Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Leinster season review by Kevin O'Brien


So another season is over for Leinster rugby. It was a year of promise and what might have been. When looking at it as a whole, for me it was a positive season. Player development was one of the very pleasing aspects with many of the younger players getting significant amounts of deserved game time. Whilst they are not the finished article by any stretch their experiences over the season will help develop them into top professional players for Leinster and Ireland. In addition to this we saw the development of more expansive style of play thanks to the influence of Stuart Lancaster. This was very welcome given how difficult it had been to score try’s at times over the preceding few seasons. We qualified out of our pool in Europe, put in an impressive performance in the Quarter Finals to beat a highly-fancied Wasps side to reach a euro semi-final. Losing to Clermont was disappointing but the European campaign overall was a good success. We had a strong league campaign finishing second to Munster. However, again there was to be disappointment in the semi-final losing to an excellent Scarlets team who were very deserving Pro12 champions.
As mentioned one of the major positives to come out of the season was player & squad development. One of the big complaints from me through the Matt O’Connor era and to a lesser degree Leo Cullen’s first year was the lack faith the management seem to place in the younger members of the playing squad. O’Connor especially seemed to have no faith in the talented youngsters being produced by the academy. So, it was very encouraging to see the amount young, exciting, hungry players involved this season. Guys who had some first team experience like Leavy, Conan, Ringrose & Luke McGrath really kicked on to become established first team players in their own right. Their form was such that they caught the eye of Joe Schmidt and were selected for the national side. Others like Joey Carberry, Adam Byrne, Ross Byrne & Rory O’Loughlin emerged and showed real quality as they firmly established themselves in the squad. These guys will form the backbone of the team for many years and will have benefited greatly from their experiences this year.
The other significant positive aspect of the season was the changing playing style. We played for most of the season a far more expansive and exciting brand of rugby which has been attributed to the positive impact Stuart Lancaster has had on the squad. In all we scored 129 trys in the campaign and we played a very attractive brand of rugby. It was great to see both forwards and backs looking for off loads. This was something which was virtually non- existent over the last few seasons and it was great to watch. A pleasing aspect was that in a season when over 50 players were used almost all were comfortable playing a more expansive style of rugby.
Whilst I feel the season overall was positive and shows Leinster rugby in heading in the right direction, there were also some negatives aspects to the year. After excellent work, all season to get us into the semi- finals a significant dip in form came at the wrong time. We were awful in the first 20 minutes against Clermont but did manage to pull out a good performance for the remainder of the game which on another day might have went our way. After this game, our form seemed to fall off a cliff with poor performances in the remaining league fixtures and what Isa Nacewa describes as ‘the worst performance of the season’ against the Scarlets in the home Pro 12 semi -final. To me that performance was incredibly disappointing lacking in intensity & sharpness. It’s easy to apportion blame and look for excuses when we get such defeats and performances. It was a collective failure from both the players and the coaching staff. One I hope they will all learn something from.
I don’t buy into the journalistic line that the Leinster team lacks bottle or that we are back to the ‘Lady Boy’ days. This is a new young team who have come together over the course of the last season who are starting out on their own path. Their performances and results over the course of the next eighteen or twenty-four months will be defining for them. Can they get over the disappointment of losing the two semi-finals and kick on and win silverware? The talent and ability is there.
What the two semi-final defeats did highlight was the defensive vulnerability that currently exists with the team. We coughed up simple trys in both games due to individual errors and collective failure. In truth, the defence has been an issue all season and one that needs addressing if we are to win trophies. Whilst Lancaster was brought in to replace Kurt McQuilkin, he seems to have had more success developing the offensive side of the game. More attention needs to be given to the defence with perhaps a specialist defence coach needed. On the pitch another area that need to be looked at are our lineout & maul which have not worked as effectively as they should over the course of the season. We’ve lacked top drawer quality at second row for some time now and this has been very evident this season with the lineout frequently malfunctioning. A fact not helped by a dip in form from Devin Toner. For me there is also an issue with the quality of our hookers. No matter who played in the position reliability was an issue when throwing the ball into the lineout. None of Cronin, Tracy or Strauss have fully convinced in this regard. This has all contributed to a line out which has not functioned properly with possession on our throw coughed up on numerous occasions often at critical points in games. The signing of Fardy and hopefully the emergence of the talented and soon to be capped James Ryan will hopefully help this area where a big improvement is going to be needed next season.
Overall I deem the season to be a positive and progressive one for the reasons pointed out of player development, a more progressive playing style and a decent European campaign. Yes, there are issues that remain to be addressed like the the defence and perhaps lack of quality depth in some positions. On the whole I feel that this is a very talented squad of players which have the potential to bring great success to Leinster in the future. It is also positive news that the current coaching set up has been re-signed for next season as we have made excellent progress under Cullen, Lancaster and the rest of the coaches. The additions of Scott Fardy and James Lowe were a good statement of intent from the province and I’m in no doubt these guys will add excellent quality and experience to the squad. Whilst I was disappointed with how this season tailed off with the two semi-final defeats I’m sure we will come back a better team from the experiences. I for one am already excited to see what next season will bring us and am very confident that we will see the further development of this group of players and hopefully some silverware.
For now, enjoy your summer which has so much rugby to look forward to with the Lions tour, the Women’s World Cup and the Under 20’s world championship all taking place. Plenty there to get excited about.
SO, UNTIL NEXT SEASON, 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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