Gerry Thornley: Leinster academy will attract envious glances

Way Leo Cullen’s side beat Bath says much about quality of underage system at province

Eoin Reddan and Sean O'Brien reflect on Leinster's European season and what could have been as the province prepare for their final pool fixture against Wasps. Video: Sportsfile

 

So the two teams who didn’t have anything left to play for duly did win, whereas the two who had everything to play for in terms of qualification, duly lost. But if the weekend gone by proved anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a dead rubber, least of all perhaps for the Irish provinces.

It goes with the territory of the European Champions Cup. This is the competition by which Irish teams are judged, and it’s where they have traditionally put their best foot forward.

That is one of the reasons why Leinster and Munster were on missions of redemption last Saturday, for their own sense of well being and also for their own supporters. Attendances of 14,000-plus for dead rubbers were testimony to that.

In the fallout of any anti-climactic campaign, whether at club or international level, there is invariably a clarion call to give youth its fling. Blood the new guys and build for the future. The panacea to all ills.

Of course, that is too simplistic, and very often blooding a host of young players at the same time can do more damage than good if the experiment comes a cropper. It certainly won’t happen when Joe Schmidt announces his 35/26-man squad for the Six Nations.

Yet even when a provincial side is going well, nothing keeps the machine ticking over better than an infusion of new, homegrown players. Every team needs one or two, ideally every season.

Even more important than the signing of Trevor Halstead in the 2005-06 season for Munster was the emergence of Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy. Each made their European debuts in that season’s Heineken Cup pool stages and contributed handsomely to Munster’s breakthrough success – Murphy with his gazelle-like try at home to Sale before a bad knee injury in a league game in Ravenhill, and Dowling playing all the way through the last two pool games and the knockout stages, including 80 minutes in the final.

After Frankie Sheahan suffered a bad injury in their opening defeat away to Sale, Jerry Flannery also made his full, try-scoring European debut in the win at home to Castres. Even Denis Leamy had only broken into the team the season before.

Second Captains

Flannery, Leamy and Dowling would all be regulars in the successful 2007-08 campaign as well, by which stage Tomás O’Leary and Denis Hurley had broken into the first team for the knockout stages.

The influence of Leinster’s signings from overseas in their breakthrough campaign of 2008-09, namely Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and to a lesser degree the injury-prone CJ van der Linde, cannot be overstated. Yet it’s easy to forget that Johnny Sexton had never started a European Cup game before that season, and look at the impact he made.

When they regained their crown two years later, Richardt Strauss had broken into the team, Mike Ross had been brought home from Harlequins and it was Kevin McLaughlin’s second Euro campaign. A year on, for their third title, they had been replenished from within by Fergus McFadden, Seán Cronin and Ian Madigan.

Remarkable

Of course, granting six homegrown players their first European starts, including three still in the province’s academy, doesn’t quite fall into that category. But it was a shot to nothing. Josh van der Flier, Luke McGrath and James Tracey had been the architects-in-chief of the try away to Bath in round two that had given Leinster a shot at winning that game. Garry Ringrose’s performances this season merely made it all the more remarkable that so little was seen of him last season or indeed that he wasn’t tried in the opener at home to Wasps when Leinster’s midfield resources were so thin.

But new young players in any team tick a number of boxes. It galvanises older, more established players when they see how much pulling the jersey on means to likely lads. In Leinster’s case last Saturday, not only did the enthusiasm and workrate of Peter Dooley, Tracy, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, van der Flier and Ringrose energise home team and supporters alike, but their skill levels and positivity on the ball did so as well.

Their performances and the manner of Leinster’s win, after parachuting in six relative newcomers against an experienced side who came looking for a win, also constituted a huge testimony to their under-age structures and academy.

How many sides in Europe could do that? Probably none.

The net result was not only a comprehensive victory, but despite it being theoretically the least meaningful game of Leinster’s season, Saturday’s game was probably the high point of Leo Cullen’s first season in charge to date.

It ensured that the home crowd left the RDS buzzing. This will have filtered through the entire organisation, beginning with training yesterday, and will make squad and supporters enthusiastic about the remainder of the season.

And that is an achievement.

Misfiring

The same is true but probably not to the same extent with Munster, for their redemptive win was inspired as much by previously misfiring senior players as an infusion of youth. Munster still depend on performances of high emotion to replicate the intensity of last Saturday, which is more difficult to sustain in the league, whereas the weekend underlined how Leinster have the more productive conveyor belt and hence strength in depth.

But, like Leinster, at least Munster can also revert their eyes to the Pro12 with renewed belief. By contrast, Ulster and Connacht have left themselves with more to do and, ironically, are liable to emerge from the European pool stages with the more acute sense of disappointment.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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