Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Leinster season preview 2016/17

by Kevin O’Brien

So here we are again about to embark on another season of Pro12 and Champions Cup rugby.
I for one am really looking forward to the new season albeit with a sense of trepidation from a Leinster perspective. Last year was a tricky season for Leinster. We had a change in the coaching set up and felt the affect’s of the World Cup throughout the season given the large amount of players involved in it and indeed in the 6 Nations. Injuries were a constant theme with key players such as Healy, O’Brien & Sexton missing a significant portion of the campaign. Whilst acknowledging the fact we were in a horribly tough group, the European campaign was nothing short of a disaster. We did make the Pro12 final but were well beaten by a fine Connacht side, who were very deserved winners having played consistently effective & entertaining rugby all season.
When I did my season preview for last year I was cautiously optimistic for the year ahead. Yes there challenges particularly player involvement in the world cup and the new ‘rookie’ management team. But overall as we went into last season I felt we would have a decent if difficult campaign. Ultimately I was disappointed the way the season played out. We were awful in Europe and struggled for most of the season with our attacking play. Also at times I felt the players were lacking in some of the basic skills such as ball handling & passing. It’s encouraging that there appears to be a focus on this area in pre-season.  So as we enter the 2016/17 season what kind of shape is Leinster in?
One of the main reasons for my optimism last year was the continued involvement of Kurt McQuilkin as Leinster’s defence coach. He had been a crucial part of Michael Cheika’s ultimately successful coaching team and was a proven & highly affective defence coach. Whilst Leinster weren’t the most flamboyant team last year our defence by and large was excellent especially in the league where we had the best defensive record. This showed McQuilkin’s effectiveness and his massive influence on the squad. So to wake up to the news this week that he was leaving was a big blow. As indeed was the timing of the announcement. But as we know he has personal issues which require him to return home and I wish him well. But from a Leinster point of view the situation is, to put it mildly, far from ideal with the league less than two weeks away. Yes the position will be filled, with Mike Ford mentioned as an early front runner, but it’s not what a team needs so close to the new season. The loss of McQuilkin is massive for that coaching team that is already under a significant amount of pressure.
It was a tough season for Leo Cullen and his team last year. Whilst there are some mitigating factors such as injuries, loss of key & experienced players to retirement and player availability the lack of top level coaching experience was evident for me throughout the season. As Munster discovered handing the keys to the kingdom to a rookie coaching team didn’t work out as well as hoped. Leinster last year struggled to reach the required performance levels, seemed tactically lacking at times throughout the season and were a bit one dimensional in their play. The defeats in the European matches were particularly stark especially against Wasps. These games & indeed the Pro12 final highlighted the lack of top level coaching experience at the club. Wasps, Connacht Toulon etc are all coached by guys with considerable experience and it really showed in tactics and performances. As has been said on social media many times in the last 12 months the coaching of a top level professional rugby team with European ambitions should not be an on the job training gig.
Yes Cullen & co will have learned from last year but going into the new season with the same coaching team minus McQuilkin does not fully inspire confidence. In an ideal world ala Rasmus in Munster Leinster would bring in an experienced DOR under whom Cullen & Dempsey could continue to learn because I’m in no doubt that given the right circumstances they will be excellent coaches. Admittedly it’s not easy bring in a top level coach but when you see Rennie going to Glasgow you can’t help but feel that Leinster have missed a trick there. Yes it was good to see Graham Henry help out for a few weeks this summer but how much effect can that really have on the coaches & team this coming season given his limited involvement. Whilst I feel Leo Cullen will make a good coach given proper time to grow into the role it’s my opinion that the position of head coach of Leinster is not what’s best for him or Leinster at this stage. The coaching deficit is something Dawson and the Leinster board should have addressed over the summer with some more experience brought in.
One of the positives from last season was the emergence of some of the younger players in the squad. Van Der Flier, Ringrose, Molony in particular were heavily involved in the campaign and proved to be vital players for the team. We all knew about Ringrose but Van Der Flier’s emergence as a quality player was a real bonus. He would have been on few people’s radars at the start of last year. I certainly didn’t see him that heavily involved for Leinster let alone playing for Ireland in the 6 Nations. In addition to those three James Treacy & Peter Dooley impressed me when they played & I would hope they will be more involved this year. Luke McGrath got a fair run in the team and whilst he generally impressed he really needs to add consistency to his game especially with the arrival of Gibson Park. Given the relative lack of new signings over the summer and Leinster’s stated policy to develop home grown players it is highly critical that these young guys improve further this season as they and those coming behind them will provide the backbone of the squad this season and in the coming years. The injury profile going in to the season as well as some significant departure such as Teo, Reddan, Boss, Madigan & the luckless Fitzgerald means we will be relying heavily on these guys to really kick on.
We have a lengthy injury list heading into the season. It’s not just, with the greatest of respect, squad players that are out either, it’s key men like Sexton, Ruddock, Henshaw, Strauss, Healy and O’Brien. Indeed you begin to wonder will the latter two ever achieve full fitness again. These are significant losses to the team and whilst we might cope in Pro12 games to be successful in Europe we really need all our top players available to have any chance of competing. Given the fact that Madigan’s gone, Sextons injury is particularly crucial. We are left with talented but very inexperienced players at outhalf. Marsh got some games last year but I’m left to be convinced he has the full range of skills required. Ross Byrne again is talented but is virtually untried at senior level. In the couple of games he played last year he looked very nervous and was off the pace. Injuries certainly didn’t help his cause but we really need him Marsh & indeed Carberry to step up in a big way this season. It’s a big opportunity for them. Let’s hope one or all of them can take it given the crucial nature of the position.
Despite my seemingly pessimistic outlook there are some reasons to be positive for the coming season. I do feel (hope) that the coaching team will have benefitted form a very tough season last year and there will be improvement in that area. In addition the club have already indicated that they have been looking for a replacement for McQuilkin and the hope is that they can bring in a quality coach with the required experience as quickly as possible. Whilst it’s not ideal that this person wasn’t in place pre-season the right appointment could really energise the team. It’s fair to say that it will be a crucial appointment.
My main source of optimism, however, is the squad of players. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have a lot of talent in our squad with significant depth in many positions. Yes we have a lot of experienced guys out injured over the first couple of months but in their absence last season the aforementioned likes of Ringrose, Molony & Van Der Flier really put their hand up and will be better for the experience of last season. It’s going to be a big season for the likes of James Tracey, Adam Byrne, Loughman, Brian Byrne, Dan Leavy & others on the fringes of the first team. The expectation is that these guys will show their undoubted quality on a consistent basis when called upon. Behind them there is plenty of quality coming out of the academy and the hope is we see the likes of James Ryan, Max Deegan & Andrew Porter having some involvement over the course of the season. I feel the quality is there. We just have to ensure we get the requisite performances.
There’s no doubt that next season is going to be a difficult one for the reasons highlighted. It’s one I look forward to with hope more than expectation. The extensive injury list is one concern given the experience and quality of those out. Whilst that situation will hopefully clear up over the coming months it will be another tough start for the squad and coaching team. But I think the squad in general has the capacity & quality to cope as new leaders such as Jack McGrath, Conan & Mick Kearney emerge. There is plenty of talent in the wider squad and academy which if developed right will fill the gaps of those who have left or are injured. The McQuilkin situation can’t be helped but at least he will be around for the few weeks during which time hopefully a suitably qualified and quality replacement will be found. This should help ensure the process is completed as smoothly as possible. The right appointment could also help add more experience & depth to the coaching ticket.
So as we go into season 2016/2017 there are plenty of causes for concern for Leinster fans. However given the squad of players available there are also reasons to be hopeful. A fully fit Leinster squad with everyone firing on all cylinders is a match for most and with the talent now emerging if we can get things right the potential for a good season is there. There’s no doubt it will be difficult but I for one am keeping the faith.....just!

Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019