Leinster ready to roll out big guns for daunting trip to Scarlets
Devin Toner and Jack Conan among those in line for a call to arms this weekend
Leinster backs coach Felipe Contepomi with Jordan Larmour during squad training in Donnybrook on Monday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Regular season games between Leinster and the Scarlets, the last two winners of the Guinness Pro14, have tended to fall, annoyingly, in the Six Nations window. They met in the semi-finals of the competition two seasons ago, and then after another clash in the semi-finals of the European Cup, in the final last May. But now, with almost indecent haste, they meet again in Parc y Scarlets next Saturday.
Neither is remotely at their best yet, but it is probably a measure of the somewhat daunting challenge facing Leinster that the holders – a little sooner than is the norm – are seemingly set to give seasonal bows to several of Ireland’s winning squad from last June’s tour to Australia.
Hence, in addition to the fit again Josh van der Flier, the indications are that Devin Toner and Jack Conan will be among those in line for a call to arms this weekend, according to scrum coach John Fogarty.
“There’s a number of guys that will come back into the programme. They’ll be up for selection this week,” said Fogarty, and in addition to Toner, he added: “Jack Conan will be back in training this week.”
The 25-year-old Josh van der Flier hasn’t played since suffering a serious knee injury in the first half of Ireland’s dramatic opening Six Nations win against France in Paris. He had begun that game impressively and had been a regular starter for Leinster, but his misfortune opened the door for Dan Leavy as van der Flier was cruelly forced to watch Ireland’s Grand Slam, Leinster’s double and the series win in Australia from the sidelines. True to type, van der Flier accepted his dreadful luck with good grace.
“It’s great for everyone,” said Fogarty in anticipation of van der Flier’s return, which will further strengthen Leinster’s array of backrow options. “He’s in the rugby programme now. He’s in there, which is great for Ireland and for us. He’s up for selection, so it’s becoming difficult now to select teams and that’s what we want, a fella like Josh to come back in now and be competitive, train hard and improve the standard of training, and it’s great that he’s back. He’s worked to get himself back.”
A front-line Leinster cum Irish player can ill-afford an injury these days. They can be easily forgotten, especially in the backrow.
“Yeah, you’re out the gap,” admitted Fogarty. “It moves on so fast and the quality that is there now at the moment, in this place and in every other province, they’re turning out good performances and that’s the key. It’s being able to be back, be healthy and consistently perform. And that’s something that Josh did really really well prior to his injury, and he needs to do again, because all the rest of them are performing consistently and it’s a great headache for Ireland to have right now, and for us.”
That Toner, Conan and others might also be pressed into action is a reflection of the challenge facing Leinster in Llanelli on Saturday, as well as an acknowledgement that a repeat of last Friday’s performance will be sufficient.
“There’s going to be an edge to that game,” said Fogarty. “We played them four times last year, it’s going to be tough. That was a tough game to lose, for them, they did a lot of good things in the game, again, when we’re away from home discipline is going to be very important, that we’re not putting ourselves under pressure and if we are, can we react in the right way?
“We cannot be turned over on the ground as much, we have to be nice and smart where we play the game. They present a big wall of 14, so there’ll be space for us to kick – we need to be smart with our kicks, a nice varied attack. It’s going to be tough, but the lads are really, really aware of it. We’re not sure what’s going to happen with them, they lost two outhalves,” said Fogarty in relation to Rhys Priestland and Dan Jones departing during the course of the Scarlets’ late defeat away to Ulster. “It’ll be interesting to see their selection this week. They’re really well coached, a good squad.”
True to the double-winning form of last season, whatever about the all-singing, all-dancing, try-scoring runs to two semi-finals the season before, Leinster drew on their bench and found an ugly way to win in Cardiff.
But the performance was far from perfect, and in addition to missed tackles in defence and sloppy retention of possession, Fogarty admitted: “On the ground they took the ball off us a few times. There was a lot of guys – Rhys Ruddock, Barry Daly, Caelan Doris – all ended up belly-up. So we’re working hard on trying to make sure guys get to ground, control, top shoulder is strong, good body position, and we opened up a little bit. That can happen when you’re a little bit stressed or you go behind, you can get these things that happen.”
New signing Joe Tomane was culpable on at least one occasion defensively, but Fogarty maintained: “Defensively we as a team can be better. How we move around the field, how we develop width, and don’t let someone get exposed, I think he was exposed because the system wasn’t right.”
“I think Leo knows Joe very, very well, and he knows what makes him tick and that’s why he got him in here. It’s disappointing, those individual errors, but those little things can be tightened up quite easily, and they’re forgotten about in a couple of weeks time when he starts to fit into systems, and the system is working better.”