Team in Focus: Leinster

Last week we caught up with the domestic season so far, but it’s hard to escape the sense that the phoney war is now over and the serious business starts this Friday. This weekend the provinces reintegrate their full quotient of frontliners, Leinster take on Munster and Ulster face Connacht, and the following week the Heineken Cup kicks off.  We’re going to have an in-depth look at each of the Irish provinces, and we’ll look at the Heineken Cup groups after that.  We’re kicking off with European Champions, Leinster.

Last season: A+ all round. Joe Schmidt overcame a terrible opening month to deliver a second Heineken Cup in three years.  Unlike the first Cup triumph, Leinster were imperious throughout the competition; Schmidt reinvigorated a tired looking backline by introducing an offloading game that made them more potent than ever in attack, while retaining the hard-nosed winning mentality forged under Michael Cheika.

So far this season: Ticking over.  Five wins in the Magners League, but unsurprisingly, have yet to scale the heights of last year.

Prospects: Leinster will be looking to go one better than last season, which can only be done by winning both the Heineken Cup and the Pro12.  On the face of it their prospects couldn’t be healthier.  Joe Schmidt is fully settled in the role, and now tipped as the next Ireland coach, and a raft of players who made an impression last year will be a year older and more experienced: the likes of Rhys Rudock, Dom Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley will be looking to push on and start the big games this year. 

Back row is an area of notable strength, where Sean O’Brien has graduated to the status of global star, and Jamie Healsip will look forward to playing his natural game after a subdued World Cup.  Jennings, McLaughlin, Ryan and Ruddock will be toughing it out to to start alongside them.  With Ross and Healy, the scrum looks rock solid and the addition of Cronin at hooker means Leinster have solid cover for the outstanding Richardt Strauss.  In the backline, Rob Kearney is back to full fitness having had a sound world Cup and the returning Fionn Carr brings out-and-out pace, a missing ingredient since Disco Den’s retirement.  A relatively benign draw (Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier) in the group stages of the HEC puts Leinster in the position of joint tournament favourites, with Toulouse, to win the Cup.

It looks like an impossibly rosy picture – but a couple of clouds are looming.  Second row is a worry.  It is impossible to overrate the contribution of Nathan Hines to last year’s HEC win – the big man’s handling skills were crucial to the offlading game Leinster play, but he has been forced out by the IRFU.  Early indications are that Devin Toner is being groomed to start in his place this year.  At 208cm, Toner is a completely different player to Hines.  He played badly last season (his restart work is frequently appaling), but has started well this, and has a newfound, and badly needed, aggression about his play.  The middle of the lineout should be safe enough with him on the pitch, but Leinster will miss the power, and that bit of mongrel that Hines brought to bare on the team.  Much will depend on whether Toner steps up to the plate.

And what of the centres?  Brian O’Driscoll played the World Cup on one shoulder, and assuredly won’t get through a season unless he is given the chance to properly recover.  How he is handled by the Leinster management remains to be seen, but it must be possible that Leinster will have to cope without him for the early rounds of the Heineken Cup.  Gordon D’arcy has struggled for consistency for some time, and in a world of 110kg centres, looks decidedly small these days.  Shane Horgan is a grievous loss, and leaves Leinster without a big man in the backline.  It means we’ll be seeing more of Fergus McFadden, who was knocking hard on the door last year – this has to be his breakthrough season.  If the BOD-Dorce-Shaggy axis is M.I.A. for vast swathes of the season, it’s hard to see Leinster retaining the Cup, but at the same time they need to start safeguarding for the future.

There’s also the possibility of ‘second season syndrome’ for Joe, and the historical difficulty of retaining the Heineken Cup (only Leicester, in 2001, have done it).  What looked like an easy HEC draw became tougher when Leinster were sent to Montpellier in the opening week.

Forecast: Leinster should qualify from their group, but it may end up tougher than is anticipated.  Lose to Montpellier in opening week, and they’ll have to go to the Rec and win – a result they should get, but not easily.  The knockouts are impossible to predict this far out, but Leinster will be in the shake-down.  In the Pro12, there should be plenty of bitterness stored up by losing out to Munster last year, and Leinster will be looking to pip their rivals this time.  They should manage that, and the likelihood is that Leinster will win silverware in one of the two competitions this year – but a double will remain beyond them.

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2 Comments

  1. I actually think Leinster have a super chance of going to the HC Final again this year. The draw could not have fallen better for them and they have a squad that is probably only rivalled by Toulouse. Also their draw couldnt have gone better and given Montpelliers early Top 14 struggles I doubt that they'll be paying too much attention to the Heino! The only key man they dont have top class cover for is Sexton, although Madigan has impressed so far this season. Also just a comment re Heaslip. He is getting a lot of stick at the moment (albeit a lot by the usual Munster cheerleaders in the press) for an underpower World Cup but I actually think he was quite effective. He took on the role of fetcher in the pack to allow Ferris and SOB to grab the headlines and interestingly in the Wales match he made more turnovers than St Sam "I made too good a tackle" Warburton. I am sure we will see some massive barrelling runs on Friday once he is playing with a proper 7 (or Dom Ryan!)

  2. Yeah, the criticism of Heaslip has been overdone – I agree that he was under orders to sacrifice his carrying and his groundwork is often terrific. That said it's not his natural game and I, too, look forward to him playing like a number 8 again.Leinster have a great chance alright, but it's such a hard tournament to predict, and the way the semi-final draw falls is usually a huge factor, so all we can say with confidence is that they should be in the shake up.First-week trip to Montpellier makes me nervous though, they'll be a different team with Gorgodzilla, Ouedraogo and Trinh-Duc back in harness.

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