In fact I have to say it was nice of the two main political parties across the pond to hold their conventions during the European rugby off-season; very considerate indeed. Because while I know this goes without saying, when Leinster & Ireland are involved, here at Harpin Manor NOTHING trumps rugby. See what I did there?
OK, ok...on to matters at hand. The new season is almost upon us and we’ve a very unusual sequence coming up for Leinster rugby. Normally we get one pre-season friendly at Donnybrook and because of the Dublin Horse Show our opening Pro12 fixture is invariably away from the RDS.
This time around we have not one, not two, not three, but FOUR home matches all in a row, starting at Navan RFC and moving gradually back towards the RDS for our regular-season opener against Treviso (also our regular-season home closer last May).
What this means is that while there remains a lot of uncertainty over some positions going into the new campaign, we’re due to have several opportunities to see how the preseason has gone for the boys in blue over the month of August.
But do you think that’s going to stop me speculating in the meantime? As if…
This time last year I blogged that I wanted (1) A decent attempt at getting out of Euro pool, and (2) Pro 12 playoffs. How’d those expectations pan out? And how should I modify them for this coming season, if at all?
Well, on the Europe thing, while I knew we’d be doing well to get out of that pool, I have to put my hand on my heart and admit that losing five out of six, two of them emphatically, wasn’t on my radar at all. Took the sting (pun fully intended) out of the entire campaign, in fact.
Our draw for the 2016/17 version is definitely more favourable; just the one European championship amongst our rivals this time as opposed to a gazillion last. And considering we finished first on our regular season table when the others finished 3rd (Montpellier), 5th (Northampton) and 6th (Castres) respectively, our chances do seem better.
But here’s where my heading becomes less a political reference and more of an actual talking point. Are we as Leinster fans really expecting our levels of success to reach the dizzy heights of that 2009-2014 spell any time soon? Even without the “BT Revolution” that’s a tough ask.
Then we get to the squad itself. Without having any knowledge of how the players are looking this pre-season, I set about selecting a starting XV from those available to Leo Cullen. As we have seen, the list heading out the exit door is much, much longer than that going the other way.
And as I pointed out last week, that may not necessarily be such a bad thing. Perhaps with a more streamlined squad we can give more youngsters a chance at the highest level and still have a net gain when talent is balanced out against experience.
But even with the impressive conveyor belt of potential coming up through the ranks, circumstances have left us vulnerable in certain key positions, most notably the centre. The extremely unfortunate yet very much expected retirement of Luke Fitzgerald makes the planning process after the departures of Ben Te’o and Ian Madigan infinitely more difficult.
Having pored over what’s left in our squad, however, I reckon it’s possible to put together a starting XV (based on 100% squad fitness of course) very capable of competing at the highest level. Rather than naming a traditional matchday 23, I have put down the 15 positions with first choice back up beside them.
15 Rob Kearney - Isa Nacewa 14 Isa Nacewa - Zane Kirchner 13 Garry Ringrose - Fergus McFadden 12 Robbie Henshaw - Noel Reid 11 Dave Kearney - Niall Morris 10 Johnny Sexton - Cathal Marsh 9 Luke McGrath. - Jamie Gibson-Park
1 Jack McGrath - Cian Healy 2 Richardt Strauss - Sean Cronin 3 Mike Ross - Tadhg Furlong 4 Mick Kearney - Ross Molony 5 Devin Toner - Mike McCarthy 6 Sean O’Brien - Rhys Ruddock 7 Josh van der Flier - Dan Leavy 8 Jamie Heaslip - Jordi Murphy
On the fringes : Adam Byrne. Bill Dardis, Tom Daly, Ross Byrne, Nick McCarthy, Michael Bent, James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Ian Nagle, Hayden Triggs, Dominic Ryan, Jack Conan
A few words on my thought process with regard to certain players and positions…
Club captain - While I generally prefer the skipper to be a forward, Isa’s seniority plus availability during international windows gives me no reason to want to change him. I would like to see Sean O’Brien and Rhys Ruddock added to the list of alternate skippers along with Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton.
Rob Kearney - He has been criticised in recent times for his form but I fully believe he deserves a chance to prove himself and starting matches is the only way to do that. Sure, Henshaw can play a quality 15 but even without Joe Schmidt seeing him in the centre, Leo certainly needs all the cover he can get there now.
Fergus McFadden – Apparently last year he stated his desire to concentrate on the wing for the sake of his international career. I’d be all for supporting him in this plan where possible but right now, needs must and I’d have him in the mix for a prolonged role in our centre.
Johnny Sexton - You hate to begin any campaign relying completely on one player but for me our equation is this simple...the more European minutes he can play for us, the better our chances. Obviously the cotton wool will be out for the Pro12 but easier though our pool may be, there isn’t a pushover to be seen amongst our opponents and with no disrespect to other 10s in our squad, I can’t see us reaching the last eight without him.
Luke McGrath – Now is his time. Despite the fact that Gibson-Park should be pretty much match ready when he arrives (while he will probably start Saturday’s Super Rugby final, he’s had 5 to 10 minute cameos all season behind Perenara at the Hurricanes) there is no doubt Luke should be the presumptive starter and while I’m not 100% sold on him just yet (needs to stop waving his arms at every ruck looking for a pen for one thing), a string of lengthy shifts will do him the world of good.
Mick Kearney – I’m a big fan of Mike McCarthy and he’s coming off a fantastic season where he gave 110% every time he was on the pitch. I just have a gut feeling that MK could become a regular for us and that now is the time to bring him on. Here I have him 4 and Devin 5 though of course they could swap if needed. I also want to see Ross Molony get some serious minutes...truth be told we’re full to the brim with locks this weather; I haven’t even mentioned Ian Nagle and Irish U20s captain James Ryan until now.
Dan Leavy - I’d very much like to see him get a chance to show he can be a natural and seamless stand in for Josh Van der Flier who will hopefully get more time with the test squad this season.
Cian Healy - No question he has fallen to second on our pecking order and further back with the national squad but he’s a determined bloke and hopefully the summer has given him a chance to recover and get back to his best.
Dominic Ryan - I HATE having his name in a list titled “on the fringes”...you wouldn’t feel great about Jack Conan being there either, but something has to give and I hope I’m not giving the impression that I don’t feel these guys have an important part to play in our campaign. That said, we are so well stocked in our back row (with the likes of Max Deegan waiting in the wings) that I wouldn’t be surprised if foreign clubs come sniffing around for those not getting game time in the opening matches of the season.
Richardt Strauss – Nobody can deny Sean Cronin’s impact as a ball carrier. But on form I’d have to give Strauss the nod because it is absolutely vital that our set pieces are nigh on perfect, plus he gives you plenty of competitiveness at the breakdown.
Defence – Wasps hidings aside, this was our best feature for the bulk of the campaign though it did tail away as the season drew to a close. One benefit of just the four players joining the squad is that it will be easier to maintain the standards and systems Kurt McQuilkin re-installed into our framework.
Overall coaching – This is a big season for Leo, no doubt about it. He’ll need to make full use of the services offered by Sir Gaham Henry during his stay, but it’s still Cullen’s show to run. I’m definitely not one of those who insist that there is a definite “Leinster way” from the past to which we must aspire, but I definitely would like to have a sense of what kind of philosophy we’re playing under, particularly with the ball. We could also do with an improvement of in-game management, at least in Europe given how the minutes are restricted in the Pro12.
I could go on about more players, but I’d rather have a look at the way we’re lining out for a couple of matches first. These are just preliminary thoughts for the time being.
When it comes to minimum expectations for the season, I’d have to say another top three regular season finish in Pro12 (I know we officially finished top but essentially it was a three-way tie give or take a point) and in Europe, at the very least I want us to still be in with a decent shout of playoff qualification going into the final round of pool matches.
I know those probably shouldn’t be the wishes of the fan of a 3-time European champion club but if you’re a true supporter you never need to talk about “making it great again” because your loyalty ensures they’re always great regardless of results. And I mean it when I say I’m just as excited about this new season as I am about any other.
Wouldn’t hurt for them to make the season ticket holder packs great again though! ;-) JLP