Stepping up to the Plate

Leinster’s season in Europe is hanging by its fingernails.  It’s more than a little reminiscent of Munster’s exit at the group stages in 2010 when they surrendered meekly in Toulon and failed to qualify.  That had an air of ‘end of the pier’ about it, with the great Generation Ligind team finally grinding to a halt.  But though leaving Europe in the pool stages left an indelible scar, Munster’s season wasn’t a total wipeout.  They salvaged dignity by winning the Magners League, and more importantly, went some way to securing their future competitivenes by promoting the likes of Conor Murray, James Cawlin, Donnacha Ryan and Felix Jones above some of the more established names to the first team and recruiting BJ Botha for the following season.

If Leinster do go out of Europe, and it’s likely they will, they too will need to use the remainder of the season to embark on something of a re-build.  The job isn’t quite on the scale of that which is still ongoing in Munster, but certainly a new corps of troops needs to come through.  Two years ago, Leinster looked to have unrivalled squad depth, as a slew of talented academy players made waves in Europe and the league.  But a number of these players’ careers have stalled in the last 24 months.  2013 is going to be a big year in the lives of a number of players, and while the phrase ‘make-or-break’ isn’t one we especially like, and can tend to overdramatise things, in terms of building careers as first team players at Leinster, the next 12 months are going to be significant for these fellows:

Luke Fitzgerald

Grand Slam winner and test Lion, Luke’s talent needs no introduction, but his career has endured something of a crisis in the last 24 months.  At his best he’s a brilliant defender and the best player in Ireland – possibly excepting Craig Gilroy – at changing direction and escaping from heavy traffic.  Given his mid-career troubles, there’s a huge amount of goodwill towards Luke Roysh, and as a nation we produce few players with his natural talent.  But a couple of issues must be overcome: he has to stop overrunning the ball carrier, and must improve his strike rate.  And he must focus on one position – and it might just be outside centre, where he could be the replacement for  BOD that the world is waiting for.  His return from injury is imminent, and feverishly anticipated by a Leinster team in real need of some invention in the backline.

Eoin O’Malley

Diminutive centre, but on song, he’s a natural who makes the game look easy.  Showed his class in each of the last two seasons before being laid low by serious injury at the tail end of last season.  Not a big fellow by any means, there will always be those for whom he is just too small for rugby at the highest level, but is nonetheless a (nother) contender to succeed BOD at outside centre for Leinster, and as such, the next twelve months will be huge in his development.

David Kearney

Made huge strides last season, making the Irish bench for the Six Nations opener against Wales, and has been badly missed through injury this season, with resources stretched in the back three.  Although not exceptionally quick, has a good kicking and chasing game and is a dangerous broken field runner and fine ball-handler.  His defensive game – like that of his brother – needs work.  If he can bring it up to the required level, he can be close to being a regular starter for Leinster.  Should have plenty of chances once fit and firing.

Dom Ryan

Generated significant hype following two-try performance against Saracens in the RDS two years ago, and produced a brilliant cameo against Toulouse in the semi-final.  Since then, has been scarcely spotted, as one injury after another have restricted him to a handful of appearances.  Recent comments from Joe Schmidt contrasting his progress to that of Jordi Murphy suggest management are not entirely happy with him.  On a good day he looks to have it all – physicality, great ball-tracking, and superb groundwork – but he is just as capable of total anonymity.  If he can learn from Shane Jennings to keep himself at the heart of matches, Leinster have a player on their hands, but he must now put a run of games together and remind us what we’ve been missing.

Rhys Ruddock

Capped as a 19 year old, and following an explosive performance in Paris against Racing Metro, Franno declared that his potential was unlimited.  But has done little since then to justify the billing.  He can look decidedly undynamic in the loose, and his too-upright carrying style can have fans watching through their fingers in anticipation of another dreaded turnover.  Has rejected overtures from Munster to stay at Leinster, but appears to be an ambitious individual who has no desire to warm the bench, even at a big club.  It’s time to establish himself and make good on the early promise.

Devin Toner

Now this genuinely is make or break – Leinster’s resources in the second row are the worst in the country, yet the big second row just can’t seem to finally break into the first team, having been on the cusp of it for years: he was the reserve second row in all three of Leinster’s Heineken Cup finals over the last five years.  Mike McCarthy’s imminent arrival isn’t necessarily the bad news it may appear, as the two play on different sides of the scrum; Leo Cullen is his real obstacle to regular first team rugby, and the old boy can’t go on forever (can he?).  Last year Toner looked to have made the necessary progress to finally become a first-pick, but this season he’s been fairly ho-hum.  Are his deficiencies – in part brought on by his unique frame – simply too great for him to be a Heineken Cup regular?  The strange thing is that for all the focus on his lack of oomph in the tight, for a seven-foot-tall fellow, he doesn’t pilfer much opposition lineout ball. We are on the verge of saying that if he can’t make it now, he isn’t going to.

Ian Madigan

Woah! Did they just go there? Isn’t Ian Madigan a great young prospect? Doesn’t he have the best eye for the tryline of any 10 in Ireland, and can’t he look magic with ball in hand? Sure, all of the above boxes are ticked, but there is a problem – Jonny Sexton. Sexton is Leinster’s franchise quarterback, and he ain’t going anywhere, except to Oz as Lions starter and potential captain. Madigan’s career is about to reach a crossroads – stay at Leinster and move position, or move on for regular rugger at 10. If he stays, where does he see himself playing? Fullback? Unlikely, with Bob back in tow. Centre? Possibly, but Leinster have lots of competition there (see above) and he has no experience to speak of in the position. And if he moves on, where will he go? All of the other provinces have no need, neither do any of the big English clubs, so it’s probably to France. The answers to these questions are likely to determine how Madigan’s career unfolds from here.

Thirteenwatch: Round Deux

If our first Thirteenwatch was a case of ‘plenty of options, but none stand out’, this week there were a few intriguing developments.  Seconds out, round two…
Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Taken to school by the world class Toulouse backline, and looked more or less what he is – a rookie learning his trade.  Still has a long way to go to get to international class, but we still have high hopes for the future.
BOD Rating: will have learned valuable lessons from the weekend’s mauling. 5/13 (-2)

Eoin O’Malley

Drafted into the Leinster team on the back of McFadden’s dead leg, and grabbed his chance, scoring two tries, and performing well in all facets of the game. A genuine outside centre with distribution skills and a great step, he is also a throwback to the times when centres were small chaps with quick feet and good skills and not 110kg boshing machines – he reminds us a bit of Matthew Tait.  The question is: does he have the physicalty for international rugby?
BOD Rating: the best performer in the shirt at the weekend, albeit against poor opposition.  Needs to maintain that perfromance level and he will get more chances to stake his claim. 9/13

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

Injured with a dead leg this weekend, his hopes of a run at 13 have receded as O’Malley took his chance
BOD Rating: more likley to feature at 12 or on the wing, we reckon. 5/13 (-1)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Another fine performance, full of hard running and good lines.  Caused Leicester plenty of problems, but Ulster couldn’t get over the tryline despite the huff and puff. 
BOD Rating: Upward curve continues, though, like McFadden, Cave just lacks that spark of magic.  9/13 (+1)

Danny Barnes (Munster)

An error-stren performance which will have done little for his confidence.  Given the shepherd’s hook very early in the second half, and had to watch Will Chambers take his place to huge effect.  Can expect to be warming the bench for the Scarlets double header.
BOD Rating: a long way off international level on this form 4/13 (-2)

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)

Superb performance on the wing, and looks to have his mojo working fully again.  Skills would appear to transfer to centre.  Perhaps a call to Chez Schmidt to gently encourage him to give Luke some gametime at 13 is in order.
BOD Rating: great to see the old Luke back, but we’d need to see him at centre before we get excited 7/13 (unch.)

Notes for Deccie: A visit to the RDS to see young Eoin O’Malley wouldn’t be a bad idea, Deccie.  The RDS, Deccie, it’s in south Dublin.  You know it Deccie, BOD and Jamie play there.  Keith is still injured Deccie.  Telling McGahan you’re still the boss down there and to stick him at centre won’t help, Deccie.  I wouldn’t advise it, Deccie.  No, Deccie, no!