by Kevin O’Brien
“We’re not going out to the marketplace and signing a whole host of players, that’s not the way we operate. We’re trying to grow players through and produce young talent.” – Leo Cullen 2016
It has been a relatively quiet off season for Leinster in terms of new singings with Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson Park & Ian Nagle the major singings. Leinster have repeatedly stated that their priority is to produce their own players as indicated by the quote above from Leo Cullen. I for one believe that this is a very sensible and pragmatic approach to ongoing squad development. It has become extremely difficult & expensive to compete with the English & French clubs in terms of player recruitment so developing our own talent makes perfect sense. And what an incentive for our young squad players to work hard knowing they will be rewarded.
Last season saw the welcome emergence of Garry Ringrose, Ross Molony, Josh Van Der Flier and Luke McGrath as genuine contenders for the starting fifteen. Whilst others like Peter Dooley & James Tracy showed that they have plenty to offer and could be relied on if and when they are needed. Game time gained by these players is invaluable in their ongoing development and it would be expected that all will improve further this season. So as we head into the new season who are the players I feel will breakthrough and have a similar impact to last year’s crop?
We’ve known about Adam Byrne for some time now. As we know Joe Schmidt gave him his debut as an 18 year old in 2013 making him the youngest ever player to tog out for the senior team. We haven’t seen much of Byrne in the intervening years as injuries and squad depth have slowed down his development. Last season he won a couple of caps scoring against Zebre and was heavily involved with the Irish 7’s team. Naturally athletic this 15st 6’4” winger/fullback has all the attributes to be a successful professional rugby player. This season is a big opportunity for him given the back three options available to Cullen following departures, injuries and retirements. He has been involved in all pre-season games scoring try’s in all three. Byrne has issues re his defensive abilities and if he can improve this part of his game he could become a regular in Leo’s squads. I see him being far more involved over the course of the season and with his decent turn of speed, power and finishing ability he could establish himself in the squad and become a real asset.
Given Ian Madigan’s departure to pastures new there is a real opening in the squad for a number 10 with Ross Byrne, Cathal Marsh and Joe Carberry fighting it out, not only to provide back up to Johnny Sexton but also to take centre stage as starting outhalf in the early games of the season as Sexton continues his recuperation from injury. Marsh got plenty of game time last season and whilst he has his attributes he has not convinced me that he is at the required level or is the best long term option. Ross Byrne has undoubted talent and has been touted as Sextons heir apparent for some time now following some very impressive displays for the Irish under 20’s. He is physically imposing for a 10 (6’2” & 14st), has a good kicking game and when on form displays good authority around the park. In his limited opportunities to play for the first team last season I felt he looked nervous and lacking a bit in confidence. Byrne is a player who needs games to help him really kick on. He has the ability and now is the time for him to grasp his opportunity with both hands to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Joe Carberry is perhaps slightly behind both Marsh & Byrne in the pecking order as it stands given their greater experience. However those who saw him play in the AIL last season will attest to the fact that he is a very talented player with a good running game. In addition his kicking is reliable, his passing is good and he attacks the line well. He also appears to have a solid temperament. Can he push on and bring his game to the next level? He certainly has the skills required and I’m of the opinion that he has the ability to push past both Marsh & Byrne in the pecking order over the course of the season. Though I’ve only seen him play a handful of times he has impressed me greatly. I’m a big fan.
Backrow is one of the most competitive positions of the squad and can be a difficult area to break into given the depth of talent with Lions and Irish internationals heading the queue. However, in recent seasons players such as Jack Conan & more recently Josh Van Der Flier have successfully broken through. Were it not for a succession of injuries Leavy, a former Ireland Under 20’s captain, might already be an established member of the squad. The high energy and tough tackling openside is highly rated and has been expected to make the breakthrough for a while now. Josh Van Der Flier, perhaps unexpectedly for some, moved ahead of him in the pecking order last season and when Leavy did play, despite putting in reasonable performances, he was prone to giving away penalties. He will get opportunities again this season given the injury profile of the backrow and expected Irish call ups. He has the talent to impose himself on games and on the squad and if he can add some discipline to his game this could finally be the year he makes his expected breakthrough.
Whilst I’ve only singled out four players there are others who might impress if called upon over the course of what is sure to be another attritional season. Players such as Jeremy Loughman, Andrew Porter & Edward Byrne could all have parts to play and have all displayed sufficient skill and ability in their careers to date. I would also like to see James Ryan get a taste of first team action this season, but I do not expect him to play a prominent part with perhaps B&I Cup action a more realistic target for him.
Given Leinster’s intention to develop their own players it’s a good time to be a young or developing player at the club. It appears that there is a better focus on bringing on this talent more quickly. And, if given a chance, it’s now up to these players to take it.
COME ON YOU BOYS IN BLUE
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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