KEVIN MCLAUGHLIN’S SEASON has resembled that of his Leinster paymasters – bursts of excellence mixed with disappointing outings and frustrating setbacks.
The flanker enjoyed an outstanding year with the province in 2011/12 and his performances on the run to a third Heineken Cup earned him a call-up to the Ireland squad to tour New Zealand.
He was drafted in for the second test in Christchurch and kept Richie McCaw quiet for 73 minutes before a poor refereeing call and an All Black tide cost Ireland a famous victory.
McLaughlin has struggled to match the intensity he displayed last season, however, and now finds himself below Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson in the international pecking order.
He took a hefty blow in the away loss to Clermont Auvergne and was ruled out of the disastrous return at the Aviva Stadium.
The 28-year-old returned against Ulster at Ravenhill but a shoulder stinger saw him withdrawn for Dominic Ryan at half-time.
“I felt a stinger in my shoulder but as the warm-up went on I felt it getting better so I was happy to play,” he told TheScore.ie.
“But then I got a bit of a knock in the first half and felt it, so to err on the side of caution I sat out last weekend’s win over Connacht.”
McLaughlin praises the contribution of Rhys Ruddock and Ryan, who have featured in the festive programme of Pro12 games, and feels the return of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will boost competition for back row slots.
He said, “In a squad like this you’re almost always looking over your shoulder and you know that if you miss out then you could face a longer spell on the sidelines.” He added:
With Jenno (Shane Jennings) a late withdrawal due to illness, and Seanie and Jamie all back in the frame this week, it’s starting to get a bit congested in the back row. But that’s exactly what you want.
“The greater the competition for places, the more intense training is and the enthusiasm all of the lads bring can only be a positive and the management have shown that they’re not afraid to mix and match things and back the depth of the squad.”
Another physical battle
McLaughlin is wary of an Edinburgh side that have fought back from dire positions in the league but who have failed to replicate last season’s Heineken Cup form.
He said, “Edinburgh will pose a big challenge for us this week and we went through a phase for a number of years where we couldn’t buy a win there.
We won a high scoring game last year and snuck a win by the skin of our teeth earlier this season, so we’re expecting them to be gunning for us. We’ll need to bring a high level of intensity and it’ll be another tight and physical battle.”
McLaughlin added, “Under Michael Bradley they have put together some really good performances and their run in Europe last year was an indication of the threat they can pose.
“They have an international quality back-row and their forwards are good on the ground, abrasive and efficient spoilers. David Denton, Ross Rennie, Roddy Grant and Netani Talei have performed consistently well so whichever back-row they go with will be strong.”
Big games, big month
Having weathered the early Connacht storm last week, Leinster will be keen to get another Pro12 win under their belt before the Heineken Cup break comes into effect.
Top-four challengers Munster and Glasgow both have home games but, with Ulster and Scarlets meeting at Ravenhill tonight, the opportunity to make up ground on a pace-setters is clear.
“From our point of view, January is a huge month,” said McLaughlin.
We’re still hanging on in both competitions and it’s all to play for, but we’re coming into Europe at a slightly different angle than last year.
“We have a lot of belief and we’re taking each game on a week by week basis. That’s something that Joe (Schmidt) drills into us.”