September 2, 2016
It's been a tough few years for Leinster fans since the dizzying heights of European glory a few seasons ago. Joe Schmidts last season in charge was marred by injuries but ended on a high with an Amlin trophy and a Pro12 trophy. The rugby being played was still of a high quality with a few very good days in the RDS drenched in sunshine in those last couple of months. But since then things have not been as smooth, for numerous reasons which we have dealt with previously. Last season saw a hugely inexperienced coaching team take over the reigns during a World Cup year. With internationals missing pre-season and the first 2 months of the regular season we saw Leinsters European campaign in tatters by Christmas as both coaches and players struggled to settle. The Pro12 saw much improved fortunes over the previous years efforts, but while Leinsters defence was close to where it needed to be it was their attacking game that drew the criticism of fans and pundits alike. An inability to score tries and/or convert chances, particularly against quality opposition, didn't hamper them topping the table. But when their defence went awry against Connacht in the final in Edinburgh they simply didn't have the attacking game to fall back on to turn the tables.
The Leinster coaching staff, to their credit, recognised their inexperience and the issues they were having in these areas. Backs coach Girvan Dempsey travelled to New Zealand to review the work done by the Cheifs and the Blues, while Leo Cullen drafted in World Cup winning coach Graham Henry to review Leinsters season and advise where improvements could be made. The former New Zealand coach may have only been with Leinster for 2 weeks, but he had done a lot of analysis work and had been in touch with Cullen in the months prior to his arrival. The impact of having someone of that calibre come in and push a few really simple, key messages can be quite significant. It can help focus the minds of the coaches on very particular issues. After all, the one thing that we all say about New Zealand is that they are a side that are very good at doing the basics well. It isn't a case of coming in and redeveloping from scratch Leinsters entire playbook. It's a case of focusing on those basics and maybe even simplifying the game somewhat. Giving players too many instructions can be as detrimental as giving them too few, and maybe Leinster have been guilty over the last few years of making life that little bit harder than they needed to. Those of us on the terrace closest to the dressing rooms in the RDS may remember Ian Madigan being sent out for the second half of a match the season before last with an A4 sheet full of instructions.
In terms of playing personnel there has been a serious turnover in players within the Leinster senior squad over the summer months. 17 players have left, retired or been released from their contracts while just 4 have been added. This can be in part explained by the World Cup last year and the additional cover that Leinster required off the back of that. The additions see only 1 big name joining the province; Robbie Henshaw. Compare that to Ulster who have signed Piutau and Coetzee among their 6 additions (they lost or dropped 10 players). There is a fairly obvious disparity there in terms of numbers, but also with Piutau being available all year round where-as Henshaw will be unavailable to Leinster for chunks of the season. Leinster also promoted 6 players from the Academy to the senior squad; Gary Ringrose, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony, Adam Byrne, Tom Daly and Billy Dardis. The hope is that Leinster can continue to rely primarily on their home grown talent with 31 of the 41 man senior squad being Leinster born players (although technically Leinster born, Robbie Henshaw was developed by Connacht so isn't counted in the 31).
The first of Leinsters 3 pre-season games kicked off with a game against Ulster in Navan RFC. Leinster showed intent early looking to run the ball and offload out of contact. And this they continued to do over the course of the 3 games. The Leinster we saw over the last few years have been very guilty of running laterally, trying to put too much width on the ball without earning it or falling back on a kicking game because the running one wasn't working. The Leinster of the last few weeks has been a very different beast. Ball carriers are running straight lines and looking to wrong foot the defender in front of them. This is allowing the support runners to trail them better as the ball carrier is running a simple straight line and getting a guy on each shoulder is easy. We've seen backs and forwards both offloading in contact and getting support players in behind the defensive line as a result. It has been hugely encouraging and if Leinster can keep it up the fans will be in for an entertaining season at the very least.
Wins against Ulster and Gloucester were followed by a loss to Bath. But even that game, with it's one-sided scoreline, was hugely positive. Leinster were in a good position to beat an almost full strength Bath side going into the last several minutes despite having used a whopping 32 players over the 80 minutes with over a dozen others unavailable. This was not by any stretch of the imagination a full strength Leinster side, and despite that and all of the changes it took 2 lucky breakaway tries in the last 5 minutes from Bath to put the game to bed. Leinster got Healy, McCarthy and Rob Kearney back playing with Healy in particular looking impressive. All 3 games, with their steadily increasing difficulty levels, will have served Leinster well going into the first game of the season this evening against Treviso.
A number of youngsters were given opportunities over the course of the last 3 weeks and many stepped up. Andrew Porter, the U20s loosehead, looks like the next coming of Cian Healy. His ability, even against a strong Bath side, to make metres with his bulldozing runs was impressive. He looks like a real freak of an athlete and it will be great to see how he progresses over the next few years. Ross Molony backed up his breakout season showing a very well rounded skill set and is fast becoming one of this writers favourite players in blue. Josh Murphy was a workhorse at openside with Dan Leavy starting to look like the player he was touted as being with the injuries hopefully behind him. Van Der Flier looked a senior player rather than a young guy going into just his second season. Outside the younger forwards Haden Triggs was another workhorse who showed a good set of skills, including a nice offload. Dominic Ryan and Jack Conan both looked like a level above when they played. Conan's ankle injury is a huge blow to both himself and Leinster as he was particularly strong in his 2 showings.
In the backline there were a good few positives to take from the 3 games. The 2 half back positions were sources of concern at the tail end of last season with Reddan, Boss and Madigan all leaving. However both Nick McCarthy and Charlie Rock look like good prospects at 9, while new signing Jamison Gibson-Park seems to have a really nice, crisp pass and wasn't afraid to be vocal with those around him despite only just having arrived. We now have some depth there behind Luke McGrath that we're not entirely used to. Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery both got a good deal of time over the last few weeks as well and both looked set to overtake Cathal Marsh with their performances. Byrne is maybe the more traditional 10 with good decision making, range of skills and a strong kicking game. Carbery is the more incisive with a great step and an ability to take the game to the line well. Carbery may be the more exciting of the two to watch, but you'd imagine there's a place for both players depending on how we want to play the game.
In the centre Tom Daly looked solid at 12 while Rory O'Loughlin shone at 13. A guy who in many ways came from nowhere, he lit up the games against Ulster and Gloucester in particular and looked like a star in the making. Ringrose showed his class as you'd expect and it will be interesting to see how both are utilised by Leinster over the course of the season. Both have a real willingness and ability to have a go at defences and find gaps to exploit. Could one be shifted to the wing perhaps? Ringrose has a great step and go forward ability that could be very effective there.The big disappointment in the backline was the injury to Billy Dardis in the game against Ulster as he was another exciting attacking threat that could have been similarly impressive. One other player who showed up well was Zane Kirchner, who played a bit at 13 and seemed more comfortable there than on the wing. He has an ability to get outside his man and put supporting players in space.
However it was not all as positive as the above sounds. Leinster still have a number of "work-ons" to deal with coming into the new season. Their defence was caught narrow again a number of times and the set piece wasn't as strong as it could have been, particularly the line-out against Bath. And while the new offloading game has been welcome some of the passes have been inaccurate leading to turnovers and lost opportunities. Some individual weaknesses were also apparent. Cathal Marsh was still struggling to stamp his authority on games while Byrne and Carbery were owning their performances. Noel Reid's defensive issues have yet to be resolved. At hooker both Tracy and Byrnes line-out throws were shaky at times and while winger Adam Byrne was good at times, he didn't demand selection the way some of the others did. The Leinster back three is still an area that requires work.
Overall the last 3 weeks have been encouraging from a fans perspective. What will be most interesting is to see how the senior players fare coming back into the set-up. The early rounds of the Pro12 last season saw similarly positive signs that couldn't be maintained as the season went on. That has got to be a big focus from the coaches this season. However with a full pre-season with the internationals and real improvements in the game plan you'd imagine Leinster will be better than last season. Add to that a slightly easier pool in Europe and in reality we should be looking at the Boys in Blue making the knock-outs in both the Pro12 and Champions Cup. A final in the Pro12 should follow and hopefully this time some silverware. The loss of Kurt McQuilkan will be keenly felt as he was an integral part of Leinsters regular season success in the league last season and the lack of a skills coach is something that still rankles with us. But with what we've seen over the last few weeks in terms of game plan and youth coming through it seems that Leinster are on the up again after a few difficult years. Let's hope that shows through this evening against Treviso.