Monday, August 19, 2013

Off-season rambles 2013–#4

During the rugby season I get so used to having a match writeup to do for a Monday morning, I need something to fill the void over the summer months.  And so we have the HoR Off-Season Rambles series, which should take us up to the pre-season.
 
#4 - WELCOME MATT
 
Shortly after the final whistle in the 2012 Heineken Cup final in Twickenham, Sky's Will Greenwood interviewed Brian O'Driscoll.
 
In this age of media hype and sanitized press conferences, these post-match chats are the closest thing we get to hearing what a player of coach actually has to say at a given moment. When asked about Leinster's future, BOD talked of the possibility of the province becoming a “dynasty”.
 
Obviously, as a Leinster fan myself, I was delighted to learn of this intent. In fact, part of me wondered if the word could already be used, as 3 titles in 4 years must at least come close to making the grade.
 
Then the 2012/13 season came along, which progressed on two levels for Leinster...on one, we had the rollercoaster ride of the campaign itself, with the hopes for 3-in-a row all but gone by Christmas though the fortunes were to drastically turned around by May with a clean sweep of all the other trophies on offer.
 
Behind all of that action on the pitch, we saw the supposed dynasty being dismantled brick by brick, with Jonathan Sexton, Joe Schmidt and Isa Nacewa all moving on to various new challenges.
 
Now I'm not suggesting that this dismantling was done by design, but when you consider the wider implications for Irish rugby, perhaps it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Leinster to enter a period commonly known as “transition” (in other words, unsuccessful). The game needs to be sold to four provinces not one, and the whole “shoulder-to-shoulder” thing is all well and good but I have to assume that a continuation of the arrival of trophies at the RDS won't exactly warm the hearts of everyone on the island!
 
But does that mean that as a Leinster season ticket holder I'll be content with a campaign without success? Hell no!!!
 
The preseason open training session is something of an annual pilgrimage for me and my kids. At the latest one at Cill Dara RFC I was reminded of the 2010 version at Clondalkin RFC because that was my first chance to get a look at Joe Schmidt taking charge of his new team.
 
Now it's the turn of another succesful assistant coach to step up, and whatever about a year of transition being better for the Irish game, and whatever about the hard act he must follow, you certainly couldn't expect Matt O'Connor to arrive in Ballsbridge and put his feet up.
 
In fact, if I were him, I'd be rubbing my hands with glee. Because although the media will make much of the departure of Sexton & Nacewa, it's easy to forget the amount of talent that remains at the club.
 
For this ramble I have chosen a matchday XV made up mostly of players who had little or no involvement in the Amlin & Pro12 triumphs last season to give a sense of what Matt has at his disposal...
 
And to avoid saying it fifteen different times, let us take it granted that in everyone's case it is vital that they remain fit for the bulk of the season! A lot of them haven't had the best of luck on the injury front of late.
 
15 ZANE KIRCHNER – From Leinster's perspective it is both good news and bad that Zane has been selected for the Springbok's Rugby Championship cause...good because he obviously still has what it takes for test level, bad because we must do without him until October. I for one was impressed by his performance for the Bulls in their Super Rugby semifinal despite ending up on the losing side. He is never going to replace Isa, noone will. But you can't complain with a full-back coming to the RDS who can do a top notch job in a high-pressure fixture.
 
14 LUKE FITZGERALD – He trained on his own at Cill Dara but it was still great to see him out there. Once he's fit, he needs to start. In my view, it needs to be on the wing. Sure he has the ability to play centre or full-back but now is not the time for experimentation. Now is the time for him to be out there playing rugby and it's on the wing where he is most at home.
 
13 BRENDAN MACKEN – With the whole “One More Year” thing to be on everyone's minds throughout the season, you can be sure every time O'Connor selects someone at 13 this season who hasn't been on 4 Lions tours, there will be talk of “succession”. At the time of writing there is uncertainty surrounding Eoin O'Malley's future at the province as his name doesn't appear on the squad page. It would be a shame if he doesn't get the chance to fulfill his potential at the province because he seemed to be the perfect fit, but I have to assume there is a reason Leinster Rugby haven't made an announcement so I won't pursue them. But even if he is gone, there is also Macken who played a big role in the A team's success and is ready for a run at the top level.
 
12 JORDAN COGHLAN – Joe Schmidt converted him from flanker and I felt this was a masterstroke, but he definitely needs a string of games to see if he can be moulded into a bulky 12. It might still be a season too early for him at senior level, but inside centre is definitely a problem position for us and we need at least one player other than Darce to assume the role full-time and not be simply shifted there from another position out of necessity.
 
11 DARREN HUDSON – Darren is my One To Watch. He has impressed every time I have watched him whether it be for Leinster A or St Mary's. Plays well ahead of those levels and could well make a serious name for himself at the top if given the chance.
 
10 JIMMY GOPPERTH – I love it when fans show their support in unique ways. Love it to bits. And if you have followed this site, you will also know that I am partial to the odd pun now and again. But sometimes I feel we have to draw a line, and from where I'm standing the christening of the RDS as “Madigan Square Garden” is a few steps over that line.
 
I absolutely have faith in the “Mad-Dog” to make the RDS his own, but by the same token I want him to feel it's a challenge he must play for rather than an honour bestowed on him before a ball is kicked in the new season.
 
The moniker doesn't exactly bode well for Gopperth either, who I feel was an excellent acquisition. Although he played at a lower level last season, he was still playing in a culture where success was expected every time the team took the field, and that is what he must face at the RDS. Who knows...maybe he's rise to his own challenge and have us calling the place “Gopperth Face Jim's”?
 
Either way...O'Connor has himself a brace of quality out-halves to choose from. Much like Kirchner, we can't say they are “replacing” the players who went before, but neither are strangers to the big-match atmosphere.
 
9 LUKE McGRATH – The sight of Eoin Reddan with a strapped foot wasn't pleasant at the open training session, but if there is one position where Leinster are well stocked it's scrum half. Even with Reds out of the equation Isaac Boss certainly won't have things his own way with the Under 20s skipper plus the much-improved John Cooney snapping at his heels.
 
1 JACK McGRATH – We wish Heinke van der Merwe all the best, but truth be told he was gone from the province long before it was made official. In Jack McGrath we appear to have a more than able replacement...in fact I would almost suggest he is a better scrummager than Church though I would still have him as reserve.
 
2 AARON DUNDON – Had some quality outings last season and will definitely need some game time in September & October as we could be relying on him during international windows.
 
3 MICHAEL BENT – I hear you sniggering down the back...what say we give this guy a chance? He was supposedly the answer to Ireland's tight-head problems. He clearly wasn't that, but does this mean we chuck him in the bin? Of course not. He has come all the way over here and deserves a chance to give us a full season. I reckon he could surprise a few people. In a good way.
 
4 MIKE McCARTHY – Hopefully, Mike's arrival will put the whole “you never replaced Hines” adage to bed once and for all, and what's more, he's here to stay as opposed to Brad Thorn's 3-month cameo. Excellent addition to the squad that has received little or no attention once Tom Sears stopped throwing his toys out of the pram.
 
5 QUINN ROUX – finally got a run of appearances towards the end of last season...now it's time for this prospect to start showing us what he can really do. To set the bar for him, I'd be aiming for a campaign similar to the one Jordi Murphy had last season.
 
6 BEN MARSHALL – Impressed every time he togged out for the senior side last season. I have him at 6 here but much like both McCarthy and Roux can also play lock.
 
7 DOMINIC RYAN – Shane Jennings was immense last season and won't appreciate being on the sidelines this time around but this lad definitely needs a run at 7, a position where Joe Schmidt will certainly be keen to see talent coming through.
 
8 JORDI MURPHY – Added some bulk to his frame before last season and if anything it improved his game, earning him a thoroughly-deserved Young Player of the Year award. I'd be surprised if he didn't at least get to hold a few tackle bags at Carton House this season.
So there you have a more than decent team before you talk about your BODs, Kearneys, Heaslips and O'Briens. And there's a lot more besides in reserve I haven't mentioned.
 
Matt O'Connor certainly won't have things easy...the standard in the Pro12 continutes to improve (more on that in next week's ramble) and he has himself a potential stinker of a Heineken Cup pool.
 
But once he settles into the role and starts saying “Leinster” instead of “Leicester” at his press conferences rather than the other way around (I'm only joking by the way...he can certainly be forgiven for that!) with the excellent set-up left behind by Joe Schmidt coupled with the new take on things derived from his coaching experience in both hemispheres, I for one won't be ruling the new-look boys in blue out of the equation just yet.
 
Nor will anyone else in Europe I'd wager. Best of luck to Matt and his coaching team; here's hoping it's yet another season to remember. JLP
 
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