international call-ups.
While Tom O’Toole will be in Italy with the Test team tomorrow as cover, he has not yet displaced Marty Moore at club level, and the injury picture at Kingspan Stadium looks decidedly rosier now than it once did.
Will Addison is a sure starter when fit and Jack McGrath would certainly be involved too, but once Marcell Coetzee is back from his thigh muscle contusion, with tonight’s returnees, Ulster will be fielding a side that is only a few front-liners short of a full deck.
A rare position for a PRO14 coach to be in at this time of year — just ask Booth.