After watching Leinster's performance against Treviso last friday, I was sat in my office early Saturday morning attempting to write some notes for the Dark Lord at Harpin’ Manor, pondering the game, the ongoing situation and what was there that I could take as positives looking forward from this season into the next given that for a large swathe of next season, a huge group of Leinster players won’t be available (Autumn Internationals, RWC 15, 6 Nations).
In the background, I was listening to the legendary Ian Dury (of The Blockheads fame) and the great tuneful lyrics of Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3! I thought to myself, what’s the 3 “Reasons To Be Cheerful” I can take away for next season and beyond for Leinster Rugby?
Well, I thought and thought, had a bacon butty and a coffee and thought some more……I once again listened to the lyrics of the song for potential inspiration…...As it happens, the first 4 lines of the song go, “Why don’t you get back into bed”...............was this an omen I thought? Given the worst finish in 11 seasons, the first time not getting to the play-offs in the 5 seasons it’s been running, the totally lacklustre and pitiful overall performance the team have shown this season, the awful defensive style of hybrid rugby Matt O’Connor has attempted to inculcate, the lack of player belief and performance and indeed the absolute polar opposite in performance, mindset, style, ambition, belief and oh yes actual results between Leinster Rugby and Ireland with let’s not deny it, 20 or so of the same players in both squads, I had to think hard on this even for the most positive and motivational of people as I like to class myself as. The two sets of outcomes at Provincial and National level just don’t correlate?
And before I list the reasons off, I know that many of you will be thinking to yourselves as you read this, “Blimey Joseph Francis Peter Aloysius (yes Aloysius!!), we know you’re a fine looking man and we LOOOOOVE your pieces and you could probably get into the current team yourself even at 51 with dodgy legs, a wheezy chest and a note from matron, but c’mon fella, if MOC doesn’t change his style of play, stop whining, blaming everyone else and take some Ownership of Responsibility for the dire situation he has us in, fire the boys up, give them the autonomy and space to play their exciting and expansive game, then how can we be cheerful??”.................... You’d be right (well perhaps apart from the good looking bit!), but seriously, I suspect that within the IRFU and Leinster Rugby hierarchy, enough is enough and that’s starting to come through!
So anyhow, I have persisted and here we are with 3 good reasons (other than the 3 European Champions stars on our jersey!) to look forward;
Reason To Be Cheerful Part 1:
Leinster Rugby despite having had the worst finish for 11 years, have a fantastic squad of players and young talent breaking or ready (if they’re given the opportunity!) to break through. Now before anyone shouts, “Yes big fella but MOC won’t play them!”, let’s wait and see.
I said for a long time now that it’s the Academy / “A” players that will re-generate Leinster Rugby and indeed no-one was more disappointed than me after seeing the effect Jack Conan had in his debut game against Cardiff last season, (plus his continued growth and success) and the overall effect that those youngsters had in clawing back the 10 (league) pts deficit we were down in the Pro 12 to Munster during that 6 Nations phase that ultimately lead us to winning the Pro 12 the same failed to materialise this year?
Indeed the evidence of the likes of Conan, Jack McGrath etc coming through in a season from Academy to National level speaks volumes for itself both in their ability and that of the approach from the respective coaches. Do the maths Matt O’Connor!
We have the likes of Garry Ringrose, Cian Kelleher, Ross Molony, Ross Byrne who may get run outs at some point but accepted, for some of them they are only entering Year 2 at The Academy but I’m a HUGE fan of getting youngsters involved at a very early level at top flight. Why wouldn’t you when so many of your senior squad are away for perisds of time at representative level.
We also have 5 players promoted from the Academy to the senior squad (Ed Byrne, Brian Byrne, Cathal Marsh, Dan Leavy and Josh Van Der Flier) not to mention Luke McGrath getting a REGULAR turnout once Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss have retired this summer?? (I’ll keep saying it. Nothing personal chaps, just business!!) The fact that 1 or 2 of these players have been training under “Saint” Joe Schmidt and the Ireland team will I believe add additional pressures to an already beleaguered MOC (not to mention the CEO, Mick Dawson) from the IRFU to get the situation sorted.
Whether you call it a rotational squad system or a player management system or an extended squad system, it matters not. The Senior squad, “A” team / Academy should all be seen as one entity and the players interoperable within each. It allows the youngsters to break through and shine through and the experienced players share that experience, management, developing of players. It also keeps a bit of pressure on the senior players.
Finally we have a couple bright talents in from Clontarf Rugby (Tight Head Royce Burke-Flynn and Loose Head Ian Hirst) who together with some experience in Lock Mick Kearney from Connacht will hopefully add some new, fresh flair to the squad (Oh and for anyone thinking, why another Lock, well Mick Kearney can also play at Flanker and given the Jenno retirement and potential for 3 - 4 Flankers away with Ireland, not a bad call).
Anyhow, if the Leinster Provincial side isn’t utilising its strength in depth (and they haven’t!) then I think there will be (if not already) internal pressure from higher powers to do so and starting this Saturday at Edinburgh. You could make an educated guess that the IRFU have had enough of Matts whining and lame excuses. To be fair, lots of fans have. Whether he was dealt a poisoned chalice following Cheika and then Schmidt, it matters not. If you take the gig, you know what’s expected. Ask David Moyes after his move from Everton to Man Utd!
Oh apart from that, there will be +/- 20 Leinster players potentially in Schmidt's RWC 15 Squad so again there WILL be a game plan in place commencing from this Saturday I would hope. Why, well the RWC 15 commences on 18 Sep 15 which means with lead in time and the fact that this season's Pro 12 commenced on 05 Sep 14, means I can’t see many players being made available to MOC save for those who perhaps are involved in back to playing protocols or that the Irish coaching staff want to have a bit of additional game time etc. Oh and then there’s the Autumn Internationals on 15 Aug (Scotland) and 29 Aug (Wales). There isn’t much space for players to be regular at Provincial level and therefore Leinster MUST have a plan in place, one that sees regular communication with Schmidt / IRFU on developing players, use of and release of fringe/supporting players.
If it was me, I’d be already planning a Pro 12 winning team WITHOUT a single player who is representative at international level. That way I’m not relying on them. You know what, given the opportunity and some free reign to play the game that excites them, those youngsters and the supporting senior squad players WILL produce. They have the ability and belief. All the coach has to do is give them the freedom to play an attacking, open and thrilling style of rugby. If the Head Coach sold that concept to the players and fans alike, he’d gain overnight support and approval.
So, there we are, some Reasons To Be Cheerful. Oh and I did say that there were 3 Reasons To Be Cheerful (as per the song)……………...ok then here’s the other 2!
Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 2:
JS10………Jonathan Sexton!! He is a natural born leader, playmaker, visionary and can turn a game that is becoming stifled into a game winning, open & explosive one. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some dressing room / coaches office “chats” until JS10 & MOC find a happy medium!
Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3:
Some bloke known as Isa Isa Isa!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wouldn’t want everyone to think that along with JS10s return, Isa will be the saviour of all but I do believe he’s coming back for a reason and the combined playing/leadership/coaching effect he’ll have will be a key factor this year.
All in all, that’s good enough for me to look positive on and to know that from hereon in, we can only rise again. If you look at this in the cold light of day, EVERY club has its periods where their championship “window” has expired. EVERY club has periods where the coaching staff bought in don’t achieve what the expectations are. EVERY club has periods where no matter how many world class and international players, it just isn’t gelling. EVERY club has its transitional periods, Leinster Rugby have just been through theirs with BOD, Leo & Isa retiring, Johnny going, new coaching staff and now D’Arcy and Jennings retiring and others going / coming, with a young flock of talent arriving this season coupled with experience of Johnny and Isa returning, it’s a great time to strike a resurgence and be positive.
I’m looking forward to both this Saturday and the coming season. Please don’t boycott games or refuse to buy/wear the coveted jersey or anything akin because you’re (rightly) frustrated at where we are. The Head Coach, assistant coaches, management and players are all responsible for where we are. Likewise fans need to be there throughout. Just an opinion but as I have the pen (or keyboard) I’ll say it!
Leinster Rugby need each and every fan even more so now. Whether you are a season ticket holding, occasional match going fan/follower/supporter, a jersey hugging, warm hat n scarf wearing, couch watching, match analysing, rugby playing, retired frustrated ex playing man or woman. Whether you’re just a youngster who is just starting out on your rugby career OR is expecting to go to their first ever game at the RDS OR even a new addition to the Leinster Rugby family who will no doubt wearing the latest Leinster Rugby babygrow, being held up to the screen as their devoted parent “Inculcates” them into a long life of rugby…………..whatever you are and whoever you are and wherever you are………….YOU ARE LEINSTER RUGBY!
As for me………….every time I wear my jersey and watch them play from hereon in, I’ll be singing in my head to Ian Dury & The Blockheads, “Reasons To Be Cheerful” and reminding myself how lucky I am and the reasons why I support Leinster Rugby. Now there’s a new song for the Leinster fans to start at RDS!
Have a great summer and see you all on the other side!
The Big Fella