Thursday, January 23, 2014

Succession planning at the centre of attention

Much has been said about Ireland’s post-BOD options, what of Leinster? asks @curates_egg

Curates Egg

Brian O'Driscoll turned 35 this week, following on from his last ever Heineken Cup game at the RDS last weekend.

While the other half of Leinster's dynamic midfield duo - Muhammad D'Arcy - is contracted until the end of next season, it is clear that the moment feared by all Leinster fans is as good as upon us. The old cliché about it being impossible to replace Brian O'Driscoll is certainly valid but what will Leinster's future midfield look like?

Succession planning in the centre must have been on the minds of all in the Leinster establishment for 18 months (when Demented Mole last reviewed the options) but it is hard to decipher what their actual plan is. Based on the season so far, it is far from clear if it has been included as part of Matt O'Connor's remit, as he has continued to rely heavily on the dynamic duo.

Following the premature retirement of Leinster's great white hope Eoin O'Malley, the understudy at outside centre this season (and essentially last season) has been 22 year old Brendan Macken. Macken has stepped-up admirably when called upon, with two Heineken Cup starts this season building on his steady progression since his first senior team start in the 2010-11 season. However, it is not clear whether Matt O'Connor has full confidence in Macken - the eyebrow-raising decision to play Lote Tuqiri at 13 against Munster in October seemed to indicate a desperate attempt to find an alternative ahead of the Heineken Cup. With O'Driscoll's return, Macken's frontline game time has been curtailed.

There has long been talk of Luke Fitzgerald converting to centre to eventually replace his cousin O'Driscoll and he has played at 12 or 13 on numerous occasions over his career: his most recent cameo for Ireland as a replacement for O'Driscoll against New Zealand gained him plaudits. However, Matt O'Connor's selections have given no indication he sees Fitzgerald as a centre. Who could blame him? Fitzgerald has been in sizzling form on the wing, running exciting lines, making serious yards and beating defenders at will.

The situation at inside centre is not much different. Ostensibly, based on minutes played, Noel Reid is understudy to Muhammad. Despite being almost exactly a year older than Macken, Reid's progress is almost exactly a year behind. He has yet to make his way on to a Heineken Cup matchday squad, with outhalf Ian Madigan having played at inside centre a number of times for Leinster both in the Heineken Cup and Rabo Pro12 over the past 2 seasons. 31 year old Kiwi Andrew Goodman has yet to return from a long-term injury.

The other variable at centre is Fergus McFadden, who started out with Leinster as a centre and formed a convincing understudy midfield partnership with Eoin O'Malley on many occasions. However, his stated intention to focus on securing a wing berth last season poured cold water on hopes among the Leinster faithful that McFadden might be part of Leinster's midfield succession planning.

As a Leinster fan, it is very hard to know what to expect. Very little new prospects have been aired since Demented Mole took stock of the situation 18 months ago. Some, like Academy prospects Tom Daly, Colm O'Shea and Jordan Coughlan, have fallen off the radar a little bit under O'Connor. Of the erstwhile anointed ones, O'Malley was sadly forced into early retirement, and McFadden has gone out of his way to rule out his candidacy. Another great white hope, Harrison Brewer, just got called up to the Ireland under-20 squad however.

The messaging coming out of the Leinster set-up on the succession planning has been far from clear. Will some combination of the players above provide the core of the future Leinster midfield? If so, it would be nice to know. If not, who will?

Like St Patrick was to snakes in Ireland, the phenomenally successful and durable dynamic midfield duo at Leinster has for years banished all emerging centre talent from the RDS: who would want to toil away in their shadow with no hope of breaking through? As a result, there is a veritable plethora of Leinster centres (either academy or former schools players) plying their trade elsewhere.

David McSharry left the Leinster Academy for Connacht and has had plenty of exposure, with 13 Heineken Cup starts over the past 3 seasons. Kyle Tonetti left Leinster in 2010 for Sale before being signed by Connacht but he has yet to get a consistent run for Connacht, in part due to injuries. After a season with Leinster, James Downey left Leinster in 2004, subsequently playing for Connacht, Munster, Calvisano and Northampton (gaining rave reviews) before resigning for Munster last year.

Other former Leinster centres following in Downey's footsteps in the English premiership include Eamonn Sheridan at London Irish, who has been getting plaudits for his performances this season. Shane Monahan has also been winning praise at Gloucester but he has played predominantly on the wing.

There are more.

In short, 18 months down the road, Leinster's fans have no more clarity about our midfield succession planning. As we pause for breath in the middle of the season, and with contracts now being finalised for frontline players for next season, now would be as good a time as any for the powers that be to provide some long overdue clarity.

@curates_egg : Expat Irish rugby fan living on the continent but regularly travelling to Leinster and Ireland rugby matches. Strong believer in rugby as a family game and a fair sport.

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