The RaboDirect Pro12 is six matches in but has been under the radar so far because of the World Cup. Tonight sees the return of a number of internationals a few weeks before the Heineken Cup starts.
Leinster have made a solid start to the league, which is impressive considering the number of players from the province that were in New Zealand. The Heineken champions have greatly improved their depth of resources since Joe Schmidt’s arrival. Gone are the days of the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps. The benefit of home based professional players was reinforced in the World Cup where Ireland had enough resources to rest players and still win comfortably and also had genuine competition for places in some positions.
Two players in particular will be worth keeping an eye on this evening to see how they perform. Fergus McFadden was unlucky not to start the Heineken Cup final in place of Luke Fitzgerald and now has an opportunity to challenge Gordon D’Arcy for the 12 spot. D’Arcy is not the force of old but had a better season last year for Leinster than given credit for. None of Ireland’s backs really hit top form throughout either the World Cup or recent Six Nations. McFadden now has to make the push from useful squad player to first choice starter. If he does not, there is a new generation of players, led by Brendan Macken, who will be looking for the same role.
Dominic Ryan is the other player to keep a watch on. The influence of McCaw, Warburton, Pocock, Dusautoir et al in the World Cup highlighted the importance of a genuine openside under the current laws. Ryan had a breakthrough season last year and seemed to be ahead of Rhys Ruddock as cover for the first choice back row of O’Brien, Jennings and Heaslip. His name has been mentioned in dispatches as a future Ireland openside but the Mole is yet to be convinced. Ryan doesn’t get involved in games as much as Jennings and isn’t as dynamic a ball carrier as David Wallace or Sean O’Brien. His ability to turnover ball and be constantly involved will decide if he is the man to become Ireland’s number seven.