The Big Name Signing

Irish provinces won’t be signing any more big name foreign players any more. Oh, hang on, they will. Or something. Who knows?

Just when it appeared that the day of the big-name NIE signing had ground to a halt, it appears that Kane Douglas’ imminent arrival to Leinster is all but confirmed and Connacht have signed, of all people, Mils Muliaina! If that signing has a look of the last of the summer wine about it (but is nonetheless thrilling), perhaps the even more ambitious coup is the capture of 24-year old Bundee Aki from Waikato Chiefs. Word on the ground is Munster and Leinster were both sniffing around him, but he chose Connacht. Go Connacht! Pat Lam’s ability to sell the province’s less than tangible qualitites to top players on the other side of the globe borders on the miraculous.

First, though, to Kane Douglas, whose signing is a timely boost to Leinster. He has international pedigree, with 14 caps for the Aussies. He played in the tests against the Lions, but despite this, he may not be completely terrible.

At 123kg and over 200cm, he and Devin Toner will form an imposing, sizeable second row partnership for Leinster next year. And at 24 years old, he’s at a terrific age profile to do well. Leinster have caught him on the way up. It’s the first recruitment since Brad Thorn that will be greeted with a sense of excitement. Leinster’s work in the transfer market has been spotty of late. Jimmy Gopperth has been solid and Zane Kirchner is beginning to spark into life, but the arrival of Mike McCarthy has been underwhelming and as for the likes of Andrew “Brad” Goodman, Michael Bent and Quinn Roux – ho hum.

Douglas rather finishes the picture for Leinster’s pack for next season. McCarthy will provide back-up and Tom Denton brings further depth, while the front and back rows are in good health, with no shortage of competition for places. The supposed reserve front row of McGrath, Cronin and Moore have all had very impressive campaigns and provide a level of impact off the bench that is comparable with even the top French sides.

It’s a different story in the backline, where Leinster have been singularly awful all year. It’s the one real bugbear of the Matt O’Connor era so far, and is trying the patience of fans who have become used to dining out on a diet of high-tempo Schmidtball. There are a few issues to be resolved. Both Reddan and Boss have signed on for next season, and while Reddan has enjoyed one of his best ever seasons, Boss’ form has been patchy indeed. Perhaps it’s time for one of the younger scrum halves on the books – Luke McGrath is the most likely – to start getting more exposure.

Luke Fitzgerald is another concern. He has looked electrifying on the pitch this year, but his injury situation is no better than it’s ever been; seemingly in a state of permanent limbo, going from week to week with a nagging abdomenal complaint, neither ruled out of or in the team until minutes before each game.

But all of these pale in comparison to the two chief bits of business that O’Connor and Leinster must take care of; finding a second-centre from somewhere, and ensuring Jonny Sexton’s return to Leinster in a year’s time. The first problem appears to be a case of identifying another starry name from down under, but those are few and far between, especially in a World Cup year. Look at Munster, who have just signed a journeyman Aussie nobody had ever heard of, and their need is no different to Leinster’s. Answers on a postcard.  There are in-house contenders, namely Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald, but neither convinces for differing reasons.  The Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw kite-flying episodes appear to have been fanciful terrace-talk.

Equally paramount is the situation at fly-half.  Sexton knew that Racing’s first season would be a slog, and the first half was dire, but he must be happier now – they showed signs of improvement over the second half of the season and have at least qualified for Le Barrage, even if an away draw is tantamount to not qualifying at all. And the IRFU must surely now see that they dropped the ball badly. To think that a year ago we were having to defend our opinion that this might not be the best outcome for both Ireland and Leinster.  For all the potential of Madigan, there’s no substitute for game-breaking world-class, and you don’t lose a player of Sexton’s regal stature and expect not to pay for it.  The IRFU must do their utmost to bring him back.

One good bit of news is that Sean O’Brien is back in training, and his return to the team next season will make a huge difference; to the pack, to the backline, to everything. He’s among the best backrows in world rugby and his skillset is irreplaceable. Given his twin armoury of exceptional skill at the breakdown and ability to carry over the gainline and provide front-foot ball for his half-backs, he is capable of cancelling out the deficiencies in both the pack and the backline.  O’Connor needs him.  Badly.

P.S. Please, please, please let’s not make the comments box a referendum on Ian Madigan at 10 – he may be discussed in the context of centre, but the Madigan vs. O’Connor/Jackson/Hanrahan/Keatley debate has been done to death below previous posts over the last month.

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51 Comments

  1. Wrote this earlier in the week about Leinster’s pack dominance and the opportunity to leverage it: http://ovaldigest.com/index.php/the-future-of-leinster-rugby/

    I definitely think with Douglas signing, the pack and bench options we could potentially choose would be one of the best in Europe.

    I agree too that a centre is now high up on the list, however, unlikely we’ll get one that will slot in. Talk of former NZ Baby Black Michael Collins arriving.

    • Also, LOL at ‘Brad Goodman’!

    • Leinsterlion

       /  May 8, 2014

      Although In agree with your reasoning and it makes sense, thats a very depressing piece, Im partial to enjoying some boshfest myself, but thats why I watch the NRL, the leagueification of rugby continues, 6ft 15odd stone backs running hard lines… OOOoooooooooohhhhhh!!!!!

  2. “Luke Moore”? Lol!!! Agree, Luke McGrath looks every piece the heir apparent to the number 9 shirt for Leinster.

    • Thanks, for some reason I’ve a blank spot on that one and often find myself calling him Luke Moore in conversation, I’ve no idea why. Fixed.

  3. Sound Steve

     /  May 8, 2014

    I think you may be reading into the signing of Douglas too much. I wouldn’t consider him a nailed on starter by any stretch. Is a fringe-Aussie international lock really an improvement on a fringe-Irish international lock? Also, the role of these overseas signings is in part to meet the requirements of the squad without their internationals. Given that next season, come the Autumn games, the squad will be down Cullen, Roux, Toner and possibly McCarthy, a lock makes sense. He will certainly add some size and physicality to a young and callow Leinster squad sans internationals. Also, given how small the market would appear to be in a pre-WC year, I would imagine Leinster weren’t flush with options.

    The days of big-name signings are over for now. I’d imagine that the IRFU/provinces have had to increase salaries for their Irish internationals in order to dissuade moves to France and England, leaving little left for overseas signings and I’m delighted. I can only see this as a good thing for the national team as the provinces have held primacy for too long.

    Also, glad to see Luke Moore has hung up his football boots and embarked on a rugby career!

    • “Is a fringe-Aussie international lock really an improvement on a fringe-Irish international lock?”

      The Shelbyvillian quaotation of ‘That’s why we beat them at football almost half the time’ springs to mind.

      I take your point nonetheless but with 14 Aussie caps at the age of 24, he’s on the way up rather than on the way down. Surely a step up from McCarthy whose share price is down since it hit a peak in November 2012.

      • D6W

         /  May 8, 2014

        You have to wonder why he has chosen to move now, and rule himself out of the Aussie world cup squad. Does he lack international ambition, or is a pure mercenary?

        • It is an interesting question, and it’s a surprise signing for that reason. On l’autre hand, there are a few locks in contention, so I’m not sure he’s a nailed on certainty. Also at 24, he probably feels he has plenty of chances in the future to play in a World Cup.

          Still though, you’d have thought that as a 24-year old international lock, the World Cup would be Priority No.1.

        • abitofshoepie

           /  May 9, 2014

          I think ‘the score’ did a comparison of the performance of Aussie locks this year, and he came out as one of the weakest in terms of the recent stats. Maybe he knows he won’t make the team so happy to move abroad.

    • Bear in mind Steve that Roux has been released and Cullen’s retiring at the end of the season to be forwards coach. That means that Douglas, Toner and McCarthy are the three front-line locks for Leinster.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 8, 2014

        Is Roux gone for sure? Terrible, such physical potential wasted, nearly on a par with the Sykes signing if he’s released, would have liked to give him two more seasons to see what he could potentially do.

        • connachtexile

           /  May 8, 2014

          Agreed he’s still very young for a lock and I don’t think he’s got a fair deal under MOC. Would love to see him come to Connacht.

        • I wouldn’t cry any tears over Roux. The guy was just never fit.

  4. Brian Donnelly

     /  May 8, 2014

    “Trying the patience” is putting it mildly when you have a stellar backline who (in blue) appear incapable of passing the ball to one another. increasingly and disappointedly I suspect the elephant in the room here is MoC. Seanie’s gainlining and J10’s leadership (IF he returns) will not address that if the Head Coach is not up to it.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  May 8, 2014

    I heard SOB once played 13 in an u-16’s rugby gala…..

    Jokes aside, I’m more confident in our overall squad(provided KD signs) then I was at this time last year, last year our bench looked empty, now we have nearly two full solid packs to choose from with only a few individuals being close to irreplaceable.
    As you point out, its all about the backline and the numerous permutations that dont quite add up to threatening unit, part of this is MOC and his “gameplan” part of it is just poor players in certain positions.
    Redden is nailed on at 9, no reason why he cant continue,when last year he was coming of a knacked leg and in poor form and looked done. You know my thoughts on the ten situation. Darce is worth another season, Reid is looking like he could become a good second five eights if not a classic bosh/hard yards merchant that we need. 13 is worry, but it was this season, with Drico hardly in vintage form, Macken or Collins? What colour do you want your lada in? Harsh, but at the same time Macken could come good and Collins who cant even get into the Highlanders team might also find some extra gears with Schmidt coach…..oh..
    Wingers are mediocre, though game, outside of Luke “Handle with Care” Fitz its all very mauve. Kearney the greater peerless at fb if not quite electric on attack and on occasion whiffing on tackles in defence. The raw materials are there in the backs to form a cohesive, if not very dynamic or powerful unit imo, just need a pacey winger allied with some real punch in the midfield which we haven’t had(barring some brief Darce spurts of energy and industry) and we could make a good fist of of challenging for some silverware.
    All of the above is irrelevant however unless we do something about the coaching situation, we could sign Estebeth and Fourie and Carter and we would still only play a marginally better version of the shite on display this year. MOC needs to sort himself out, he is the biggest problem, crap tactics and selections, you cant outplay a bad coach, just look at France, world class players, sunday league coach, MOC needs to hire an assistant who knows what he is doing, or resign.

    • osheaf01

       /  May 8, 2014

      “All of the above is irrelevant however unless we do something about the coaching situation, we could sign Estebeth and Fourie and Carter and we would still only play a marginally better version of the shite on display this year. MOC needs to sort himself out, he is the biggest problem, crap tactics and selections, you cant outplay a bad coach, just look at France, world class players, sunday league coach, MOC needs to hire an assistant who knows what he is doing, or resign.”

      Leinster’s Michael Bradley. You know it makes sense.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 8, 2014

        Unfortunately it does, I was skeptical initially, tigers coach, nothing of note in his background, tigers fans indifferent to his departure, nothing he has done nothing since to quash my skepticism, if anything my impression of his has gotten worse, although he might be better on the recruitment front than Schmidt, which could be a lone positive.

  6. Why is it so critical that the IRFU Sexton gets back? He’s still available to Ireland and in his absence, we’ve been finding out more about Madigan who is never going to get better if gametime is not invested in him. He’s probably suffering a bit of “second season syndrome” after his breakout year last season but there’s every chance he can learn from it and push on. He isn’t going to push on if the Lions 10 is immediately installed above him in the pecking order. Look at how it took Keatley a year to get out from the shadow of ROG!

    Sure Leinster might fare a little bit worse in the short term but medium term, we’ll have more Irish players playing 10 and it’ll be good for Ireland.

    Lot of cribbing in the comments above re MOC but he’s been dealt a rubbish hand in some respects and the lack of pace & gainline breaking ability in midfield (no SOB & D’Arcy/BOD finished) is not his fault.

    • This is the sort of argument that was made last season, but does it really hold? Are Ireland not better off with a strong Leinster (and Munster etc.) in Europe? I know Ireland won the Six Nations and Sexton played very well, but I wouldn’t allow that to paper over some of the issues, with Sexton having to leave training camps to play for Racing mid-tournament, which didn’t help. The IRFU puts a large store in keeping their players in Ireland, and it’s for good reason.

      • Stevo

         /  May 9, 2014

        There seems to be a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc regarding the 6 Nations victory coinciding with (slightly) diminished results at provincial level. Ireland’s upturn in form and 6 Nations victory can be traced directly to the appointment of Joe Schmidt as coach, not some nebulous shifting of balance towards international rugby, or even the protectionist policies of the IRFU.

      • Aye. We don’t want to end up in a Welsh situation but we are successfully keeping most of the key players at home. The point however is that Madigan got more gametime as a result of this move and hopefully he will be a better player for it. If Sexton does come back and is re-installed as number 1 in Leinster, that will not be good news for Madigan and in the longer run, it may not be good news for Ireland either.

        Little bit pretentious there Stevo.

  7. I did enjoy that Leinster were all “WE HAVE A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT TO MAKE, TUNE IN TUESDAY” over the weekend, and the only thing that was big about it was the sheer number of re-signings, plus a new prop that no-one’s heard of. It was kind of like the Hurricanes or Highlanders doing a big social media campaign around signing some journeyman coach last year.

    You have to think that this season’s another one gone for Luke, if his abductor is being that big a pain, surely the best thing is to get a full recovery and pre-season under your belt than constantly going through the will-he-won’t-he pantomime. Ferris is in a similar situation, now that he’s apparently discovered his legs are made of twigs or something.

    On a side note, BOD gave a talk at my work yesterday and mentioned SOB is in contention for being picked this weekend.

    • I hate to question the medics because we’re not in any way qualified to talk about injury treatment, but that thought did occur to us.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 8, 2014

        Look at Juan Smith and Ferris medics can get it wrong, both players out for exteded periods due to botched operations and inadequate rehab. I would definitely question the medics. Shut the guy down for the year, you are fit or you are not, unless this is a NFL-esque player on the injury report when actually fit/injured type of skullduggery and he actually is shut down for the season.

        • Jojo

           /  May 9, 2014

          Ferris has no cartilage in his knees. Even doctors can’t turn back time. No botched operation As far as I know

          • Leinsterlion

             /  May 9, 2014

            There are solutions for growing back cartilage, you’d have to question why it is gone in the first place? I know people can be unlucky with injuries, but with Ferris, imo, there is more to it then just plain bad luck.

        • Stevo

           /  May 9, 2014

          Reading Geordan Murphy’s autobiography was an eye-opening experience on the subject of injury/fitness. The gist is that professional rugby players are never injury free, they’re always playing with a number of niggles, some more serious than others and often the job of the medics is to do a risk/benefit analysis with the players to decide if they’re fit to play or not. The only time a player does get a chance to really let those various knocks heal is if they do happen to get a serious injury which keeps them out for months. In the case of a player like Luke Fitzgerald who has already spent considerable time out due to serious injury, it’s understandable that he is reluctant to take further time out to allow new injuries to heal properly.

      • A lot of what’s happening with Luke almost sounds like the medics aren’t involved enough actually. MOC has been saying that Luke knows his body and knows if he can play or not etc but if this doesn’t seem to be the case. Obviously that’s just MOC saying that, so you’d hope that the medical team are looking at him, but this has been going on for a good five+ months now, so you have to wonder what’s actually going on.

  8. Andrew

     /  May 8, 2014

    Last time we played Ulster at home Macken and Reid took on the heirs apparent in Cave and Marshall and took them apart. Plus as in the Irish scene there are a few outside backs that maybe could be convinced to have a go at centre. They won’t be Brien but then nobody will be but that’s not to say they could not be effective at centre. I can think of several not very flashy centres who were damn good footballers and really added to a side because they just made good decisions. So look at all the outside backs pick the best decision maker and start him as back up to Macken.
    The big elephant in the room is the passing and back play in general and it’s demise.

    • Good point, Andrew. The Ulster visit to the RDS was the best Leinster backline performance I’ve seen all season, barring of course the visit to Franklin Gardens, and was in some ways more satisfying, as it was the youngsters Macken and Reid who stole the show.

  9. Murt

     /  May 8, 2014

    I don’t think a lack of superstars from the southside (of the planet) is a major problem. Sure, we’d all like a few All Black backs spread across our province’s back line but for all the advantage their skill and knowledge brings, they end up just taking our own talent off the pitch.

    The World Cup looms large and all the classy foreigners in the world won’t help Schmidt’s team when it comes to fielding an Irish back line. We need the clatter of hopefuls, maybes and prospects to get some serious top level game time with their provinces so that we may have a few more diamonds to go with Murray, Sexton, Bowe et al next year.

    The packs in all three (four?) big time provinces are packed with beef and quality and they all have relatively strong half backs. Despite their limitations and the substantial challenges from the wealthier parts of the continent, we should be confident of quality possession against any team in Europe. Time for the various contenders in the outside backs to start putting hands up by either kicking on or showing that previous flashes in the pan are here to stay.

  10. Bowe Gathers

     /  May 8, 2014

    OUTRAGE VILLAINY BIG NAME SIGNING IAN HUMPHREYS IGNORED ANTI ULSTER BIAS

    No but seriously, if nothing else Douglas should add heft to a pack that looks underpowered when you remover SOB and/or Healy. Better to have a young international, as opposed to old man McCarthy who has certainly regressed. Leinster desperately need centre cover, to the point where it might even make sense to shift Madigan along one. This has worked well enough whenever I’ve seen it, as he definitely has the footballing skills. Either that or a NIQ 5/8th please.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  May 8, 2014

      If Madigan is moved to center my head will literally explode.

      • Bowe Gathers

         /  May 8, 2014

        Come on LL, we all know that Gopperth is the goy to lead you to another Heino 😉
        Still, if you can’t replace his BODness, and you haven’t, Mads is a better option IMO than, say, McFads or Fitz (if either were 13 they would now be playing 13.)

      • osheaf01

         /  May 8, 2014

        You could always poach Keatley when Double Jesus (great moniker! but then he is Munster By The Grace of God 🙂 ) displaces him as starting 10 for Ireland’s No 1 Province…

    • O'Riordan

       /  May 8, 2014

      Ian Humphreys is an Ulster version of Ian Madigan… oops, couldn’t resist it 😉

      WOC says the IRFU “IRFU must do their utmost to bring him [Sexton] back”. Presumably that would mean buying out the Racing contract and beating any other offer on the table from French teams. Is he really worth that much money? If the IRFU wouldn’t pay to keep him, they aren’t likely to pay even more to bring him back

      • Apologies if this was unclear – we mean for the season after next when his contract is up. Buying him out of his contract would be out of the question, crazily expensive I’d have thought, and logistically impossible, as Racing would never agree.

        • I tink the word you’re looking for WoC is contractually. If it was a mere question of logistics, I’m sure we could alway send over a crack squad of Irish Rangers to liberate himself, the wife and the new baby and bring them back to Inis Fáil. Away matches would thereafter be a bit of problem, though….

        • Rava

           /  May 8, 2014

          By this time next season Madigan could well be back to his impish best and have Leinsters backline playing the high tempo Schmidtball you guys crave. He might well be back ahead of Jackson and even pushing Sexton for the starting shirt in the WC.
          Will the “IRFU must do their utmost to bring him [Sexton] back” calls still be as loud?

          • We can but hope, but this time last year some were suggesting Sexton might find it hard to find a province even if he wanted to come back! Seems more improbable than ever.

            In general I think people don’t appreciate how wide the gulf is between very good Pro12/Heineken Cup 10s and the real silverware-eaters like Sexton and O’Gara.

    • D6W

       /  May 8, 2014

      You forget that D’Arcy is 1st choice #12, and he has at least 1 more season in him. In fact, he is playing very well at the moment. Not to mention, I don’t think Madigan has really convinced at #12.

      Reid and Macken are the future centres for Leinster, and the Ireland place is there for the taking now, let’s hope one of the pretenders steps up.

      • Reid has been one of the success stories this season, he’s made a big improvement, but still has some pretty obvious weaknesses.

        Macken, though, has never convinced. He simply never passes. It’s infuriating to watch.

        • Leinsterlion

           /  May 8, 2014

          I reckon if Macken could fit an extra 10 odd kg to his frame, increase his power and retain his pace, his not passing would cease to such a glaring issue, as it is he’s not big enough to have the ball die with him.

          • D6W

             /  May 8, 2014

            Carrying the ball properly to be able to pass going into contact, and looking for the pass, is something that can be coached. If only we had a decent coach…

  11. Yossarian

     /  May 8, 2014

    Macken can’t head on tackle,odd deficiency in a pro but he just doesn’t seem to have the bottle for the big hit. I think that’s why he has been playing wing more and more at A and off the bench.

  12. Andrew

     /  May 8, 2014

    No point bringing Johnny back to Leinster he would just be told to kick it in the air. Plus next season Munster will be back to kicking it into the corners under the crafty genius of Foley. They will only run the ball once they have built up a decent lead by maul and keeping it tight.
    Back play is only coming from Connacht and Ulster

  13. Ollie

     /  May 10, 2014

    Surprised at the harsh comments on McCarthy, think he’s had a good season. Was really hitting form before the injury against the Ospreys and for my money was a cert for the Irish 23. He’s the best enforcer style lock in the country, very strong in contact and will hit rucks all day, not to mention been one of the best exponents of the choke tackle. Think Douglas and Toner are too similiar myself and he’ll be needed in the side.

  14. Seymore

     /  May 10, 2014

    I am not as confidant about our chances next year. The farther away the players have been from Schmidt at Leinster, the worse they are playing. We really need Reid to come through and start next season at 12, D’arcy is just hanging on – BOD has had the misfortune of playing next to a space killing 12 his entire career, what would he have done besides Sonny Bill…..oh well. Please no more D’arcy.

    Our front row options are top drawer now (can Furlong please do a Moore next year to ease Ross out).

    I don’t see Jordi M as a 7, he is an out and out 8 in his play, good back up to Heaslip. What do we have as 6&7 back up? We really need an Elsom type at 6 to compete in europe next year, the competition is going to get harder and harder under the new structure.

    Bringing in Kirchner was a waste of $, our major squad problems were not in the back 3, we need an angry 5 and a pain in the hole 6.

  15. Interesting article from ROG in the Irish Examiner this week where he notes Munster wanted to sign Muliaina but weren’t allowed to do so. I assume this would mean they were denied by the IRFU, probably because of Kirchner at Leinster.

    This would explain Penny’s less than complimentary comments about Muliaina’s signing for Connacht being due to their supposed advantageous position in Irish rugby.

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