2012/13 Season Preview: Leinster

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Bob R

     /  August 29, 2012

    No mention of injuries? There are a lot of notable names that aren’t going to be available for much of the pre-Christmas period. Leinster could be stretched quite thin if they pick up more injuries between now and then.

  2. Lots of injuries alright, and the backs division looks especially thin before the big boys return. It’s something all squads have to contend with, though, so we didn’t want to shine too much of a light on it, especially as Leinster should have the squd depth to cope, once they get their internationals back anyway.

  3. For the league opening match, 40% of the senior squad are unavailable either due to IRFU dictat, or through injury. That’s a scary statistic.

  4. Ultra Sur

     /  August 29, 2012

    I don’t know about the Heino group being a bad thing. It’s a 2011 versus 2012 comparison. In 2011 Leinster had a tough group but came through battle hardened. In the Leicester match the scoreline looked far closer than the match actually was thanks to a late try. Ditto re Toulouse (one gifted try, another that could have been prevented but for some gamesmanship by Nyanga) and the final wasn’t even close once Leinster got their act together. You could make the same argument for 2009 when it came to the semi.

    2012, on the other hand, saw Leinster with one tough match between Montpellier and the trophy ceremony and that win was by the skin of their teeth I believe as a direct consequence of having no tough matches all year. You could make the same argument for Munster in 2009.

    They can ship one loss away to Clermont. The rest they’ll win, surprisingly easily in some cases given the early exits induced by having two big hitters in the group, and get a home quarter. You’d back the semi draw favouring the home-town team as well in general – even by the laws of averages Leinster have had 3 away semis in the last 4 years and are due a home draw. This team doesn’t lose at home in the Heineken.

    Joe’s last year, the carrot of a home final and a character-building group = favourites in my book.

    • Amiga500

       /  August 29, 2012

      On this – can two teams from the one group meet in the semis?

      • Redhanded

         /  August 29, 2012

        Yes – the semi finals are decided by an open draw so any quarter final winners can meet any other.

      • Ciaran

         /  August 29, 2012

        Two teams from the same group can meet in the quarters, never mind the semis.

      • Amiga500

         /  August 29, 2012

        @ Ciaran – true.

        I was thinking could the same scenario arise as last year – facing Clermont away in the SF with absolutely nothing you can do to avoid it. Win your group and your at home.

    • @Ultra Sur Sure, why do the others even bother showing up? Leinster have it ‘dans le sac’ already. 🙂

      Having a tough group can work in your favour but only once you get out of it! Under your scenario Clermont could win five of their games as well as Leinster and pip the group on bonus points. No guarantees of anything in the Heineken Cup.

      • Ultra Sur

         /  August 30, 2012

        Yep, and the rest of the analysis on it being a weaker squad etc. (particularly in the row) is bang on. It won’t be easy and is a damn sight harder than last year. But the value of experience will count here (including Clermont’s sequence of losses versus Leinster) and are Clermont slightly overrated? Like, let’s call a spade a spade – one Bouclier and a load of early exits from the Heineken isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. It reeks of the years of potential the Ospreys had and at some point we’re going to have to call time on them being the Champions Elect tag.

        A win for Leinster in Clermont all but eliminates them and Leinster can really go for that in the knowledge that they have the safety net of group play rather than it being a tense, minimise-mistakes away day in the knock-out stages. Having them in the group presents an opportunity to shitcan them out of the competition early doors plus a tough group in this respect will play against Clermont just as much as us.

        Of the two, history and Ultra Sur back Leinster. Sound a bit like GT backing Deccie there actually so may as well finish in character: #c’estdanslesac

  5. KeithEarlsisnota13

     /  August 29, 2012

    Center and second row are the big weaknesses in my view,as you said Cullen is only a 50 minute man and i dont believe Toner has grown into his frame at all and isnt brutal enough.There are guys his height(Richie Gray,Jim Hamilton)who have the bulk needed to clear out a ruck,Toner’s rucking is poor and he still looks gangly/unathletic rather then muscular.Hopefully Denton and Roux step up,or If Anthony Boric is over his injury he would be a good pick up.Leinster need someone in the Thorn/Bakkies mould.Or alternatively we could convert McLaughlin in a second row,pair him up with a bosher/meathead and have a pair of mobile second rows for the first time in a long while.

    Center would be my other big concern We are starting the season with Macken,Reid and O’Shea as our centers due to international rest period+injuries,but further down the road we have a serious depth/quality issues.
    Darce has had a second wind(after 2-3 years of mediocrity) and proved he can still be a serviceable 12,but how long can he keep going for? He has good distribution but nothing else in attack.I dont rate McFadden,hes had his chance,he couldn’t oust an aging,out-of-form Darce.So I cant see him ousting an aging,in-form Darce.Added to the fact we are tinkering with a backrow at 12 during the preseason gives me an indication that Schmidt knows its a weak area and doesnt rate Macken or Reid.I think it might be time to for Schmidt to visit the League ranks and recruit some “Oooooooh” as a stopgap measure.
    At 13,with O’Malley injured.Back up for Drico is thin, There are an ample number of Pro 12 games for someone to throw their hat in the ring for selection at 13.I thought Luke Fitzgerald would have taken over at 13 by now,but that looks as far in the future as him playing 15…McFadden filled in there in the past,but hes a player who seems to be the second coming of Gary Brown rather then a long term solution to anything.

    • Dr Gonzo

       /  August 29, 2012

      I think Coughlan was to give them ballast and oomph in the centre. Plus they can maximise the talents of a good young player who is unfortunate to be in a team chock full of 6/8s by trying him elsewhere. As for not rating O’Shea, Macken or Reid, those boys haven’t had a great pre-season really but that could be the increased responsibility placed upon them as Leinster have no wise sage in the back-line (Isa aside) to guide the young lads. We’ll have a better picture after 80mins in Scarlets and see who has done well. I reckon the backline for that game will go Boss, Mads, Conway, Reid, Macken, Boyle/Couglan-Murray or a.n other, Isa. Not ideal but enough experience to compete. Great shout on Boric, plenty of good locks out there that Leinster could bring here. You could add Eaton, or Retaillack to that list as Whitelock and Romano are ahead in the pecking order.

    • I’d say that’s a harsh assessment of Toner and McFadden. Leinster do have a lack of depth at centre, no question, especially if McFadden features at international level and with O’Malley injured. McFadden is a valuable player, a classic utility back. He doesn’t quite have the quick feet or distribution skills to be a really top player, but to say you flat out ‘don’t rate him’ seems a bit much.

      Toner was much more aggressive around the pitch last year. He’ll never be a Bakkies (do Leinster really want someone of his ilk in the squad?) but he has plenty going for him. Surprisingly good hands, great at restarts, sits down to score tries. I’d like to see him add more to his defensive lineout work. He should be pilfering ball all over the place.

      Locky in the second row has sailed – the game against Munster when they suddenly started shoving the Leinster scrum six ways from Sunday showed up his inability to scrummage on the tigthead side.

      • KeithEarlsisnota13

         /  August 29, 2012

        When I say I dont rate McFadden I’m comparing him to prime Darce of 06/07,or the caliber of center i’d expect to be playing at 12 for the European cup champions.As you say hes a valuble squad member,but hes 25-6 and hasnt shown any signs of reaching anywhere near Darces level of performance.Hes a jack of all trades,master of none,a perfect candidate for the Leinster bench,but would you play him against Jamie Roberts,Nonu,SBW even second rate bosh merchants like Downey ,Juazion , Joubert etc? I wouldnt trust him to start in a Heineken cup match that matters,I dont agree with DK on anything,but his continued selection of Paddy Wallace in the centers over McFadden indicates he’s not well rated.As is the fact that there are zero rumors about him moving overseas despite his lack of gametime.I think hes a good bench/pro 12 starter.But as Darce isnt getting any younger and the game is getting quicker,Leinster need a replacement to step up.

        As for Toner,yes he is improving incrementally and could be a late developer a-la Ryan, but to say you wouldnt want the ‘ilk’ of Bakkies in the Leinster squad is facetious,hes a fabulous player,the sterotypical enforcer/grinder in the pack.Toner has not been trusted in top level competion against the likes of Hines,Cudmores etc of the world for a reason.He doesnt have the toughness of a Bakkies and doesnt offer enough around the park to justify his selection on his lineout merits.I reckon Roux or Denton will have displaced him by christmas,unless they are clones of Sykes and Ed O Donoghue.

  6. Amiga500

     /  August 29, 2012

    Nice to see you lads are leaving the best till last 😉

    SUFTUM

  7. rossa

     /  August 29, 2012

    Over the last couple of years I have felt a bit of gloom at the start of the season when looking at my beloved Blues. Firstly with a new coach, then with the world cup and players not really being around that much. How wrong I could have been. The lads have played some fantastic rugby and given us some amazing days out. I start this season along the same lines. With a lot of lads being rested at the start of this season and more injuries than normal, we will only really know how we are shaping up well into Oct.

  8. Its a weaker squad than last year against an arguably stronger Clermont squad that will certainly be gunning for Leinster. I am looking forward to the trip to the home of Michelin but think it might be Clermont’s time this year.

  9. @KeithEarls… I think you just need to temper expectations a little bit. I’d share plenty of your reservations, but Dorce 2006-7 vintage was arguably the world’s best centre (the Sunday Times named him in their World XV after the 2006 November series). Plenty of good players wouldn’t match up to that standard. As for McFadden and links to other clubs, it was well publicised that Leicester were in the hunt for him before he committed to Leinster two seasons ago. And he started plenty of Heineken Cup games that mattered last season and that worked out well enough.

    Toner is a 26 year old with almost 100 appearances to his name. Second rows have a long shelf life. He can have another ten years at a high level. Comparisons with the likes of Bakkies Botha are misplaced. Botha’s a lumpy tighthead lock (like Shaw, Thorn, Hines etc.) while Toner is a classic middle of the lineout loosehead lock. Better to compare him with the likes of Luke Charteris, Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones who play in his position.

    And no, I wouldn’t want Bakkies Botha at Leinster…

  10. Beware Ospreys. That’s all I’m saying.

    • I’m one-bitten on this one. Two years ago after they won in Thomond Park and the RDS to secure the Magners League, I spent the summer tipping them to make their long awaited step up in Europe the following season, but it never happened.

      They’ve plenty going for them – two excellent scrum halves, Jason Tipuric, good centres, a world class scrum and a 10 who looks made for Heineken Cup rugby. But nobody’s really intimidated by their home ground and they still can’t shake off their reputation for flouncing around when it matters. We’ll watch with interest.

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