Gordon D'Arcy: Young guns can help Leinster discover a new identity
Ideally Leo will continue to drip feed players like Ringrose and van der Flier into the team
Josh van der Flier breaks through to score Leinster’s try during the Champions Cup loss to Bath at the Recreation Ground. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire.
Leinster didn’t get out of their Pool in the 2007/08 season. After defeat in Toulouse and then Edinburgh, the European campaign was effectively over by December. That was three years into Michael Cheika’s time as coach.
To many outside the group it provided confirmation that we would never win anything. Internally we knew what we were capable of achieving once we played with some consistency.
It took Cheika four years to deliver a Heineken Cup. And that was during a period when he had to fight tooth and nail for everything he demanded in the pursuit of success.
An even tougher task lies ahead for Leo Cullen. The recruitment policy of wealthier English and French clubs leaves the Irish provinces with a massive disadvantage. These clubs don’t care about international rugby, they are in it for themselves, while Leinster stocks will continue to be decimated by being Ireland’s primary supply line.
That’s why the gap looks to have widened so significantly.
We seem to be entering an era of dominance not unlike what the Irish provinces experienced from 2006 to 2012. Except this time it’s the English clubs threatening to take over. They clearly have taken a greater interest in Europe, motivated by increased financial incentives.
With the demise of the old Heineken Cup, everyone saw this shift in power coming but the past two weekends of Champions Cup rugby showed it in technicolour.
Irish rugby looks to be out of step with the club game’s advancement.
An improved balance needs to be struck between the IRFU and provinces because while someone like Australian captain Stephen Moore might block the pathway of a young hooker through the system, his leadership might just ensure Munster get out of their Pool. It may even help them reach a semi-final which would benefit everyone at Munster and beyond.
And that must still matter.
Massive roleWhen Leinster and Munster were winning European titles the foreign players played a massive role. They still do (Just see Isa Nacewa’s performance on Saturday). Back then recruitment was more of an open book policy. It most certainly isn’t anymore.
Charles Piutau looks like a brilliant signing by Ulster but that’s next season. In the meantime he’s looking like some astute recruitment by Wasps. Similar to Leinster getting Brad Thorn on a temporary basis after the 2011 World Cup.
The IRFU view remains undimmed – if a Six Nations trophy can be delivered every other season then the financial windfall will prove to them that the strictness placed on foreign recruitment is sound business.
But the problem, I feel, is the fan base has grown and shifted to the provinces. Newer rugby supporters these past five years go to the RDS.
They are the roaming crowd Leinster hope to fill the Aviva stadium with when Toulon visit next month.
When Cheika delivered that Heineken Cup in 2009 nobody asked why, they were just delighted with the trophy, but with that success came greater expectation.
That expectation now needs tempering. Not forever. Just for now. We have been spoiled by the success of recent times. The success of Leinster was transferred into the national team when the Leinster coach became the Ireland coach.
That time has passed.
While everyone else’s attention was trained firmly on the World Cup the English clubs significantly grew their depth with world class players who would not be involved in that tournament. That financially-backed focus has enabled Wasps, Saracens, Bath and Leicester to dictate the terms of engagement across Europe (both on and off the field).
Without the deep pockets of Toulon and these clubs, who can just buy powerful running forwards, the easier option is to win games by defending and kicking goals. To attack a team needs firepower. In Leinster’s case that means a fully fit Sean O’Brien, Ben Te’o and Cian Healy. It also means a solid set piece.
The scrum was why Leinster lost at The Rec. The lineout was unable to salvage what would have been a valuable draw. Otherwise they could have won. The attitude was spot on, there was a clear pride in the jersey and the bench made a genuine impact.
Kick chaseBut while it was an encouraging response to the Wasps defeat, they still let Bath get around them far too easily. That counterattack from Johnny’s missed long-range penalty should never have been allowed to happen. The kick chase was so poor that Bath went the length of the field. Really George Ford should have been forced to give up another attacking Leinster lineout.
Leinster defenders stepped in too much, forcing others to follow them, and so Bath, using simple hands, got their wide players up the near touchline with basic execution before the late scrum penalty gave Ford his chance to win it.
The loss makes the season primarily about the Pro 12 now as I think Toulon will get their act together next month.
They were still integrating their internationals when Wasps, who look the form team in Europe, punished them with five ruthlessly-taken tries.
It’s that type of ruthlessness that is needed now.
From day one in Leinster, Cheiks added a razor-sharp mental edge to a squad that already craved success. He also made us believe in our own ability. Sounds simple but try walking in to a room full of established internationals and getting them to accept your gameplan. Players must be convinced to believe in their coach.
Cheiks demanded a killer instinct which Joe Schmidt developed even more. When you have the foot on the throat you never take it off. If anything you press harder. These are ruthless men.
Cheiks went back to the basics he presumably learned with Randwick by building a strong pack – hence the temporary arrival of Rocky Elsom the season after we didn’t get out of the Pool. After that we built on the attacking pedigree Leinster were already known for with a renewed insistence on everything being done with accuracy.
That’s what we heard every day. That’s what we all bought into. We learned from our mistakes too.
Leo Cullen’s challenge is not unlike what faced Cheiks in late 2005. There are plenty of senior Ireland internationals in the current group who had broken into the Leinster squad under Cheika or Joe. They have tasted success so want more.
The Leinster coaches must get this group to trust each other so they can play for each other. That eventually happened to the Leinster team I played on. It is a special feeling but can only be achieved when everyone is on the same page.
The young talent is there – we have seen glimpses of the levels Garry Ringrose and now Josh van der Flier are capable of reaching – but I believe Leo, like Cheiks, needs time to make his mark, find his team’s identity and develop it.
At the moment they are still trying to gel after so many massive changes in personnel over these past 24 months.
With imitation being the best form of flattery, we are seeing plenty of Joe Schmidt’s coaching in the way Leinster and Ulster are playing – just without the execution associated with Schmidt’s Leinster or Ireland.
Wealthiest clubsBut that’s understandable. Cullen and Les Kiss are only getting to grips with new, fully stocked squads and they both had the misfortune of running into three of the Premiership’s wealthiest clubs.
But if the provinces are to be successful in this new club landscape they must develop their own brand of rugby, their own distinct personalities. Anthony Foley has a year jump on them but Cullen and Kiss understand rugby, and how it should be played, better than most.
Considering his background, I expect a Rugby League influence, those second wave attacks with two to three distributors to come into Ulster’s game under Les Kiss. Not unlike the way Saracens went about beating them into submission at Ravenhill on Friday night.
That was a Saracens side littered with internationals. Ulster’s pack had Rory Best, who is still at the peak of his powers, and while Nick Williams and Chris Henry were at their combative best they had no more established internationals up front. It showed.
Look at the Saracens pack: the Vunipola brothers, Jacques Burger, Schalk Brits and two young but huge English locks. That, again, highlights the difference in recruitment.
The first try could be nit-picked as an error by Darren Cave in that he was never going to get to Owen Farrell, who was lying so deep, but by going so far upfield Darren couldn’t help Andrew Trimble out against the two attackers in front of him. If Cave held off a little Farrell might have carried and Ulster could have survived.
But the try was not on Darren Cave’s head. It was coming. Saracens had sucked 12 Ulster players inside the second post when Farrell spun that ball wide to Alex Goode (the form second playmaker, which is an increasing trend, in Europe this past fortnight).
All told, it makes for a fascinating match at the RDS on Friday.
But Leinster have a greater task in that they must define themselves in the same way we did after Leo and Shane Jennings returned from Leicester in 2007. Yet they must do it differently, in their own unique way.
Cheika brought discipline and structure but it was the playing group that drove it. We got up every day knowing what we were about, what we wanted to do and there was a coach there to give us a road map to go about achieving it.
That was my Leinster. There has been a massive and fairly quick turnover of players. The values can be similar and you can emulate what has gone before but all successful teams find their own way.
It requires a period of trial and error, as we can all see, but the quality of players still exists. The Academy is still doing its job.
Hard decisionsBut it’s different now. Tougher. Ideally Leo will continue to drip feed players like Ringrose and van der Flier into the team, much like Seanie O’Brien was during the 2008/09 season. Everyone thought replacing Rocky Elsom would be impossible. But we, the players, knew what Seanie was capable of doing.
The hard decisions for Leo now are whether to pick on form or reputation. Ringrose, Van der Flier, Jack McGrath, Luke McGrath and James Tracy have earned regular game time.
Those type of selection calls will shape Leinster’s season. Like the way the IRFU must strike a balance between feeding the provincial need to stay competitive and Ireland’s success, the Leinster coach must find an even keel between the next generation and the elders within the group. Leo is the right man to make these decisions.
Both teams must win at the RDS on Friday so that will influence the decision- making process. These are decisions that will also impact on the Ireland squad for the Six Nations. And they are decisions that will define Leinster’s changing identity and its future.