While idly thinking about how terrible Leinster were on Sunday, something popped into our head – was this the end of the great Leinster side? A few names are already gone – Dorce, BOD, Cullen, Jennings – and we’re certainly long past the peak. The difficulty about managing this type of decline is having to do a huge amount in a small period of time.
Consider the Munster Liginds – their peak was, ironically, the year Leinster finally broke through – 2009. They were European champions, the best team in Europe and the backbone of a cracking Lions side. But less than 2 years later, their shark-jumping moment happened – a 32-16 thumping in Toulon (then European novices) that was notable for how shocking it was to see such a great team eviscerated. That kicked off the gradual process of putting the Liginds out to seed, albeit not before winning that years Pro12, with the young Conor Murray to the fore.
Three years later, Munster made the HEC semi-final, also playing Toulon, but with only five of the players from 2011. There were still Liginds on the payroll – O’Connell, O’Callaghan – along with a few stopgaps – Downey, Dougall – but, amazingly, only 12 of that team are still at Thomond, and just one played in the first Toulon game five years ago. An incredible amount of change.
- Toulon 32-16 Munster (Jan 2011): Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Tuitupou, J Murphy; O’Gara, Stringer; Du Preez, Varley, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Coughlan, Wallace, Leamy. Replacements used: Mafi, O’Leary, Darragh Hurley, Sherry, Buckley, O’Driscoll, Ronan, D Ryan.
- Toulon 24-16 Munster (April 2014): Jones, Earls, Laulala, Downey, Zebo, Keatley, Murray, Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, Foley, O’Connell, Stander, Dougall, Coughlan. Replacements used: Denis Hurley, Hanrahan, Cronin, Casey, O’Callaghan, O’Donnell
- Players playing in both games (5): Earls, Cawlin, Varley, O’Connell, O’Callaghan
- Players from 2011 currently playing for Munster (1): Earls
The same weekend as Toulon ended the Ligind, Leinster beat Racing Metro with 13 players who are still on the payroll (Nacewa, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Boss, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ruddock, O’Brien, McFadden, Reddan, Toner, Ryan) and Ulster beat Biarritz with 7 men who are still plying their trade in Belfast (Trimble, iHumph, Pienaar, Best, Tuohy, Falloon, Henry) as well as BJ Botha.
Are Leinster facing the Munster scenario, where only one player is around in five years time? Or the ‘Leinster’ one, where the bedrock of the team is already on the books? Much of that in theory relates to the age profile – you’d look for your core 25-30 year olds to backbone that transition and help bring through the younger cohort. Looking at the 2011 Munster team, there is a dearth of players like that – something the Mole has looked at in the past.
Looking at the list of Leinster players (Heaslip didn’t play in that match – I know, weird – but was and is a key player from that era who remains on the books), the concern is not perhaps the age profile but injury-afflictions. The main age-related concerns are the two scrum halves, now more fitfully effective than ever, Nacewa and Mike Ross. Heaslip can’t go on forever but is astonishingly durable and could conceivably go on for another three seasons – although Nick Easter might think that’s a low estimate. Mike Ross is in decline, but with not one but two internationals – three if you count Mike Bent – waiting to take over from him, that position doesn’t appear to be a major concern. The scrum half position is a live issue, though, and it remains very much in the balance whether Luke McGrath is technically good enough to be a Heineken Cup starter in the future.
What was worryingly evident on the pitch on Saturday was a lack of on-pitch leadership. Leinster’s biggest problem is that each of Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Richardt Strauss appear to be struggling under the weight of accumulated injuries. Healy and O’Brien are two of Ireland’s most dynamic and explosive players, destructive ball carriers blessed with fast-twitch muscle fibres. Their like is rarely produced. However, neither has been able to be at their best over… what… two to three seasons at this stage as a result of numerous injuries. Jonny Sexton has had concussion issues and has yet to reclaim his usually regal form since his extended layoff. On Sunday he was unrecognisable as the player we know. Luke Fitzgerald’s class remains, but he’s another who is injured more often than not. Ian Madigan might be an important member of Joe Schmidt’s squad, but it’s reasonable to say he needs to spend at least as much time specialising and developing his own game as he does stepping into the officer corps. And there would have been Kevin McLoughlin too, profoundly underrated and at his best a hugely influential presence. That’s your 25-30 class right there – guys who may only have seen Willie Anderson through the medium of video – but none at this point are where Leinster need them to be.
It’s worth mentioning of course that they are all just back from the World Cup, and fatigue is one possible issue – something Dorce highlighted today. That said, only Sean O’Brien of the above would be happy with his RWC performances – Ireland’s on-pitch leaders were largely from Munster (O’Connell, O’Mahony, Earls) or Ulster (Best, Henderson), and the 25-30 Leinster men were curiously absent when talking about Ireland’s standouts (Heaslip was the best Leinster player on view in our opinion).
This was to be the generation of leaders who would take over from the previous one; the O’Driscoll-Darcy-Cullen-Horgan-Jenno generation. But if this group of players is taken out of the equation, for whatever reason, it’s a step down in terms of quality and experience to the next group of would-be leaders. One man who has long been inked in as a future captain is Rhys Ruddock. Tough and willing to put his body where others wouldn’t, he is an obvious contender, but he is only making his way back from injury himself. But who else? Leinster have a number of somewhat enigmatic talents such as Noel Reid, Jordi Murphy and Sean Cronin; players whose ability isn’t in question, but it’s not clear they have the credentials to become the spiritual successors to Gordon D’arcy, Shane Jennings and Bernard Jackman. It looks a way off for the time being. Garry Ringrose looks nailed on, but ask BOD during the Gary Ella era how much difference at outside centre can make on his own.
We can all agree that Leinster are unlikely to be troubling the horses in Europe this season, but there is always the soothing balm of the Pro12. Last year Leinster were hopeless in this competition, and it was that which did for Matt O’Connor (not the style of play as stated by Shaggy in the Sunday Times – Leinster fans were quite happy when Cheika was winning trophies without troubling the whitewash). Leo Cullen will be expected to deliver Leinster to the semi-final stages and hopefully to go and win it. But then this year it’s likely to be a soothing balm for pretty much everyone. It seems unlikely that any of Munster, Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets or Ulster will be still alive at the pointy end of things in the ERC. There’s only so much soothing balm to go around, and not all wounds can be balmed sufficiently. But such a challenge will only be mounted if their key 25-30 year old leaders are at their best. Leinster desperately need Healy, O’Brien, Kearney and Sexton to overcome their current issues and regain their effectiveness. Failure to do so and this transition could be longer, and deeper, than anyone has probably considered.