The conveyor belt of young backrow tyros in Leinster keeps on chugging, which is just as well.
Following on from Jamie Heaslip’s retirement and the departure of Jordi Murphy to Ulster, another of the loose forward flagbearers, Seán O’Brien, has bade his farewells and officially moved to London Irish this week.
He hopes to hopefully resume his career come March following his hip operation, while Jack Conan has joined Dan Leavy on the longer-term casualty list. Most squads would be unable to withstand such a drain.
But a clutch of likely lads with stellar underage careers are vying to fill the voids, and watching their progress will be one of the most intriguing subplots to the season ahead.
In some senses, to lose a bunch of experienced, proven, high-achieving, world-class loose forwards in such close proximity is probably not ideal.
At 29, Rhys Ruddock looks to be in great shape and is flying, and, in his 11th campaign, his leadership has never seemed more important. Even at a mere 26-years-old, Josh van Der Flier has been propelled into senior status.
The youngest of them all Scott Penny had a run of three Guinness Pro14 games this season
He has hit the ground running on returning from the World Cup in the last two weeks, not only producing his typically off-the-radar tackle tallies (there were 20 in his tour de force last week) but reminding us of his footballing abilities with his support line and selfless try-scoring return pass to Johnny Sexton against Benetton. Like a few others returning from the World Cup, he seems to be enjoying himself.
To put it another way, they are the only two backrowers in Leinster’s squad for the Heineken Champions Cup with Test match experience. Indeed, of of the other five backrowers, none had played in the tournament prior to the province’s opening game save for Caelan Doris’ three-minute cameo in last season’s quarter-final against Toulouse.
However, as Murphy’s departure demonstrated, there’s a flip side to this current state of affairs in that it must be hard for Leo Cullen and the Leinster think tank to keep them all happy. Given the need to rotate during this meaty part of the season, with four more rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup and three interpros over the next seven weeks following today’s encounter in Glasgow, there is every chance to afford them all game time and minutes over the next while.
For example, Ruddock and van der Flier are predictably rested for this evening’s game in Glasgow as Leinster revert to a trio of their young tyros for what seems a considerably tougher assignment than the first five rounds provided. It’s a new combination of Murphy, Connors and Doris, with the latter afforded the chance to reclaim the number eight jersey for next week’s trek to Northampton in Europe.
For at least one or two of the next wave, most likely Doris or Max Deegan in the absence of Conan, seem sure to make strides in the next while and perhaps even propel themselves into the Irish mix for the Six Nations.
At 23, Deegan appeared to be in pole position when Conan aggravated a foot issue in the World Cup which may sideline him for up to four months.
The only Irish player to win the World Junior Player of the Year award after his stand-out performances in helping Ireland reach the Under-20 World Championship final in 2016, Deegan had played 46 times for Leinster over three seasons going into this campaign.
However, the 21-year-old Doris (from Ballina, of Dublin parents, who came through Blackrock College) was picked to start ahead of St Michael’s College product Deegan at number eight against Benetton last Saturday week, only to cruelly suffer a head knock after a bright opening 15 minutes.
Replacing Doris off the bench, Deegan grasped his opportunity, backing up a dozen tackles and a dozen carries (gaining 45 metres) with another high tackle count in Lyon when also scoring Leinster’s try (with a little help from Ruddock).
Meanwhile, the youngest of them all Scott Penny – the most akin to O'Brien with his toughness, strength over the ball and eye for the try line, and another former Under-20 international out of St Michael's – had a run of three Guinness Pro14 games this season. Whereupon, Will Connors shone when recalled at openside in the win away to Connacht.
The older Josh Murphy has also started three Pro14 games while Ruddock was on World Cup duty, and as a 6ft 6in sometime lock looks the latter's likeliest understudy-cum-successor at blindside.
The injuries to Leavy and Conan were particularly cruel, with the former’s the more serious. But it’s scary to think of the options that should again be at Leinster’s disposal when they do return.
Leinster’s clutch of likely lads in the backrow
23-years-old, 54 games.
Ostensibly a No 8 who can play across the backrow, he is another product of the well-trodden St Michael’s/UCD/Irish Under-20/Leinster academy production line. Another fine athlete and skilful player, Deegan has always flourished in fast open games but there have been increasing signs, notably in Leinster’s get-down-and-dirty win in Lyon last week, that his game is developing and maturing. Looks sure to have a big part in Leinster’s future.
23-years-old, 9 games.
The Kildareman, who came through Clongowes, played alongside Deegan on the Irish team that beat the New Zealand Under-20s en route to the final of the 2016 World Junior Championships. He’s been in eye-catching form this season, seemingly overtaking Penny. Athletic and seemingly stronger this season, Connors is a renowned chop tackler and a natural, smart openside who runs good support lines. At 6ft 4½in, he’s also a lineout option.
20-years-old, 9 games.
Part of Ireland’s 2019 Grand Slam team and yet another from the aforementioned St Michael’s production line, at 6ft and 103 kg, he is built like O’Brien and cut from a similar cloth. He’s tough, is a real groundhog over the ball and his carrying defies his physique. Penny scored a try on his Leinster debut against the Ospreys last season, repeated the trick a week later against the Dragons and added a third on his seasonal reappearance against Edinburgh.
21-years-old, 22 games.
The Ballina son of Dublin parents was a boarder at Blackrock College, where he was part of their 2014 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning side. He captained his school in 2016, as he did with the Ireland Under-20s when he was their stand-out player at the 2018 World Junior Championships. Fast-tracked into the senior squad last season, he has grown as a player while the frontliners were in Japan. At 6ft 4½in and 106kg, he’s a physically strong, carrying ‘8’ who will grow stronger and smarter. All things being equal, he should have a big career.
24-years-old, 27 games.
Yet another from St Michael’s, Murphy has started three games already this season. The athletic 6ft6in blindside-cum-occasional lock throws his body around. Somewhat in the mould of Tadhg Beirne, he’s playing well and pushing hard for inclusion but despite his age you sense his best is still to come. He’s also studying to be a doctor.