Leinster buck national trend with conveyor belt of nines

Province building strength in depth and competition in pivotal position on the pitch

Luke McGrath: “It is great to see the club has huge competition in every position.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/inpho

Luke McGrath: “It is great to see the club has huge competition in every position.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/inpho

 

The story of James Lowe in Ireland has become about scrumhalves. Leinster have them, other provinces have not.

Munster must fear a crisis as uncertainty surrounding Conor Murray’s neck increasingly dominates the rugby narrative. That All Black Alby Mathewson, Murray’s temporary cover, is awaiting a scan result on the knee problem that curtailed his involvement in Saturday’s defeat at the Aviva Stadium presents a serious problem.

At the same venue this heavy-set, freewheeling winger shone so brightly. Lowe turns Irish in 2020 whereas Jamison Gibson-Park, his New Zealand schools team-mate, beats him to the punch next summer but in the meantime Leo Cullen is constantly forced into diluting his best XV.

All because Gibson-Park is needed in case Luke McGrath gets hurt. On Saturday the 26-year-old Auckland scrumhalf rolled his ankle. Problem solved for Friday’s return to European action against Wasps – Lowe keeps the number 11 jersey and Scott Fardy returns, possibly to the bench as Devin Toner and James Ryan continue a locking arrangement that could guide them into November and the great beyond.

But who deputises for McGrath?

The obvious answer is Nick McCarthy but how come Hugh O’Sullivan wore the H2O bib during the Munster game while McCarthy was spinning leather in Donnybrook for the A team?

Could the Ireland U-20s scrumhalf be primed for promotion and who is Patrick Patterson?

Everything but their medical information will eventually be revealed about these 20-year-old scrumhalves, both of whom have been mapped since early teens.

“Especially in this preseason we saw more of them,” said McGrath.

“Hughie obviously got capped and Patrick Patterson has been brilliant for the A team so there is so much competition, which is ongoing here at Leinster. Just shows you have to keep to high standards or they’ll be swapped in. But it is great to see the club has huge competition in every position.”

This is the first time Irish rugby and a wealth of scrumhalves can be bracketed in the same sentence. Remarkably, the Leinster schools cooked three genuinely talented nines from the same batch as O’Sullivan was followed by second cousins Patterson and James Kenny (worryingly, O’Sullivan was used by Belvedere College at fullback which may hinder development under the 10,000 hour rule).

Prop project

They are in the system. O’Sullivan tasted 13 minutes against the Dragons in September while Patterson’s potential was unmistakable for Blackrock school and UCD last season.

Like the hugely productive prop project initiated a few seasons back, Leinster recently suggested a similar programme to develop specialist scrumhalves. In response former Ireland nine and women’s head coach Tom Tierney was offered. Leinster demurred.

The plan is unofficially underway so other provinces can expect to profit once O’Sullivan or Patterson or both put enough pressure on the system for something or someone to break loose.

This is good news as this is talent that looks like it will be correctly nurtured. Give it a year.

Ulster enjoy the gift of John Cooney, indirectly via Leinster, and ironically cut loose in the days when Reddan of Limerick and Isaac Boss of New Zealand had the blue deals sown up.

Munster might also need to borrow a scrumhalf in the immediate short-term. Or not. Maybe Murray – looking chirpy despite the medical bib at training Monday – can avoid surgery and rise from the haze or Mathewson recovers or Gibson-Park goes south on loan.

Any mention of Peter Stringer yet?

Either way, the Lowe and Leinster story is all about scrumhalves, which is a positive tale to be told after Munster whipper-snappers Stringer, Reddan (by birth), Tomás O’Leary and Murray dominated the green jersey since 1999.

McGrath was overlooked for the Australia series as Ireland coach Joe Schmidt went with Murray, Cooney and Connacht’s Kieran Marmion.

Whether or not that remains the pecking order come November, depth at scrumhalf has been an Irish problem since forever but Leinster offer potential solutions.

In the meantime Gibson-Park’s swollen joint should keep Lowe, the most entertaining character since Dr Contepomi held the conch, swinging from billowing sails despite lingering concerns over defensive lapses.

“Sometimes we misunderstand what is structure and systems,” explained coach Contepomi. “If you have a structure, it’s there to be broken by someone with brilliance like [Lowe] but I think you have to have a structure or system to know where to go but that gives you a freedom to follow your instinct and play your natural game.

“He’s very good, definitely. He’s got something that you find somewhere else in the world, like New Zealand – he knows how to finish and as a winger that’s your top priority. He’s good but again he needs to work on other things, and he is working hard on trying to get better in other aspects.”

Imagine the finished article in green.

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