McGrath and Kearney can lay down a marker against Scarlets
Pair are being given valuable Leinster game time in the Pro14 ahead of the Six Nations
Leinster’s Rob Kearney is chased by James Lowe during training ahead of the Pro14 clash with Scarlets. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Pro14: Leinster v Scarlets
Kick off: 7.35pm. Venue: RDS Arena. On TV: Live on Freesports, eirSport and TG4.
Quiet weekend of work. Jack McGrath and Rob Kearney will hardly need prompting as they understand the precarious nature of existing outside Joe Schmidt’s Ireland bubble so close to England rolling straight from the Algarve to Dublin.
Nothing short of the cleanest hour is required to keep Jordan Larmour benched and Dave Kilcoyne out of the Six Nations squad in round one. Kearney and McGrath are, of course, established internationals with a 144 test matches between them but the present tense is all that matters in camp Schmidt.
“I don’t have restrictions on them, so we’ll see how they go,” revealed Leinster coach Leo Cullen. “They trained all this week. Jack got 45 minutes [against Wasps] and coming back from an injury like that, especially for a tight five forward, getting time on the field is important, so it’s another opportunity to see what he can do.
“Rob has been unlucky since missing the two European weekends. He comes back in and it is a good chance to showcase his skills with lots of big games coming up. He was unlucky the Toulouse week. He trained the majority of last week and he’s come through that fine.”
Kearney will almost certainly face England on February 2nd, but McGrath might be feeling the heat after injury and Ed Byrne’s rise stalled progress this season.
All these international subplots must have the returning James Lowe counting the months until he becomes Irish qualified via residency.
“There’s a contract negotiation before that,” Lowe replies deadpan while nodding towards Cullen. “What do you guys reckon?
“It’s an exciting prospect, I’m about 18 months out. One of the other Kiwi’s on our roster is a lot closer than me [Jamison Gibson-Park qualifies this summer] so it will be interesting to see what happens there. I’ve always wanted to test myself on the highest stage.”
Gift-wrapped for Andy Farrell in November 2020.
Lowe is also well placed to compare the abundance of young talent in Leinster created by professionalism to his homeland’s eternal focus on developing rugby players from infancy.
“I think it’s a little bit different because teenagers in New Zealand you get a lot of them that are my size [six foot two, 105kg),” Lowe explains. “You see some incredibly athletic freaks who come out of school thinking ‘Surely he is not 18, 19 years old’ but through genetics they have developed quickly physically but haven’t got the rest of it sorted.
“The thing that I find here –with the way things are done – you learn the structures and systems first and then, I guess, naturally progress at different stages physically. It’s almost like the opposite way.
“There are kids in New Zealand developing later on, don’t get me wrong, but that’s the big difference – Hughie [O’Sullivan] isn’t a physically huge athlete but, crikey, he works so hard. A lot of Kiwi kids because of their parents have been given all the gifts to succeed.”
A report released by the New Zealand rugby union this week revealed “the number of boys playing the game at secondary schools is trending downwards at an alarming rate” with the students surveyed citing concerns over getting “smashed” by the naturally bigger teenagers Lowe mentions.
“I don’t know if New Zealand has many problems in terms of their educational system, it is just different cultures,” Lowe continues. “Over here, especially in south Dublin, every one goes to a pretty nice school and has all the systems to succeed down the line. I guess they learn hard work, that’s also part of it.”
Super Rugby scouts in New Zealand stated a “sense of self-entitlement is too prevalent in many of the talented young players.” Leinster under Cullen are quick to weed out that trait.
Speaking of physical specimens soaring through the ranks, 19-year-old openside Scott Penny wins his fourth cap on Friday night a week out from featuring against England in the under-20 Six Nations as Dan Leavy is still struggling with a calf injury while Josh van der Flier and Sean O’Brien are in Portugal for national camp.
Leinster are stretched – especially backrow cover even if the starting trio of Penny, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris has a futuristic feel – but so are Wayne Pivac’s badly struggling Scarlets, a club that has let standards slip at an alarming rate themselves since the Kiwi was named Warren Gatland’s successor as Wales coach post Japan 2019. Desperately poor in Europe, the usual Welsh standard-bearers are fourth in Conference B with seven wins from 13 outings.
That’s about to become a 50 percent win ratio unless they can dominate what does looks the weakest pack Leinster have fielded in recent memory. Ross Byrne is a real loss, for Leinster and the man himself, as he was unable to complete the return to play protocols from suspected concussion within the five day turnaround.
The bookmaker’s 18 point handicap seems overly generous to Cullen’s men with a narrow victory the likelier outcome.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney (capt); Barry Daly, Rory O’Loughlin, Conor O’Brien, James Lowe; Ciarán Frawley, Hugh O’Sullivan; Jack McGrath, James Tracy, Michael Bent; Ross Molony, Mick Kearney; Max Deegan, Scott Penny, Caelan Doris. Replacements: Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Vakh Abdaladze, Jack Dunne, Oisín Dowling, Jamison Gibson-Park, Noel Reid, Jimmy O’Brien.
SCARLETS: Johnny McNicholl; Ioan Nicholas, Kieran Fonotia, Steff Hughes (capt), Paul Asquith; Dan Jones, Kieran Hardy; Phil Price, Marc Jones, Werner Kruger; Jake Ball, David Bulbring; Tom Price, Dan Davis, Josh MacLeod. Replacements: Dafydd Hughes, Dylan Evans, Simon Gardiner, Josh Helps, Ed Kennedy, Jon Evans, Morgan Williams, Tom Prydie.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).