Our third provincial preview, and it’s a look at Leinster. Can they possibly go one better than last season?
Last Season: to heaven and back. Leinster backed up their first season under Joe Schmidt with a rampaging season in Europe, and became the first team since Leicester to win back-to-back Heineken Cups. They played some fairly rip-roaring rugby in the process, demolishing Bath, swatting aside Cardiff and putting five tries on a gamey Ulster side in the final. On the road they opted for a tougher approach, and it got them through some gnarly old games; squeezing out of Montpellier with a draw, toughing it out against Glasgow, but most famously, delivering a famous victory in Bordeaux against Clermont Auvergne. In the league, Leinster were a model of consistency, topping the log by a distance, but the summer was slightly spoiled by a failure to secure a historic double, with reliable party-poopers Ospreys pinching the Pro12 in the final minutes at the RDS.
Ins: Tom Denton (Leeds), Quinn Roux (Stormers), Andrew Goodman (Tasman Makos)
Outs: Ciaran Ruddock (Neath), Brad Thorn (Fukuoka Sanix Blues), Eamonn Sheridan (Rotherham), Nathan White (Connacht)
The big question is: can Leinster make it three in a row? They’re the best team in Europe, and the best coached. The final is in their home from home, the Aviva Stadium. And they sure won’t give their Cup up without a hell of a fight. But we reckon they’ll never have it so hard to win the Heineken Cup as this year. For all sorts of reasons.
For a start, they’ve landed a stinker of a pool draw. For the fourth season in a row, Leinster will face off against Clermont. So far, they’ve come off on the right side each time, but can they do it again? Clermont look the team best equipped to put one over on Leinster, but keep coming up just short. Last year the difference was a fractionally dropped ball from Wesley Fofana in the dying seconds of the match. It can’t go on forever. Elsewhere, Leinster have to deal with a doughty Exeter side and Llanelli Scarlets, who might have the front five this season to cause good teams problems. They’re strong everywhere else on the pitch. It’s a hard group.
It goes without saying everyone will be gunning for the back-to-back champions. It’s hard to gauge just how wide the pool of serious contenders will be this year, but it should be bigger than last season. Leicester should be resurgent, Saracens will be tough and Northampton will hardly repeat last season’s implosion. Ulster will have learned from last season’s experience. Munster are Munster. Ospreys will target a strong campaign in Europe to back up the Pro12 success. From France, the aforementioned Clermont and Toulouse should provide a stiff challenge while Toulon, if interested, could be a shark.
Weirdly, though, Leinster’s biggest threat could be a team they’ll never play: Ireland. Word on the ground is that Team Ireland are set to assert their position as Top Dog like never before. Kidney will apparently have greater contact with his key men with meetings in camp becoming more frequent. Preparation time for Heineken Cup games could be compromised. Leinster, as biggest providers of personnel to the national team, will be the most affected. Given how, in the last two seasons, one of Schmidt’s biggest challenges has been getting the first team back in the groove after the lengthy Six Nations break, further interruptions will be the last thing he wants – but he’ll just have to suck it up. Ironically, the paucity of Ireland’s recent efforts have helped Schmidt in one sense - the players could not wait to get back to his modern coaching techniques.
Whatever happens, it’ll be fascinating viewing. Last season Leinster evolved from an offloading team to more of a gainline-passing team. Schmidt’s vision, declared upon arrival, of turning Leinster into the best passing side in Europe reached its fruition. With such high quality distribution across the line of attack, there was less requirement to look for the offload out of contact. Great teams only stay great by evolving, so it’ll be interesting to see what wrinkles Schmidt introduces this year.
In terms of playing personnel there was little change last year. Rob Kearney returned from injury and effectively swapped in for Shane Horgan (with Nacewa moving to the wing). This year might require a bit more transition. Can Gordon D’arcy hang on to the 12 jersey? It increasingly looks like he can. He no longer has the line-break threat of old, but in the knockout rounds of the Heineken Cup his strength in contact was a huge asset to Leinster, and launched numerous attacks. How will Fitzgerald do on his return? And what of McFadden – can he make the final breakthrough or is he to be the perennial 23rd man. He is a hardy competitor, as naturally fit as they come, but are his ball skills rounded enough to be first choice 12? He’s 26 now, so if he doesn’t nail down the role this season, his time may be passing. And can Schmidt keep the increasingly impressive Ian Madigan happy? He’s going to demand Heineken Cup minutes if his form gets any better.
Then there’s the second row. Leinster’s failure to replace Nathan Hines was always liable to hurt them. Last year they were bailed out by the great Brad Thorn Coup. That’s unlikely to be repeated this year, so the hope is that between Toner, Denton, Flanagan, Roux and Browne, somebody emerges as a top quality lock. The best bet looks to be Toner. He may look awkward, but the improvement in his all-round game last season was immense. He’s still got time on his side and looks to have finally grown into his unique frame. Now it’s time to nail down that starting berth once and for all. Cullen is captain for another season, so Schmidt and co. obviously feel he’s capable of another season as a starter; even if he’s only a 50-minute player.
Anyhow, enough carping. It should be another cracking season at the RDS. Sexton will be targeting a test Lions jersey; so too will Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy. Kevin McLoughlin has emerged as a key player of test quality. He and Richardt Strauss will have international ambitions. Then there’s the supporting crew. Ian Madigan is on the verge of a huge breakthrough and makes cold Thursday nights at the RDS against Treviso in mid-February worth showing up for. We’re tipping Dom Ryan for a big season (note to Dom: less carrying, more link-play) and we’re hoping for glimpses of Tadgh Furlong’s huge potential. Season tickets are renewed, bring it on.
Verdict: if three Heineken Cups in a row does prove too good to be true, Leinster will surely console themselves with a league victory. They should have some silver for the cabinet at the end of the year.