Despite a wobbly start, Leinster have shown flashes of their best and Stephen Devine believes there’s life after Elsom
Leinster’s defence of the Heineken Cup has got off to a stuttering start. After the thirty-point demolition of archrivals Munster the week before, they went down by the smallest of margins at the hands of London Irish in the RDS. Progression from Heineken Cup pool stages is hard enough without losing your home games.
Looking for a silver lining, though, Leinster will have taken solace that they failed to concede a try once again, a credit to the unwavering defence that they have embraced under the unsung hero of last year’s triumph, Kurt McQuilkin.
The home defeat made last week’s trip to the south of France, to face former European champions Brive, even more important. A loss would have left them facing a near insurmountable task to progress to the knockout stages. Thankfully for the team and their 800 travelling supporters, the reigning champions outmuscled Brive in every facet of the game, and ran out convincing 36-13 winners to get their season back on track.
Leinster would almost certainly not have won the Heineken Cup last year without the monsterous presence of marauding flanker Rocky Elsom. The fact that Elsom was Man of the Match in almost half of the games he played speaks volumes for his influence. Leinster’s failure to sign a big name to replace Elsom, whose prominence has been acknowledged by his appointment as Wallabies captain, in the back row was questioned by many in the off-season.
However, Leinster coach Michael Cheika’s decision has paid dividends with the emergence of academy graduate Kevin McLaughlin. The twenty five year old former UCD flanker has now made seven appearances this season and won the player of the month award for September. These feats far over-exceeds his modest his pre-season targets of being satisfied with three or four starts.
Before the autumn internationals, Leinster face Cardiff Blues in the Magners League at the RDS. A victory against the struggling Welsh side would consolidate their place in the top four of the table. The home side will, however, have to manage without Shane Jennings until January. The flanker’s 12-week ban for gouging was upheld on Thursday morning, calling into question further the disciplinary procedures within the IRB.
A by-product of Leinster’s success of last season has been the increase in support the team has received, though parts of the media have taken a different view to this encouraging development for rugby in the province. Instead, some journalists have likened Leinster’s continuing vocal support to that of British football hooligans. Instead of the RDS being branded a fortress like Thomond Park, the atmosphere, in the eyes of one commentator, “besmirches the spectating experience”. Some people have yet to accept the fact that there is no longer only one team in the country.
Aside from off-field matters, Leinster will have to continue to raise their game if they are to repeat Leicester’s feat of back-to-back titles and give Michael Cheika the best sendoff possible. Despite their shaky beginning, the chances are that the European Champions might yet a chance.