Fearghal Bannon and Daniel Keenan look at how Leinster are progressing without their World Cup stars
Leinster have made a stuttering start to this year’s Rabo Direct Pro 12 League, but with fourteen players missing thanks to the World Cup, expecting them to continue their amazing form from last season would be unrealistic. New players are being blooded, while coach Joe Schmidt also has to deal with several injuries.
Ian Madigan has benefited from injuries to Mat Berquist and the unfortunate retirement of Ian McKinley, becoming the province’s first choice fly-half in the absence of Jonathan Sexton. Madigan has looked composed on the ball so far and has kicked well, while also controlling the game with remarkable confidence. Not taking the place kicks is more of a testament to Isa Nacewa’s faultlessness rather than Madigan’s inability.
Madigan has shown his potential in the games so far, with tries against Dragons and Warriors, and his importance to Schmidt during the World Cup is unparalleled by anybody else at Leinster. Should he pick up an injury, Academy fly-half Noel Reid is the only other specialist No.10 at the province who can realistically play, and he was given game time against the league’s minnows, Aironi, in case worst comes to worst.
Eoin O’Malley has been a regular fixture in Schmidt’s side this season, without particularly impressing, and his berth at outside centre has to be put down to a lack of alternatives, rather than impressive form. Fionn Carr and Dave Kearney have added a huge amount of pace to the Leinster flanks, but Andrew Conway’s injury is sure to be of huge annoyance to Schmidt, since this period would have given the twenty year old a real chance for prolonged game time.
Isa Nacewa has continued his brilliant form this year, and looks like an all-round perfect fullback, which will mean Schmidt will be faced with a dilemma when Rob Kearney returns from World Cup action. Kearney posses a phenomenal combination of pace, strength and footwork but is let down by poor counterattacking, too often bringing the ball into contact rather than releasing players outside him. Nacewa thrives on the counter attack, so a switch to the wing for Kearney, who possesses the attributes and has never truly been tested there, is an exciting possibility. Kearney originally broke into the Leinster team as a winger, before converting to fullback.
Tighthead prop has long been an area of concern for Ireland. Despite the temporary reprieve that Mike Ross has provided, the thirty-one-year-old won’t be around for much longer, and Jamie Hagan has become the heir apparent to Ireland’s scrummaging messiah. Hagan has started four games, only being dropped for the Scarlets game to give Leinster’s new recruit, Nathan White, game time and a chance to impress. Hagan has looked strong in the scrum, and was even rushed back for The Dragons game after getting a black eye against Ospreys seven days previous, despite White being fit.
The biggest step-up of any player has been from former UCD man Rhys Ruddock. The U20 Six Nations winning captain, already with a senior cap to his name, became the youngest Leinster captain ever when he captained them against Aironi in February, and has continued to lead the team in the absence of his more illustrious colleagues.
Ruddock has started at No.8 or openside flanker for all but one on Leinster’s Rabo Direct Pro 12 League games, and performed admirably considering his natural position is on the blind side. His emersion as a utility back row is a massive boost for both Leinster and Ireland, but as with any utility player, he runs the risk of being played out of position to accommodate others, much like James Hook with Wales, and considering the depth of talent in the back row, Leinster would probably be happier to be grooming a young second row, rather than another battering back row.
With few prospects coming through the ranks, except for perhaps Mark Flanagan, Leinster have been vindicated in their decision to set up the “6’6’ Initiative.” The recruitment drive focuses on identifying players between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three who may have the build to play in the second row at a high level in the future, and then giving these players the top quality coaching they require in order to do so.
Devin Toner doesn’t seem to have the ability to play at lock properly: at 6”10, he is an excellent line-out option, but offers little else around the park. After the departure of Ireland U20 international Mick Kearney to Connacht, the depth of talent has been further drained, though Steven Sykes’ competitive debut against Aironi on Saturday is a boost for Leinster, and potentially Ireland, should he pledge his allegiance to the country at the end of his contract.
The World Cup has highlighted the depth of talent that Joe Schmidt has on hand, and though some are misfiring, the youth and energy of the European Champions seems to be overcoming any problems, as the cracks which were so apparent in the opening weekend loss to Ospreys are gradually being filled.