Munster and Leinster have named ‘experimental’ teams for their upcoming fixtures in the Pro 12. Joe Schmidt has gone for a 5-5-5 formation, picking two scrum-halves and three out halves in midfield to try and control possession in a move that owes much to the influence of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Tony McGahan has named only 11 players in his starting line-up, and will spring the remaining four one-by-one at five minute intervals from the fifteenth minute onwards.
None of the above is true, of course, but don’t break Pro 12 omertà and describe the teams as anything other than ‘experimental’. Irish player management stipulations mean that internationals have to be used sparingly in this weather, and it’s interesting to try and divine the coaches’ sentiments towards some of their younger players from the respective selections.
Munster [vs Edinburgh]
Denis Hurley; Luke O’Dea, Will Chambers, Danny Barnes, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Denis Fogarty, Stephen Archer; Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll capt; Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, Paddy Butler.
Replacements: Sean Henry, John Ryan, John Hayes, Ian Nagle, James Coughlan, Duncan Williams, Tom Gleeson, Scott Deasy.
Danny Barnes is put right back on the horse after his nightmare against Castres, and Denis Hurley is tentatively moved to fullback to see if he has gotten over his enormous highball nerves. Johne Murphy has blown hot and cold in the No15 jersey, and McGahan might be wondering if there’s a chance that Hurley can make the jersey his own in Felix Jones’ absence.
Academy prospect Luke O’Dea makes his first start for Munster; he’s a winger/fullback from Shannon, and will start in the No14 jersey, with Simon Zebo in the No11. Peter Stringer is lining out for a star-studded Baabaas team in Twickenham, so the dilemna of whether to start him, to pick him on the bench or to totally ignore him is taken out of McGahan’s hands. Strings is closing in fast on 34, and his contract with Munster is up at the end of the year.
Ian Keatley and Tomás O’Leary are the halfbacks, which to the Mole’s mind seems the very likely second-string partnership this season. O’Leary has showed some reasonably good form in his appearances off the bench for Munster over the last couple of games, but he had a poor, poor year last year, easily as bad as – worse than? – Luke Fitzgerald.
There are a three very strong points of comparison between those two players, and one equally important point of contrast: both players have started the same amount of games for their province , they’ve both started the same number of internationals – Fitzgerald has 23 caps [19 starts + 4 subs] and O’Leary has 22 [19 starts + 3 subs] – and they were both surprise omissions from the RWC11 squad. The contrast? Fitzgerald has just turned 24, and O’Leary has just turned 28. O’Leary has far less time on his hands when it comes to rediscovering the height of form that got him selected for the Lions.
In the pack, Donncha O’Callaghan has been firmly demoted to the second string. There’s not a player in that pack who started last week’s game in the Heineken Cup, and it’ll be very interesting to see if the big fellah [who had a very reasonable season at international level] can generate the same enthusiasm that he showed for Ireland during the Six Nations and the World Cup.
Himself, Marcus Horan and Micko bring a huge amount of experience to the pack, and there’s good balance in the back row: a hybrid second row/blindside in Holland, an out-and-out No7 in O’Donnell and the highly rated Paddy Butler at No8. Butler played in the Irish U20 back row alongside Leinster’s Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock, and it will be interesting to see how he gets on after his season was somewhat anti-climactic last year in comparison to the Leinster duo.
Leinster [@ Treviso]
Luke Fitzgerald; Fergus McFadden; Eoin O’Malley; Gordon D’Arcy; Fionn Carr; Ian Madigan; Eoin Reddan; Leo Auva’a; Shane Jennings [captain]; Rhys Ruddock; Devin Toner; Damien Browne; Jamie Hagan; Sean Cronin; Cian Healy
Replacements: Jack McGrath; Aaron Dundon; Nathan White; Kev McLaughlin; Jamie heaslip; Isaac Boss; Noel Reid; Brendan Macken
The big call looks to be Fitzgerald’s selection at fullback. The Mole is confident that Joe Schmidt isn’t looking to use him there long-term – between them, Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa have it sewn up – but this might be another step in his continued recovery. Or it might just be expediency.
Fergus McFadden is in at right wing, with Fionn Carr on the left, while Eoin O’Malley and Gordon D’Arcy reprise their Heineken Cup centre partnership. This points to O’Malley having snuck ahead of McFadden for the No13 jersey in Brian O’Driscoll’s absence … hard to argue with that, as both himself and D’Arcy bagged tries against Glasgow.
Ian Madigan takes the reins at out half outside Eoin Reddan – that’s a slick-passing half-back combo right there. While there are four internationals in the back line, the one worry is that there’s very little size there: only Luke Fitz is a six-footer, and none of the three-quarters or half-backs are particularly robust specimens in the Scott Gibbs/Rob Henderson mould.
The pack reunites the two props from the 2007 Irish U20 Grand Slam-winning side, Cian Healy and Jamie Hagan, with Sean Cronin between them at hooker. Healy was always an athletic freak of nature, and his World Cup announced him as probably the best young loosehead in the competition, whereas Hagan has been a slower burner to date. Still, this has a hint of the Leinster propping duo of the future, although it will very probably be some time before Hagan unseats current Irish international Mike Ross. It could well be years, because Ross’s improvement in all phases of his game has been marked over his stint with Leinster, and there’s not a single aspect where Hagan outperforms him.
Devin Toner joins Damien Browne in a second-row tag-team that weighs in at a combined 247kg, or 544lbs in old money. That’s very close to 39st for those more comfortable with the imperial scale. Large. Hagan graces the train-weighing scales at 120kg himself, and the well-fed Leo Auva’a is closer to 125kg, so there’s some serious weight in the pack. Rhys Ruddock gets another start for Leinster, his ninth of the season [including both friendlies against the Melbourne Rebels and Northampton]; this will be his first start that he doesn’t captain the team this term, that honor going to openside Shane Jennings.