Testing Times at Leinster

Last week, it felt like the gloom around Leinster rugby was never going to lift.  It’s been a harrowing few weeks for Leinster fans, who have had to watch on as Johnny Sexton has signed for Racing Metro, before most of the first choice backline got wiped out in the Six Nations.  The latest setback was Isa Nacewa announcing that he is set to retire from the game at the end of the year, and return to Auckland.  Suffice to say, Nacewa has been hugely important and frequently outstanding for Leinster, performing two key roles; one as a key player in their Heineken Cup team, and the other as a vital leader of the backline of the often youthful Pro12 team when the big boys are off in Carton House.

With Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr leaving at the end of the season, and Luke Fitzgerald’s injury liable to carry over into next autumn, Leinster are suddenly short of numbers in the back three.  There’s Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney and utility man Fergus McFadden; after that it’s a steep drop off to the likes of Darren Hudson among others, who are still in the academy.  It looks like Leinster will be given licence to sign a high profile replacement for Nacewa, and the guessing games have already begun as to who that will be, but notwithstanding that at least one younger player is going to have to make a step up to Pro12 level regular.

We recently posted outlining a number of younger Leinster players who have been knocking on the door over the last couple of seasons, and must now kick it down.  One was Dave Kearney who is liable to be the biggest beneficiary of Nacewa’s departure.  He’s had a mixed, injury afflicted season, but is set to be a first team regular for at least the rest of the season and must make the most of his opportunity.  He is a good footballer with much to commend him, but suffers a trait seemingly shared by Leinster back three players of late: he doesn’t score many tries.  For all Leinster’s potency in attack, they lack a real chalk-sniffing try-machine in the mould of Simon Zebo.  While Nacewa’s all-round game was marvellous, Leinster need not replace like with like, and might be wiser looking to bring in something they don’t really have; a wide man with out and out finisher’s pace.  It surely couldn’t hurt.

One knock-on effect of the accumulation of departures in the back division is likely to be a pleading with O’Driscoll, and perhaps Cullen, to stick around for one more year, in order to execute a smooth handover to the likes of Eoin O’Malley and Devin Toner as much as anything else.  Indeed, if next season has a look of being marked down in the press as – hate this word – “transitional”, it should at least make for interesting watching, with Ian ‘The Hair’ Madigan taking his bow as The Man at fly-half.  His rich seam of form could not have been better timed, coming just in the wake of the announcement of Sexton’s departure, and he gave another showcase of his outstanding line-running abilities on Saturday night, again making a mockery of Kidney’s determination to omit him from selection for Ireland.

The game was a battle for the top spot in the league, and as a result could have serious consequences, which gave it an intensity far above most Pro12 turkey-shoots at the RDS.  Madigan thrived in the spotlight, making a number of superb breaks, and one outrageous, and almost certainly foolhardy chip from inside his own tryline, which improbably came off as he regathered and immediately offloaded.  He then conjured up the winning try with a trademark step off his right foot to ghost through the defence.  Dude sure has a touch of the maverick genius about him.  He also nailed six from six with the boot.  He looks like he’s having fun out there.

And then there’s the barnet, and what a strange thing it is too.  But Madigan looks set to be the next darling of the fans and media at Leinster, and we expect to see his profile utilised by the marketing men in Donnybrook.  Perhaps this time next year people will be going to their local barber and asking for ‘a Madigan’.

He looks not so much the heir to Johnny Sexton’s throne as a throwback to the days when Felipe Contepomi played fly-half and you were never sure quite what was going to happen next.  It should be worth buying a season ticket for, but whether he can deliver the sort of assured performances on the road which have elevated Sexton to the level of best fly-half in Europe will be the acid test for the man.  Best just to buckle up and brace yourself for a white-knuckle ride.