First of all let’s let’s look at what has made it unorthodox. After all that has happened since play was first suspended last March, we all knew the 2020/21 season wasn’t likely to make it from start to finish without disruption. And in the case of the Pro14, there was some non-COVID disruption built in with the awkward switch over from two South African clubs to a completely different set of four.
Now the competition is left very much in limbo. As things stand right now, there are to be 16 rounds altogether with only the winner of each advancing to knockout rugby, namely the final. Then a whole different trophy is up for grabs in the form of the once off Rainbow Cup. But I have to say I fear for that actually happening. Surely in all the uncertainty that has to be expendable in favour of the domestic competition and the SARU teams can join next season? We’ll have to see.
UPDATE - Just as I'm getting this ready for posting, news is filtering through that if the Rainbow Cup doesn't happen, the Pro14 could revert to its original format with full playoffs so things are even more up in the air.
Then there was Europe, which had to get creative in its format and all things considered, the "two pools, four matches each" idea didn’t seem all that bad once I managed to wrap my head around it. But even that had to be ditched as a ruling by the French government (which I for one have no complaints about btw) determined that cross jurisdiction play was impossible. It looks like the plan now is to go straight to knockouts with as many as 16 clubs and if that actually happens it should make for some cracking fixtures in April.
Now for a Leinster focus. All any individual club can do is keep track of their playing staff as best they can and crack on with the fixture list put before them. Leinster started the season still smarting from the Saracens disappointment and their opponents felt the full backlash in the opening rounds of the campaign, even with the “elite” players mostly on test duty, including the newly qualified Gibson-Park and Lowe.
I’ll deal with the younger players breaking through the ranks in the second half of this article but some of the more recognizable names deserve a mention as well and top of that list has to be Rhys Ruddock. Many have pointed out that it was bonkers that he wasn’t involved in the test set up. Of course I agree, albeit with the proviso that Irish rugby has such a bottleneck in the back row department that had he been wearing green, the same “bonkers” debate would be going on over a different player.
So in Rhys’ case I’d rather focus on the positive and in his case you won’t see a better example of a skipper leading by, er, example. He has been an absolute beast in the work rate department and was at very least in the discussion for player of the match every time he took to the field.
Another long time boy in blue deserving of a mention here is Dave Kearney. As well as the back row, the back three is another area where there’s a ton of options yet Dave has been putting stand out performances week in week out going back well before the first lockdown. His improbable finish in the corner against Ulster last week is just one of many classic “winger’s tries” from him this season.
Others to impress include Ross Byrne, Michael Bent, Peter Dooley, Josh Murphy and Luke McGrath. There has been a lot of talk about the poor quality of opposition we have faced (even in Europe) but IMO that argument does little to take the shine off of some really good consistency from a host of Leinster players.
So all that’s left now is for me to keep fingers, toes & eyes crossed that we have a chance to finish out the season because despite the Connacht disappointment to start 2021 I really do think we have a decent chance of adding to the trophy cabinet - especially if the injury list can get even a bit lighter.
Here’s a match by match list of our matches so far with a quotes and links from the Harpin writeup...
“...with JGP pulling the strings, we embarked on a bamboozling series of 22 phases which included steam-rolling carries from the likes of Ruddock, Fardy and Conan, culminating in Jordan Larmour crashing over past four Dragons.”
“...skipper for the day Garry Ringrose clearly saw this as an opportunity to avail of the extra man and had it put to the corner, and after Ryan Baird took a clean catch, hooker James Tracy gathered it at the back of a maul which ground its way to the line before he was able to put it down”
EARNING THEIR STRIPES
“One off the top from Molony at 6 this time, McGrath to Frawley and although the crash ball didn't gain too much ground, Tommy O'Brien was already at full tilt on his line to take the pass from McGrath in his stride and nary a Zebre hoof got near to him before his touched down for our bonus point try.”
“...with our scrum having made a statement, we won another penalty from 5m out and it was Luke McGrath, playing like someone wanting to make his own statement to Andy Farrell, took a quick tap and got to the line.”
RHYS'S OF 8
“...we got ourselves a bit of broken play and boy, did we make the most of it...a precision long pass from Harry set up an overlap on the far wing which O'Loughlin and Jimmy O'Brien used to perfection allowing Dave Kearney to get us in front.”
30 FOR 30
“The clock was winding down in the half but we weren't for resting yet and although Ciaran Frawley bobbled the ball a bit first, he recovered enough to be able to flick up a pass in the act of falling over to his support (again Luke McGrath, of course).”
“Not only did I miss the preview, I also was called away briefly missing the kickoff, and thus Dave Kearney's lighting fast opening try!!!”
Scarlets PPD Leinster
“Of course if we’re talking of performances to earn test recognition we must also throw in the name of Rhys Ruddock, who barged his way to yet another Player of the Match gong...Rhys was literally leading us from the front and is in the form of his life.”
THE TOUGH GOT GOING
“Saints winger Ryan Olowofela looked like he’d intercept but all he did was help it on its way before it bounced ahead of the touchline where Dave Kearney kept his wits about him, gathered and planted it down in the corner.”
Munster PPD Leinster
JACK THE LAD
“Carty’s role changed after the break. Now his side needed a masterclass in guiding a lead home. Two different styles of kick in particular of his in the second half showed he was well able to deliver it.”
“Taking the three points would have meant Ulster needed two scores making our victory all the more secure. But going for the corner and taking full advantage of the set piece would bring a critical bonus point into the equation.”
A LEINSTER "NEXT GEN" SQUAD
15 Jimmy O’Brien 14 Tommy O’Brien 13 Jamie Osborne 12 Ciarán Frawley 11 Niall Comerford 10 Harry Byrne 9 Patrick Patterson 1 Michael Milne 2 Dan Sheehan 3 Tom Clarkson 4 Jack Dunne 5 Brian Deeny 6 Sean O’Brien 7 Scott Penny 8 Alex Soroka 16 Lee Barron 17 Marcus Hanan 18 Greg McGrath 19 Joe McCarthy 20 Mark Hernan 21 Hugh O’Sullivan 22 David Hawkshaw 23 Liam Turner
A few different factors went into the composition of this squad.
THE NEXT, NEXT GEN
Leinster A’s result against their Ulster counterparts last Friday may have been less than ideal, but there were still some stand out performances which earned some players inclusion in the starting XV. Top amongst these was Jamie Osborne at 13 - a very strong carrier and had we been a bit more careful with the ball he could have been player of the match.
Also looking well when called upon was Niall Comerford on the wing, both with and without the ball. Patrick Patterson injected a lot of urgency into proceedings while in the forwards, Jack Dunne did his best to lead from the front with Ryan Baird (who might be technically next gen but is actually getting to the fringes of Lions conversations so won’t feature in this squad) alongside him in the second row.
Harry Byrne, Ciaran Frawley and Jimmy O’Brien might be practically veterans compared to other names in this squad but I still want to include them because they represent a departure in Leinster’s approach this season, one that was very necessary given how ready our nemesis Saracens were for us at the Aviva.
Frawley switching to 12 shows a shift away from the “battering ram” option both Leinster and Ireland have gone for in recent seasons. Now it’s not like he doesn’t have the size to still be a decent crash ball option when required, but with his creativity a factor as well he makes for a great option that is bound to keep defences guessing.
And as if that isn’t enough variety to our attack patterns, we also have Jimmy O’Brien showing great ability with the boot from full back. His switch to 10 against Connacht didn’t exactly go well but in previous appearances he was able to turn defence into attack in a matter of seconds. And while both offer great support to Harry, we can’t forget the great prospect the youngster himself is and with all due respect to his big bro he could well be the long term option for the province at 10.
I’ve included names like Michael Milne and Tom Clarkson here because although neither have had a lot of game time, Leinster’s ability to keep the defensive standards high in the closing stages has been a feature of their mostly successful campaign to date, with the new boys doing more than their fair share of the work.
Another name I’d like to include under the heading of defence is Tommy O’Brien. He has been very unlucky with injury over the past couple of seasons yet when fit he has taken his playing opportunities extremely well. I have him at 14 in this squad but he certainly doesn;t look out of place with more tackling responsibility at 13.
THAT BACK ROW CONVEYOR BELT
It seems like a lot longer than a year ago that the Irish Under 20s continued their unbeaten run in the Six Nations with an incredible 39-21 win over England at Franklin’s Gardens. Starting in the back row for the “Wolfpuppies” that evening were Leinster’s Alex Soroka and Sean O’Brien, and they also featured last Friday against Ulster A. Scott Penny gets the 7 jumper in this selection because although he’s played a good bit of senior rugby he’s still very young and probably has a way to go with so many ahead of him. But it really is insane the amount of back row talent coming through, and not only at Leinster either - all four provinces appear to be well stocked.
So to sum up, there can’t really be too many complaints about how this season has gone so far from Leinster fans, especially as we bounced back so well from the Connacht result. Good displays from our experienced players, a lot of promising talent breaking through, a new twist on our attacking approach, consistency in our defensive structures. All we need now is the ability to play some rugby between now and the end of the campaign so we can stay on that course!
Of course you won’t get a better test than a trip to Thomond Park so here’s hoping that goes ahead next Saturday - if it does you can be sure we’ll give it the full Harpin treatment so stay tuned. JLP