A: Probably Too Much
It would be very interesting to hear the opinions of Devin Toner on a youthful Leinster team’s win in Newport ten days ago. Toner has started the last five editions of this fixture – teammate Kev McLaughlin has started the last four – and it has long been one of the curios on the calendar in terms of selection.
Leinster sides that make their way over to Newport are a melting pot. There are players on their way up, players who are on their way down, and players who were once on their way up but never quite got there. That third category of players gets a lot of heat when things go badly and matches are lost, but it’s impossible to have a squad entirely composed of prime-time internationals and white-hot rising stars.
The Dragons fixture in Rodney Parade is to Leinster what the Connacht fixture in the Sportsground must be to the Welsh regions – an away game against a team you’re expected to beat but who have a solid, unchanging team that typically throws everything at you. You’re rarely going to send your full complement of internationals over there, so the team is normally composed of NIQs, youngsters and the Grand Old Duke of York’s ‘Neither-Up-Nor-Down’ types.
It’s only recently that Leinster have started winning the fixture. Michael Cheika’s last three visits to Rodney Parade all ended in defeat, the last a p*ss-poor 30-14 loss in December 2009 in which the Dragons walked in four first half tries and several senior players – Bernard Jackman, Stephen Keogh, CJ van der Linde and Mal O’Kelly foremost among them – phoned in their performances.
The Mole used to accuse Cheika of putting out teams of kids to sink or swim without giving them any chance to thrive in a more structured, experienced team. That December 2009 team featured then-current academy players Niall Morris , Ian McKinley , Rhys Ruddock  and Dominic Ryan  in the starting line-up, and three more academy players on the bench: openside flanker Paul Ryan , outhalf Ian Madigan  and winger Michael Keating . Morris had an absolute howler at fullback, just a straight-up-and-down nightmare of a performance, while predictably the two teenagers in the backrow put up a brave but losing effort against a far older and more streetwise unit.
Thirty months later, a team with a very similar age profile to the one that got hammered in December 2009 faced a Dragons side that were probably a little stronger this time around – after all, Lydiate, Faletau and Charteris are all current Welsh internationals, with Lydiate in particular being in world class form at the moment – and won the game far more handily than the final score of 18-22 would attest. Leinster led 6-22 with four minutes remaining, and both of the Dragons’ late scores were of the consolation variety.
As mentioned above, the age profile for the two teams that Leinster sent over to the respective fixtures are startlingly similar:
- 2011-12 backs: an average age of 23.2 years old
- 2009-10 backs: average age 23.7 years old
- 2011-12 forwards: average age 26.1 years old
- 2009-10 forwards: average age 27.1 years old
The 2011-12 team averages out a little younger, yet they were able to swing the result to the tune of 20 points, from a 16-point loss to a 4-point win. Where does that come from?
Given that the game wasn’t broadcast in Ireland, it’s impossible to say. However, the Mole has some theories.
Keeping Players Interested By Playing Them Regularly
Michael Cheika used to play the sh*t out of players. Jamie Heaslip started every single game of the season for Leinster in 2006-07, all 27 of them; Trev Hogan and Keith Gleeson started all bar three and Stephen Keogh all bar four.
Since Cheika’s day, the addition to the league of two Italian teams and the implementation of an end-of-season series of play-offs has added a minimum of four and a maximum of six extra games to the season. With the season getting longer and longer and Irish players more restricted in the number of games they’re allowed play, a deeper squad is more important than it used to be.
Cheika would drop in academy kids like Niall Morris, Ian McKinley and Michael Keating en masse and be surprised that they didn’t perform that well … and then not pick them again for the rest of the season. In contrast, a year after Morris had got his hour of rugby for the season under Cheika [off the bench against the Scarlets for 12 minutes and then 48 minutes against the Dragons], Schmidt gave him more than five times as much gametime [313 minutes] and was rewarded with three tries from three starts and three substitute appearances.
Where backrowers Jamie Heaslip started 27 matches [2133 mins], Keith Gleeson 24 matches [1932 mins] and Stephen Keogh 23 matches [1744 mins] under Michael Cheika in 2006-07, look how Joe Schmidt has broken up the backrow workload in Leinster’s 30 games so far:
- Kev McLaughlin [27 years old, 17+7] 1256 minutes
- Rhys Ruddock [21 years old, 14+7] 1192 minutes
- Shane Jennings [30 years old, 15+6] 1271 minutes
- Leo Auva’a [27 years old, 12+7] 1008 minutes
- Jamie Heaslip [28 years old, 13+1] 1047 minutes
- Sean O’Brien [25 years old, 13+1] 918 minutes
- Dominic Ryan [22 years old, 8+3] 655 minutes
- Jordi Murphy [21 years old, 1+5] 200 minutes*
After a bright start to his career with Leinster when he started 23 games [including all 7 HEC games] in the 2006-07 season, his first, Stephen Keogh’s career was on skid row by the time of that NGD game in December 2009. He was the starting No8 for the season opener against the Scarlets, but was replaced after two minutes of the second half by a 22 year old Sean O’Brien, and didn’t start another game until the fateful match in Rodney Parade in December.
Kev McLaughlin had been given a shot at replacing Rocky Elsom in the No6 jersey and rather than thinking that the jersey was too big to fill, he grabbed the chance with both hands. As was his wont, Cheika started him in 23 of 28 games that season. He started Nathan Hines on the blindside in Brive and in Thomond Park, and Rhys Ruddock in Newport, Glasgow and against Connacht in Dublin.
Keogh didn’t play a single game in the No6 shirt all season. He only started in 2 of 13 matches before Christmas, coming off the bench at the end of another five of them. It’s worth bearing in mind that Jennings was banned for 10 weeks for gouging London Irish’s Nick Kennedy [albeit he always protested his innocence] with Sean O’Brien stepping into the No7 jersey and Heaslip locked in at No8, so Leinster weren’t particularly deep in the backrow.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Cheika’s selection policy contributed to Keogh’s slump in form. However, in conversation with somebody who was involved in the set-up at the time, it was pointed out to The Mole that Cheika had to build a winning culture, and he had to build a pack almost from scratch. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings had departed for Leicester before he arrived, and both Victor Costelloe and Shane Byrne [two forwards who had been capped more than forty times by Ireland] retired at the same time. That’s half a starting pack to replace.
The only way to build a winning culture is by winning a lot. That was the single largest contributing factor to Cheika’s selection policy. He needed Leinster to win games that they had been losing, especially in the league, so he picked his people he could trust to do the right thing. If that meant picking the same guys over and over again, so be it.
Four More Years
In the same month that he turned 25, Keogh scooped the IRUPA Unsung Hero award in 2007 – incidentally, Leinster took home every gong that night, with Gordon D’Arcy winning his second Players’ Player of the Year, Shane Horgan winning Try of the Year, Victor Costello being elected to the Hall of Fame and Luke Fitzgerald winning Young Player of the Year – but strange as it may seem, that was almost the peak of his career.
The return of Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen from Leicester saw the the two Munster émigrés, Hogan and Keogh, pushed aside from their central role. Keogh was still often selected in the 2007-08 season, when Leinster were knocked out of Europe in the group stages but won the Magner’s League, but he wasn’t a vital, nor even prominent, part of the team. You can see that from the 2008-09 season onwards, Leinster weren’t getting anywhere near bang for their buck. Looking over his profile on Leinsterrugby.com, he wasn’t missing swathes of months out injured … he just wasn’t getting selected. Coaches don’t go out of their way not to select players who are busting their hoop in training.
Sean O’Brien broke his leg early in the game against Scarlets in late February 2010, which allowed Keogh to come in and mop up a number of starts towards the business end of the season, but you’d have to imagine that without O’Brien’s unfortunate injury, he’d have continued to struggle for gametime. Five of his seven starts that season came in that post O’Brien-injury period, and if O’Brien had been fit and well, you can probably knock off two or three of them. Obviously injury is a part of rugby and can’t be ignored, but in a hypothetical situation where O’Brien remains uninjured, that’s another season as a very, very peripheral player for Keogh.
It’s easy to forget that Keogh was still in the squad when Joe Schmidt arrived in September 2010. As mentioned above, the New Zealander has an extremely enlightened approach to squad rotation, but Keogh saw just six starts and four appearances off the bench as a 28 year old when he should have been in his prime. He announced his retirement at the end of that season and was quickly back in the harness as a coach at Shannon in the AIL.
Everybody likes Stephen Keogh: he was an extremely popular member of the squad, and The Mole has never heard anybody say a word against him. He left his home province [where he had captained the team] as a 24-year old and threw himself into a different environment to get more gametime and make a bigger mark. It would have been easy to stick at Munster while they were at the crest of a wave and bask in the glory that accompanies two Heineken Cup wins in three years, but he had the hunger to out and try and make a name for himself.
The Thrill Is Gone
However, by his last season, the thrill had gone. As one long-time Leinster fan said of him, “You reach a point when you’re hanging onto the fringes of the squad and you know you don’t have long where you think you might be better off retiring early rather than playing through the physical and mental pain”.
Keogh signed on for two years after Munster had won the Heineken Cup in 2006, and was a part of Cheika’s plans in a big way for those two seasons, starting 23 games the first season and 14 the second, but the decision to bring in Elsom for the 2008-09 season [and the fact that Shane Jennings and Keith Gleeson were often being paired together as flankers at the end of the 07-08 season] was a sign that Keogher wasn’t seen as being up to the task at the very highest level.
The Mole can’t help feeling that he’s being harsh on the big Shannon man, but that’s not intentional. Keogher played close to 140 times for Munster and Leinster [54 times for Munster and 85 times for Leinster], he represented Ireland a number of times at ‘A’ level and he was very well-liked and rated by his fellow pros. He had a good professional career, and has segued smoothly to a decent coaching post.
He’s really used as an example of how frequent changes in team selection [the dreaded ‘rotation’ policy] and not breaking your squad down into explicitly First XVs and Second XVs is more likely to keep your players fit, focused and hungry for success.
Once you lose even one of those attributes, you’re on the short route to the cutting floor. That’s the way it has to be in a successful team. Big Mal played a serious amount of rugby in the 2009-10 season, starting 13 games and coming off the bench in 9 more as a 35-year old. He was definitely ahead of Devin Toner in terms of the depth chart even before Big Dev broke his ankle playing for Lansdowne, and played all 80 minutes of the ML semi-final against Munster, and then another 80 the next week in the Grand Final against the Ospreys. On the back of a season like that, you’d imagine that the Leinster management team might have been thinking to themselves that Mal was good for another year. Whether he was or not, they cut him. Mal wasn’t allowed decline on the payroll.
The same thing happened to Girvan Dempsey, who hadn’t lost fitness, focus or hunger … he had simply gotten old. Girv was a 34 year old with 82 Irish caps who was playing his twelfth season of Heineken Cup rugby in 2009-10 and had exceptionally solid fullback fundamentals – brilliant under the high ball, unquestionable positioning and a cracking tackler. Letting Girv go must have been like shooting your favourite dog … but letting him go was the right thing to do. Leinster had Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa in the squad, and Girv was getting on.
In contrast, John Hayes was recalled from retirement for the start of the 2011-12 season as he neared his 38th birthday. There was no injury crisis – it was simply that the Munster management didn’t have sufficient faith in backup tighthead prop Stephen Archer, nor his deputy, Peter Borlase. That was a hugely regressive move. You’ve got two guys in the squad who can play the position, and you’d rather get a retired guy who’s almost 38 in than give either of the younger players a chance to prove themselves, or at least gain experience.
That Was The Wind-up, Here’s The Pitch
So, what does any of that have to do with the Newport Gwent Dragons?
Well, a couple of things. Firstly, 13 of Leinster’s matchday 22 from December 2009 are no longer with the squad. A number of them have retired from the professional game [Mal O'Kelly, Ronnie McCormack, Bernard Jackman, Stephen Keogh, Simon Keogh, Chris Keane, Trev Hogan, Paul Ryan and the luckless Ian McKinley] while others have moved on: Morris to Leicester, Paul O’Donohoe to Connacht and Michael Keating to Doncaster. Over the course of two years, there’s always going to be change in your personnel – sometimes it is wider spread or more significant than you might imagine at first glance.
Secondly, while Joe Schmidt fielded a young team, there was only one Academy player in the starting lineup – Noel Reid. Though Reid is capable of playing at outhalf, No12 is a far less pressurized position. Cheika’s selection put academy players in the key positions of outhalf and fullback with a real journeyman pro in Chris Keane at scrum-half. Reid was playing outside Ian Madigan, who started 15 of Leinster’s 22 regular season Pro12 games at outhalf, and Irish international Eoin Reddan. He was put in a much easier position than Ian McKinley had been put in thirty months ago.
Thirdly, there’s the value of a good captain. Kev McLaughlin’s three-year contract was the only one out of the twenty-odd announced recently that extended past two years, showing just how highly Joe Schmidt rates him. McLaughlin is an intelligent, hard-working player with first-rate discipline – he’ll put his body on the line to slow down ball, but he doesn’t give away cheap or obvious penalties. He hasn’t been yellow-carded in his professional career. Referees like him. While he’s not assured of selection like Jamie Heaslip, The Mole thinks that he may well have more going for him as a captain in the long term.
Lastly come the intangibles: confidence and motivation. A team on a roll is a hard team to beat. Leinster have lost very few matches this season, and only one since September. Cheika would send weak teams to Rodney Parade and Firhill with minimal chances of winning in order to give his first-stringers a break: check out the team that played against Glasgow in April 2010. Even though the recent game against the Dragons was an entirely dead rubber, with Leinster confirmed as regular season table-toppers, Schmidt didn’t want to lose momentum. Though the team he sent over to Newport was the least experienced he had selected practically all season, there were still seven players in it who had started Heineken Cup games this season: Sean Cronin [2+6], Devin Toner [3+4], Damien Browne [3+1], Kev McLaughlin [4+2], Eoin Reddan [4+4], Ian Madigan [1+3] and Dave Kearney [1+0].
King Of The Hill
There’s no doubt that circumstances are different for Schmidt than they were for Cheika – but he’s doing a hell of a lot more than standing on the shoulders of giants. Schmidt’s willingness to put faith into young players and to make daring selections has reaped the rewards over the last two seasons, and those two Newport Gwent Dragons games thirty months apart sum up the difference between the two regimes.