Dan Leavy takes a wrecking ball to some big Saracens reputations
Battle for Leinster backrow places for Scarlets semi-final will be intense
Dan Leavy and James Lowe celebrate at the final whistle after Leinster’s win over Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-finals at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Before Dan Leavy’s latest impression of Ivan Drago, the ultimate tie-breaker was put to Jamie Heaslip: if Seán O’Brien and Leavy are fully tuned-up who plays?
“Can I not have them both?”
That means Leo Cullen must shift Scott Fardy back into the secondrow and bench Devin Toner for the Champions Cup semi-final at home to Scarlets.
“Dan is a cracking footballer with a touch of mutant strength,” Heaslip added. “I remember when he first came on the scene he was unbelievably enthusiastic at training, so we did what we normally do and pucked the head off him a couple of times to see how he handled it. He kept coming back for more. Not a fight. Just kept coming back. That’s what you want. He has an edge.
“But Seánie is Seánie. He’d be first on my list for any team.”
Leavy is the first name into this Leinster team. James Ryan second. Luke McGrath third.
The St Michael’s brigade have not only arrived, they are rolling New Leinster’s wheel towards Bilbao and a fourth gold star.
The Scarlets can be pitched as a revenge mission for last year’s Pro 14 stumble but such talk is irrelevant to Leavy, Ryan and McGrath – vrooming machines regardless of occasion or opposing colours.
Maro Itoje realises this.
The Leavy statistics are barely on the charts – 16 carries for 82 metres, three open grass breaks, two offloads and 14 tackles – but it’s the killer try on 46 minutes that made Saracens become what Leinster willed them into being: former European champions.
Tiki-taka touches, seen in green jerseys as recently as Paris by Fergus McFadden and Conor Murray, split open a game evenly poised at 16-12.
“Dan is very good in and around the ruck,” said Cullen, “He is clever at spotting those windows that are there. Saracens had presented that picture a few times this season. I thought the lads went after that space well but I think it was off the back of some strong carries \[by Seán Cronin\].
“That’s the big thing – Saracens have a very strong wall of defenders and you have to break that wall somehow. The build-up to that allows us to be in a dominant position. Between Dan and James they are good enough to exploit it.”
Leavy picked from the ruck and scooped the ball to Ryan, who invited heavy contact before slipping a return pass for his pal to gallop clear.
“It was kind of spur of the moment,” said Leavy, his right eye ballooned and purple (“I kind of look like Quasimodo more than usual.”).
“I just popped it up to [The Big] Cheese [Ryan] and called for it back and the defender committed to Cheese so it was a free run in.”
Leavy cannot perform a Hugo Sanchez celebration anymore without glancing off another St Michael’s skull.
“And then I did a somersault and nearly knocked Rory O’Loughlin out with my foot. I need to work on that.”
It would be easy to forget about Josh van der Flier – rated ahead of Leavy as recently as the Six Nations opener and O’Brien will come steaming back into contention as the two Italian teams peer into the RDS Factory in quiet weekends until more Champions Cup action can be devoured by a ravenous public.
Cullen and everyone knew what they had with Leavy and Ryan, that’s why they gripped until the leashes snapped.
“I remember seeing Dan play his schools final [in 2012] against Clongowes and the amount of turnovers he had at the breakdown against the [Ed and Bryan] Byrne brothers. It was like the Byrnes were carrying and Dan was tearing the ball from them the whole time. He is someone who has had an awful lot of rugby when he was younger so we are trying to manage it a little bit. He came into the Academy with a little bit of niggly injuries but he has worked hard to fight his way though.
“Good players thrive on competition. If it is handed to them on a plate I don’t think it is necessarily better for their longer-term development so he has had to push through hard, but you are seeing the quality performances he is putting in at the moment.”
Leavy cannot be budged now. Not over the ball and not by the legendary yet fading Springbok force that is Schalk Burger.
When, early on, Ryan made four tackles in 45 seconds it seemed like Leavy would be overshadowed by the rising lock. As we saw throughout the Six Nations with Ireland, the hammer blows tended to land, or not, either side of the half–time. Twenty seconds before the break Saracens attempted to maul over the Leinster try line but Ryan disrupted the Jamie George fling to Nick Isiekwe and Fardy pounced.
“James has been earmarked for quite a while,” added Cullen. “Such a big physical specimen but he has got a great mindset in terms of looking to improve and very competitive on the field. Unbelievably young man so hopefully he is going to get better and better.”