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Dublin: 19 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Your big rugby season preview: Leinster

The reigning champions are hoping new signings and eager youths can fill the gaps left by proven winners.

Ian Madigan whoops it up on the RDS pitch after Leinster won the Pro12 title in May.
Ian Madigan whoops it up on the RDS pitch after Leinster won the Pro12 title in May.
Image: INPHO/Colm O'Neill

The Story so far

LEINSTER TOOK THEIR pre-season show on the road to Cill Dara and Dundalk rugby clubs this summer and Blues supporters got an up-close introduction to a myriad of new faces.

Matt O’Connor arrived from Leicester Tigers and slotted straight into Joe Schmidt’s coaching shorts as he took a hands-on training approach. Youth was given its head and new signing Jimmy Gopperth was told to stake a claim to the outhalf position vacated by Jonny Sexton.

Leinster looked the better team for long stretches of their friendly encounter with Ulster yet fell short on a couple of occasions when  their provincial rivals upped the ante. The result was a 21-19 defeat. Northampton arrived at Donnybrook, last weekend, with a near full-strength team. O’Connor saw his team take and early lead, through prop Martin Moore, but fade in the second half.

They lost 21-13 but O’Connor will not mind the early defeats if his side get rapidly up and running in the league.

Best try of last season

Less than four minutes were on the clock in Leinster’s Challenge Cup semi final against Biarritz when they uncorked a rehearsed lineout move for Jamie Heaslip to finish. The phrase ‘straight off the paddock’ comes to mind:


YouTube credit:  LeFauconCrecerelle

What’s changed?

Quite a bit. Three major departures and six squad players have left the reigning league champions. Major losses are Jonny Sexton [Racing Metro] and Isa Nacewa[retired] but Andrew Conway’s ship jump for Munster is a wound that may fester.

There have been nine Academy players promoted to the senior ranks with high hopes for props Martin Moore and Jack McGrath, and flanker Jordi Murphy. Mike McCarthy’s arrival from Connacht adds much-needed athleticism and bite in the second row while Gopperth will push Ian Madigan for the 10 jersey all season. Zane Kirchner is a handy, versatile backline player but there will be wistful ‘Isa’ sighs if the South African does not hit the ground running.

image

Jimmy Gopperth slots over a Leinster penalty. INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The other newbie is O’Connor, who will be quickly indoctrinated into the Leinster way by team manager Guy Easterby and forwards coaches Jonno Gibbes and Greg Feek. Early games should prove interesting as quirky, well-drilled set-plays have been a Leinster staple in recent years, along with the steel that has brought them heaps of shiny pots.

Big questions

Madigan or Gopperth? Ian Madigan was the glue that held Leinster’s topsy-turvy season together last season. He played across the backline, starred at fullback, was dependable and match-winning at outhalf and made his international debut at inside centre. Many fans may have considered Gopperth as a steady back-up option but he has looked sharp in pre-season outings. His nerveless place-kicking abilities make him an instant threat to the would-be prince.

Are McGrath and Moore good enough? Another way to phrase that question would be – Is Mike Ross finally going to get a break? Jack McGrath finished last season in excellent form and is Cian Healy’s [just about] able deputy for the new season. The fact that no replacement was brought in for Heinke van der Merwe speaks volumes for the faith placed in McGrath. Moore is a promising tighthead and his emergence saw Jamie Hagan ushered out. The Michael Bent experiment does not seemed to have worked but there are genuinely high hopes for 22-year-old Moore.

Predicted finish

The Grand Final jinx is now a thing of the past [until it crops up again] and the Leinster squad is still one of the strongest in the league. The nightmare scenario, with away dates against Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors in the first three RaboDirect Pro12 fixtures, is for a string of losses and O’Connor under immediate scrutiny.

A top two finish in the league is eminently possible and Leinster’s battle-hardened players know all about peaking when it then matters.

The Heineken Cup is a tougher prospect but it would be a shock [for the second successive season] were they not to escape their pool. The French sides look far too strong, and talented, not to be classed as tournament favourites but winning Pool 1 could get Leinster far.

Pro12: Finalists

Heineken Cup: Semi finals

Strongest XV: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, M McCarthy, D Toner, K McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.

How do you think Leinster will fare?

Provincial Potential – The young Irish guns getting ready to light up the Rabo

This slick Pro12 promo should get you pumped for the new season

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