Country fare fuels Leinster's appetite


INTERVIEW SEÁN O'BRIEN (Leinster): JOHNNY WATTERSONtalks to the Carlow man who believes Leinster are benefiting from the province broadening its player base

It seems fitting then the influx of country and farming stock has added its own character to the squad and arguably helped the province get to that position of European dominance that it had never before attained.

Leinster broadening its brand appeal to all parts of the province has also given some food for thought about what effect and influences the mix of country and city back grounds has within any group of players.

Fullback Rob Kearney and pack members Seán O’Brien, Trevor Hogan, John Fogarty, Stephen Keogh and Bernard Jackman have all come from farming back grounds. O’Brien, from Carlow, has been catching the eye for the last two seasons. When he travels back to Tullow, he gets the stick but times are changing, old flat-world opinions about Leinster “type” players are turning.

“The crowd at home . . . obviously there’s a few Munster supporters down there,” says the bright 22-year-old flanker and a regular visitor to Tullow Mart. “But over the last couple of years they’ve kind of changed back. There is great support from home (for Leinster) but there are a lot of Munster supporters down there. Slowly but surely they’re changing over but there’s great banter always.”

Kearney and his younger brother, David, are from a farm in Carlingford, Co Louth, while Jackman’s father, Nicholas, is a major figure in the cattle business around Wicklow and Carlow. Captain Leo Cullen, although a Blackrock College graduate, grew up near Newtown in rural Wicklow, while tighthead prop Mike Ross, who arrived to Leinster from Harlequins during the summer, grew up on a dairy farm near Fermoy, Co Cork.

“I’m not really surprised because there are a lot of farmers down there,” explains O’Brien.

“A lot of people that are living down here have come from Munster, Munster their whole life, so it doesn’t really surprise me that there are Munster fans down living in Leinster just like I’m sure there are Leinster fans living in Munster.”

O’Brien has set his sights on holding a regular place in the starting team. With the experience of Shane Jennings and Lion Jamie Heaslip, even without Rocky Elsom this season, there is a tight squeeze.

The departure of blindside flanker Elsom to Australia has opened things up a little more for the Irish players but there are no certainties. If O’Brien was not as firmly grounded as he is, he could read coach Michael Cheika’s decision to bring in Nathan Hines instead of an out-and-out world-class flanker as the coach giving a vote of approval to what he already has at his disposal. And that would be a fair assumption.

“At the start of the season he (Cheika) spoke about it,” says O’Brien. “There is good competition there at the moment. Kevin McLaughlin is playing well, Stephen Keogh, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip. We can all slot in there anywhere. It wasn’t a bad thing Rocky leaving, I don’t think myself. Obviously I was glad I’ll probably get more opportunities this year and hopefully that will be the way it will go.”

To play in every Leinster match, or as many as possible, is the only goal at present. Thoughts of Declan Kidney calling him up to the Ireland squad are far from his day-to-day focus. But is it a consideration?

“No. Nothing like that yet,” he says. “I’ll try to get on the weekend and play well and if something comes after that so be it.”

This could be a good week for O’Brien and some of his farm hands to show. Munster’s arrival at the RDS with their own brand of strength sets up one of the set-piece matches of the season with little love lost when the whistle goes. Sadly we will miss the traditional spectacle of Felipe Contepomi and Ronan O’Gara telling each other what great players they are and sharing mutual, er, affection.

Still the farming theme crosses borders. Denis Leamy of Cashel and John Hayes from Cappamore, Co Limerick, bring a brothy, natural strength to their games.

Munster may never have had to prove anything to their fans about things such as broad appeal but the natural power of Hayes, particularly, has made him a regular with the Irish team. No doubt his farming genes helped there.

“There’s a load of (Leinster) lads in the squad from outside of Dublin now,” says O’Brien.

“It’s good like that. There is a lot of country lads playing at the minute and kind of broadening the fan base out a little bit.”

O’Brien has scored three tries from 23 Leinster appearances and earned two Ireland A caps. He’s on the Kidney radar alright and living proof the GAA don’t sweep up all of the strong athletes outside the cities, a principal figure too in the greening of the Leinster brand.