Numbers Game

Leinster this week (sort of) announced the signing of Lote Tuqiri, the Fijian-born Australian sometime superstar, who at 33, would appear to have his best days behind him. It’s not the sort of signing Leinster fans are used to seeing pitch up at the RDS, but being a three-month deal with a view to shoring up the wide positions until Zane Kirchner finishes up with South Africa, it probably makes sense. This is not the time to be recruiting, so pickings are slim.

Since Eoin O’Malley’s hugely unfortunate retirement was announced, sheer lack of numbers of the nippy lads looks like being Leinster’s biggest obstacle to success this season, especially since the fans have become used to the team fighting on two fronts.

It’s the strength of those one or two rungs down the depth chart that determine the chances of a team getting a home semi-final in the Pro12, and it’s in that area that Leinster have trumped all-comers over the past few seasons, with the likes of Ian Madigan, Heinke van der Merwe and Fergus McFadden spearheading an international-class first line of reserves capable of racking up multiple wins at home and on the road against middling opponents.

A quick look at the comings and goings in the Leinster back-line shows a worrying net loss in terms of talent and numbers.

Out

Jonny Sexton – needs no introduction as the unchallenged starter of all three Lions tests in a winning series. Arguably the best player in the side over the last four years.

Isa Nacewa – announced retirement and desire to return to New Zealand with family. Stalwart full-back and winger, whose experience and ability to guide those around him made him a crucial player in Pro12 ‘midweek’ games as well as being a key man on the big occasion.

Andrew Conway – curious decision to leave for Munster has yet to be fully explained, but indications are he left in a bit of a strop. Talent started to bloom late last season, and he most certainly would have been afforded multiple opportunities in blue had he stayed on this year.

Fionn Carr – never got to grips with Leinster’s attacking style or improved defensive shortcomings, but always had the potential to do something when the mood struck him.

Eoin O’Malley – prematurely retired due to knee injury. Classic footballing outside centre and natural successor to the great one, but we’ll never get to see how good he might have become.

In

Jimmy Gopperth – dependable place-kicker with Newcastle Falcons for many seasons. An experienced player who knows his way around the game, ideal foil for Madigan. Debut in Llanelli has raised expectations.

Zane Kirchner – South African full-back, currently starting in their national team and among try-scorers at the weekend. Will not make it to Leinster until Rugby Championship is out of the way.

Five out, two in, one of whom arrives mid-season. Little wonder they’ve signed Tuqiri for three months. One Lion, one world class utiltity man and two youngsters who would expect to have gone on to represent their country, along with one unfulfilled talent have headed for the out door. So where does it leave Leinster? Looking at the best possible backline they can put out, their Heineken Cup team if you will, it probably goes a bit like this (but really, does anyone get to put out their best 9-15 without injury these days?)

9 Eoin Reddan / Isaac Boss – expect to see O’Connor continue with a horses-for-courses approach to his two scrum-halves. Both have another year on the clock, however, and are now 32 and 33 respectively. Reddan’s game relies on speed to the ruck and if he lost his speed he would be severely diminished, as he is not a great strategist or game manager.

10 Ian Madigan – huge pressure on the young man’s shoulders. More Contepomi than Sexton, his talent is super-abundant but he’ll hit his share of bumps in the road.

11 Luke Fitzgerald – there is so much goodwill towards the luckless Blackrock man that you almost feel anguish every time he takes the field. Long overdue a run of injury-free good form.

12 Gordon D’arcy – has been under pressure in recent seasons, but was rejuvenated for his province last term, and looks in good nick for another solid campaign

13 Brian O’Driscoll – will continue to be first choice as Leinster look to milk every last bit of his final season. Prepare to see grown men weeping at his last match.

14 Fergus McFadden – the utility man asked to be considered in one position last season, but who knows if O’Connor will continue to see it that way? Still, it looks as if he will be required at 14.

15 Rob Kearney – struggled in an injury-blighted campaign last year but is surely too good a player not to return to something like his best this season, fitness permitting.

It’s an all-Irish backline, but crucially, an all international backline, which means they’ll spend plenty of time in camp with Joe Schmidt and the next wave will be needed to make in the region of 14-16 starts in the Pro12. The hope would have been that this next wave was Gopperth, Conway, Goodman, O’Malley and Dave Kearney with Nacewa in tow, but instead it’s Gopperth, Darren Hudson, Andrew Goodman, Brendan Macken, Dave Kearney and Kirchner/Tuqiri.
Goodman, Gopperth and Kirchner are experienced players, and both management and supporters will have a good idea what will be required of them. Gopperth has to kick a multitude of points, Goodman has to break the gain-line and Kirchner has to bring the best parts of his game, and leave the rest in South Africa. By our count that leaves three players who will be relied upon to contribute much more than they have in a season to date.

1. Dave Kearney – last season was interrupted by injury, but the year before he played very well and was named on the bench for the Six Nations opener against Wales. The player he got the nod ahead of that day was Simon Zebo, who has since been on a Lions tour, so there is ground to make up. This year Dave Kearney will be expected to push very hard for selection in the Heineken Cup team. Kearney’s strength is his elusive running, but he needs to improve his tackling and try-count, which runs at 12 in 53 appearances. Started 10 Pro 12 matches last season, but will be expected to produce something more like 2011-12 when he made 18 starts, but most importantly, he will be required to become a fixture of the Heineken Cup matchday squad.

2. Brendan Macken – Something of a frustration in his time so far for Leinster, where he remains better known for his (admittedly pretty good) Ryle Nugent impression rather than his contribution on-pitch. O’Malley’s injury has pushed him up the rankings, and it must be hoped that he can improve his aggression in defence and somehow inherit some of O’Malley’s game-awareness. He started 10 games in last season’s Pro12 and will be expected to imrove on that by 50% this year, and with greater distinction. Friday night represented an encouraging start.

3. Darren Hudson – the Mary’s wing has featured just nine times for Leinster and turned 23 in June, but looks set for a prominent role this year. Came off the bench on Friday night to score his first try in blue, and he can expect to be called upon in around a dozen games this year. It remains to be seen how good he is at this level, but he is strong and quick.

If those three lads can make the impact required of them, Leinster will be some way towards having the required mettle to be competitive on both fronts this season. It’s almost certainly a regret that Niall Morris, 40 appearances and counting for Leicester, was allowed to leave, and it’s still hard to understand how Conway ended up moving to Munster.  Leinster will hope that they don’t experience a run of injuries akin to last season, because if they do they’re goosed.  If they can ride their luck ont hat front, they should cope this season.  Next year, when Brian O’Driscoll and almost certainly Leo Cullen will not be around, is an entirely different matter, but is a fence O’Connor will soon have to have to start thinking about how to get over.

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25 Comments

  1. This has been the main topic of conversation I’ve had with fellow Leinster fans all summer. It’s pretty safe to presume that the backline will get a minimum of 2 injuries through the course of the season. You take 2 out of either the firsts or seconds above and there just isn’t anyone to fill the void.

    Some academy players are going to have to be chucked in, sink or swim style, which really flies in the face of the rigidly managed structures Leinster currently operate on with their academy players (ref. Mad-dog as prime example).

    With the quality and competitiveness of the Pro 12 raising every season, it could go pretty wrong this season.

    But, to end on a positive note, the game away to Scarlets was a very positive one (esp second half) so fingers crossed there are some young up and coming stars who when given their chance will take it with both hands!

    Going to be a fascinating season that’s for sure!

  2. Dave W

     /  September 11, 2013

    It’s a potentially-worrying season for a Leinster fan alright.

    Injuries aside, I can see Dave Kearney stepping up, along with Fergus McFadden (who I feel is very underrated in that he rarely makes mistakes and is usually good for at least one clear line break per game).

    I’m less convinced by Macken though. His defensive positioning has been very suspect at times in the last few games I’ve seen him in – Scarlets game has a few examples where he was caught out badly. Sure, I’m not asking for an O’Driscoll like rock in defense, but his basic reading of the game and positioning has to improve if he’s to be considered a reliable backup.

    Reserving judgement on Gopperth and Kirchner until I’ve seen them play, but Gopperth has really landed on his feet. Goodman also looks pretty solid in the absence of D’Arcy, who himself seems to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence in his “old” age.

    As said, injuries will be the making or breaking of the team this year, as much if not more so than the performances. Still looking forward to it though!

  3. Len

     /  September 11, 2013

    I’d hope that any potential contract for LT would include an extension clause assuming he proves himself worth it. Macken worries me and he needs a big step up this year, same goes for Noel Reed who has looked very lack luster. With the likes of Hudson, Mackenzie and fanning picking up game time with the seniors that should leave space with the A’s for more Academy players to get reasonable game time and progress.

    It’ll be a very odd and uncertain season especially with the way the HC is gone.

  4. curates_egg

     /  September 11, 2013

    You don’t mention Fanning, Coughlan-Murray, Reid or Cathal Marsh, who are all sure to feature this year. Added to that, we have two young scrumhalves who are ticking along nicely.

    It’s probably going to be a less trophy-filled year than in the recent past but I don’t think most fans are expecting trophies this year. If Matt O’Connor can bed himself and a few of these younger players in, then we could be in an ok place again next year. All the more if we recruit wisely e.g. Niall Morris, who is trundling along at Leicester. If you look at Munster’s backline, they seem to have hoovered up all the Leinster players who had to (or thought they had to) leave the club to get game time (Keatley, Downey, Murphy, Jones, Conway). Leinster need to be on the ball there this year.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 11, 2013

      Where we have a problem though is the outside centre channel, which makes the Tuqiri recruitment plain odd. Macken may or may not step up (was ok last week but has not looked like an O’Malley yet – no point comparing to BOD). Judging by the initial teamsheet last week, McFadden is going to get a run there but it may not be his best position. The other alternative is Fitz, who looks to be focusing on the wing – as last week’s selection would suggest (not to mention his twitter profile @lukefitz11).

      McSharry looks to have developed well at Connacht, since leaving the Leinster Academy. Could he poached back? (*cue umbrage from ummm et al)

      • Connachtexile

         /  September 11, 2013

        “McSharry looks to have developed well at Connacht, since leaving the Leinster Academy. Could he poached back? (*cue umbrage from ummm et al)” – Boo!

      • toro toro

         /  September 12, 2013

        Kirchner’s an option at 13, as well, he’s played there for the ‘Boks.

      • I’ll fight you for him, choose your weapons. You can have sticks or lead pipes, I’ve already selected the pistol.

    • There are loads of players bubbling under the surface, too many to go into here. I’ve no doubt we’ll see the players you mention, but they’re really another tier down from those we wanted to discuss. We want to focus on the players who’ll be required to make a large contribution to the retention of the Pro12, and the Heineken Cup. I don’t think the like of Coughlan-Murray or Noel Reid are in that league yet.

  5. Yossarian

     /  September 11, 2013

    People are asking a lot of Macken; because he skipped the academy people think he is older than he is. Unfortunately we have run out of time and needs to deliver now along with Hudson amd Reid.
    Boyle and Sam Coughlan-Murray have to start featuring this season as well.
    Its probably too soon for Daly,Farrell Byrne and Dardis just yet.

  6. @curates, I’m open to correction but I think McSharry signed a new 3 year deal with Connacht at the end of last season so I think the chances of Leinster poaching him are slim tbh

    • curates_egg

       /  September 11, 2013

      Oh well. Henshaw then? 😉

      • Mary Hinge

         /  September 11, 2013

        Henshaw on three year deal too c_e! Thanks for finishing Carr for us. Off the mark again with a try in his first game back!

  7. Am I the only person who thinks Kirchner will be more than a bit useful?

    Don’t expect wowee skills, or Nacewa’s classy dependability, but ZK is a big strong boy who will provide a very physical option for Leinster in the wider channels and (maybe less crucially, given Healy, O’Brien, McCarthy, etc) indeed right across the pitch.

    In defence he will be very tough if, again, not mistake-free. I think he will certainly strengthen their squad, and is likely to feature in the majority of their first choice match day 23s, if not necessarily starting (but one or two injuries, with them not being him, and he’s right in there).

    Tuqiri is not going to be the same player of old, but if Ulster could get some use out of a 57-year-old Stefan Terblanche, then LT is hardly a surefire bust.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 13, 2013

      I think you’re right Larry. Safa fans may moan about him but he is a good player and will be better than most he comes up against, ditto Tuqiri (provided he is actually fit). My only gripe would be that we badly need a finished outside centre, so why was this not prioritised?

      • Paddy

         /  September 13, 2013

        NIE rules. Munster have an NIE 13 (lalalalala) already so we can’t sign one until his contract is up or earls become a good option at 13……so well have to wait until his contract is up!

  8. Not Michael Bent

     /  September 12, 2013

    This is not to pick a hole in the whole idea of the Out and In calculations, but I would expect Leinster (and the other provinces) to always be Net Exporters.

    Looking at the the five that are Out, 3.5 are Leinster Academy/development system products anyway (Fionn Carr being the half).

    I also think Mike McCarthy might somewhat object to being left off that list

    • toro toro

       /  September 12, 2013

      A list of back-line ins and outs? I think he’d be okay with it, myself.

    • Conway and O’Malley were academy system products, yes. But academy system products who were earmarked as being the future of the club, so it’s not the equivalent of, say, Michael Keating going to Nottingham. There’s net exporting because of a logjam of talent, and then there’s losing really important players.

  9. Not Michael Bent

     /  September 12, 2013

    Either I consider him to be more than just a forward, or I entirely missed the key line of the article.

    I do stand by my other point though. Unless I missed that too

    • toro toro

       /  September 12, 2013

      I thought the other point was a good one, alright. Though I guess the worry is that the gains the Academy is doing such a good job of producing have been cancelled out by the banalce of trade…

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