He’ll provide Leinster with strength in exactly the position where they’re weak, and provides it in the nick of time too, because numbers (and pedigree) in the second row are looking particularly low. Leinster’s Hines-free second row hasn’t really been tested yet this season, but it will be, and soon. Think of a possible semi-final in the Auvergne or a final against Toulouse, and it shouldn’t be hard to see just how valuable this guy will be.
Anyone wondering just how much an emergency it is only needs to glance over Leinster’s second-row roster from the start of the season, and what’s happened since:
Leo Cullen (Inj.) – captain and stalwart, but has looked off the pace this season, possibly due to playing through pain barrier, but it’s just as possible he’s starting to wind down. Opted for surgery on his achilles tendons during Six Nations window, hoping to be back for the HEC quarter final, but there are no guarantees.
Devin Toner – a minor revelation this year having flattered to deceive in the past. Looks to be playing with a bit more fire in his belly (but it will take more than bellyfire to become the next Barishnakov) – he’s more of a middle of the lineout jumper than a bruising No.4.
Damien Browne (Inj.) – something of a journeyman, but has worked out reasonably well, featuring in Schmidt’s ‘away’ team. Has the bulk required of a No.4 but assuredly does not have the footballing skills of a top end player. Playing him requires playing McLaughlin at 6, shifting SOB to 7, and resulting in a somewhat unbalanced back row. Struggling a little with a shoulder injury, and while he has continued playing, will require a recovery period at some stage
Steven Sykes (Cut!) – signed from Natal Sharks as replacement for Hines. The mystery man failed to settle in Dublin and has been allowed to go back to his former club.
Mark Flanagan – performed very capably away to Cardiff, and could have a more prominent role in the coming weeks, but still only in his first year out of the academy and not ready for consecutive starts in the Pro12.
Kevin McLaughlin – the flanker has the lineout skills to pack down in the second row if required, but it’s seen as an emergency option by management.
Just two senior locks are currently available, and one of them is playing hurt. Besides, as we’ve all ‘learned’ recently, Browne is the only one who specialises in scrummaging on the tighthead side. It’s pretty clear that another body is urgently required. But, the question will be asked, is it for the good of Irish rugby that Leinster are bringing in a ‘ringer’ to solve their injury crisis, rather than give some local talent its fling? After all, this sort of move will be ruled out by the new NIE laws.
One alternative touted by some is that Leinster could recruit an Irish player from one of their friendly neighbours – as it appears they’ll have to do from 2013 on. But this is pretty much a non-runner. The majority of players are cup-tied at this stage of the season, and the idea of Munster sending, say, Ian Nagle up the road on loan to their rivals to dig them out of a hole seems far fetched. Besides, it appears from how little he’s featured this season (one start, four sub appearances) that Munster don’t consider him ready for sustained exposure just yet.
The truth is that this does no harm whatsoever to Irish rugby. First of all, Leinster are replacing one NIE player (Sykes) with another, so they are still operating within the IRFU rules. More importantly, no Irish players’ development will be held back by this move. Thorn will presumably pack down alongside Devin Toner, and while Leo Cullen may return in time for the HEC quarter-final, there are no guarantees that he will get his place back. Cullen’s days as an international are assuredly over, and it’s up to Toner to keep his level up and get himself picked. Damien Browne may feature a little less, him being the most Thorn-like, but he is carrying an injury that needs to be managed in any case – besides, he’s hardly being tagged as a future Ireland international, and has probably seen more HEC action than was planned anyway.
Those of an excitable bent will cry that Mark Flanagan should be given his chance to shine, but he is nowhere near ready for this level. He has three Leinster starts to his name, and has not even been training full-time with the squad, instead concentrating on completing his degree. Anyone who thinks throwing him in at the deep end of a HEC knockout game would be good for him needs to re-think their understanding of player development (hint: it’s not just about ‘getting enough gametime’, as often trumpeted on internet fora).
The idea that Ireland could miss out on the next great second row because Brad Thorn turns up to solve an injury crisis for a few months is pretty proposterous. Bring on the Brad.