Leinster lie waaay out in front in the RaboDirect 12 and seem assured of a home semi final and home final, should they win that match. Huge kudos must go to Joe Schmidt who, after an unimpressive start with the province, has his squad purring nicely. The whole Leinster organisation is operating smoothly at present, with the recruitment of Brad Thorn for the remainder of the season the latest piece of positive news.
Kevin McLaughlin leads the team out for the second match in a row and lines up beside two more men who have captained Leinster, Shane Jennings and Rhys Ruddock. McLoughlin’s elevation is an interesting move by Schmidt and it’s difficult to guess his exact motivation. Was it to increase the leadership corps, give Jennings a break, reward McLoughlin or play to his strengths and introduce another voice? Captaincy is an onerous task and some individuals are better suited to it than others. However, having a number of former captains in the team is undoubtedly a plus for nearly any team, as it improves the team’s preparation and decision making.
Jack McGrath and Jamie Hagan start at prop, either side of Sean Cronin. McGrath and Hagan last started together against Connacht at the turn of the year and had a tough enough time. They both did well against a deflated Treviso the last day out and Hagan prospered against the enormous Montpellier pack in the final Heineken Cup group game. There’s a balance to be struck between players needing game time and exposing guys, props in particular, to a standard they are unable to handle. Leinster have managed this balance well since Schmidt’s arrival and his vote of confidence suggests that his up and coming props are benefitting from Greg Feek’s coaching.
Ian Madigan impressed the last time out against Treviso. Madigan has scored seven tries so far this season and is the best passer of the ball in Irish rugby. At times, however, that’s all he’s wanted to do – make breaks whether they were on or not or else throw a skip pass after running across for two steps. His most recent performance was his most mature, as he unveiled some switches and inside passes from his repertoire. Madigan’s variation of the point of attack needs to be complemented by a more thoughtful kicking game but he has made huge strides this season. He is joined in midfield by McFadden and O’Malley. The only other time Leinster started this triumvirate they scored 50 points. McFadden seems more at home at first centre while O’Malley gets a chance to prove his tackling has improved since the Bath game. Eoin Reddan provides the service at half back.
Damien Browne and Devin Toner start in second row this evening, almost by default due to injury woes. Toner has improved immensely this season while Browne has added experience and ballast. Keep an eye on Browne in particular this evening and see the number of rucks he clears. Increase that and his tackle count by 50%, throw in some ball carrying along the angles that Leinster cut and you’ve got yourself Brad Thorn.
And Isa starts at full back…happy days!