Leinster have announced the short-term signing of All Black World Cup-winner Brad Thorn for the remainder of the season.
Thorn has had one of the most incredible careers in professional rugby. He was Brisbane Bronco’s Rookie of the Year back in 1994, and was playing State of Origin for Queensland two years later in a team that contained the legendary Allan Langer, one of the greatest players in the history of Australian Rugby League. In 1997 he made his international debut for the Kangaroos against New Zealand, the land of his birth. That same year he won the Super League Grand Final with the Broncos, and the following year he was on the winning side in the NRL grand final, repeating the feat in 2000.
And that’s just from his first spell in rugby league …
His arrival provides a serious boost to Leinster’s hopes of retaining their Heineken Cup crown. Of all positions in the squad, it’s second row that is most shallow. The Mole casts an eye over the current bunch: how they’ve been playing, their injury history, the amount of gametime they’ve racked up, strengths and weaknesses …
Rehabbing from surgery: Club captain Leo Cullen turned 34 [a nipper compared to Thorn!] in January of this year, and while he has put in his typical rock-solid performances – and it’d be difficult to overestimate the effect his captaincy has had on this team since his return from Leicester – he’s also picked up three yellow cards in ten games, a truly Munster-esque effort.
Leo has always been a canny cheat, so being pinged so often is a real sign that he’s slowing down. How much of this is due to the year [a ’78 marque], how much is due to the mileage [166 games for Leinster, 38 for Leincester, 15 for Ireland ‘A’ and 32 for Ireland] and how much is due to his injury history [and most obviously his bad shoulder and dicky achilles tendons] is up for debate: hopefully the recent surgery he underwent will free him up somewhat, because simply put, Leinster are a better team when he’s in the starting XV.
Cut: South African-born project player Steven Sykes mystifyingly didn’t work out at the province. Since returning to Natal at the end of January, he has quickly forced his way back into a high-quality Sharks pack that counts Bismarck du Plessis, Ryan Kankowski, Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel amongst its number, and hasn’t looked out of place, or even taken much time to get back up to speed.
While it’s true that he continually struggled with niggling injuries during his time at Leinster, he was given a number of opportunities to impress and simply didn’t take them. For whatever reason, he simply couldn’t bring his southern hemisphere form across the equator; The Mole would imagine that even the player himself can’t put his finger on the factors behind this failure. While in some ways his quick return to a Super Rugby calibre second row must be galling to Leinster management – “Where the f*ck was this guy during the winter!” – on the other hand it must also be somewhat reassuring: their talent identification radar isn’t completely busted.
Playing through pain: Damian Browne has been a willing trooper since his arrival at the RDS, playing in 18 of Leinster’s 23 competitive matches to date, despite carrying a significant shoulder injury that requires consistent treatment. At 196cm [6’5″] and 127kg [19st 9lbs] he’s a physically enormous man, and there’s simply no doubting his toughness. The 31-year old is only on a one year deal, but has done everything in his power to convince the Leinster management to retain him for another season. He has significant miles on the clock from his time at Connacht, Northampton and AC Brive, but there’s life left in second rows in their early thirties. Schmidt and Gibbes have used Browne very much in the style of a French management team in the Top14: he’s asked to scrummage, to hit rucks hard, to defend in close and to lift back rows at lineout time, and that’s that.
Although he lacks Nathan Hines’ athleticism and his great handling abilities, his bulk and scrummaging power have been a significant contributor in Heineken Cup away games, and there’s nobody down the ranks with the physical tools to step in for him.
Racking up gametime: Devin Toner is still only 25 [and doesn’t turn 26 until the season is over] which must come as a surprise to some of his detractors. To put that in context, the highly touted Dave Foley of Munster [who unfortunately dislocated his shoulder against the Dragons at the weekend] turns 24 years old in a couple of months time, and has just 7 professional appearances under his belt; Big Dev has 89.
Toner is only now entering his prime as a second row. He has already put in a huge season for Leinster [his 1452 minutes of gametime is second only to Isa Nacewa’s 1466] and really stepped up to the challenge. And it was a significant, three-fold challenge: firstly there was the enormous issue of replacing Nathan Hines; then came the question of stepping in for the disappointing Stephen Sykes; and all this with his two team-mates in the row [club captain Leo Cullen and Damian Browne] struggling with long-term injuries. Toner has stepped up to the mark and answered his critics with significant improvements in his tackle-count, his clearing at rucks and most eye-catchingly, his carrying.
He has obviously been a long-term project for Leinster, debuting under Michael Cheika back in 2005-06 as a 19-year old. However, he hasn’t been the passenger that some make him out to be: in the HEC-winning season of 2008-09, he played in 21 matches as a 22 year old, starting 13 of them [including 4 HEC games, in one of which he was Man of the Match], and in last season’s tilt he played in 22 games, with 17 starts.
Rookie: Mark Flanagan made an excellent debut in his first career start against Cardiff Blues back in January. Called into the team on short notice, he showed a hell of a lot of willingness and some excellent handling and running skills. Building a second row is a slow job, however, and he’s a long way from being physically ready for the week-in, week-out grind of the Pro12. A relative late-comer to the game, Flanagan was a good Gaelic Football prospect in his native Westmeath and only took up rugby as a 16 year old. He can take serious encouragement from his cousin, Devin Toner – Toner’s career path has shown that the rewards are there if you stick to it and work to the direction of your coaches.
The expansion of the Pro12, the continually growing restrictions on international player availability and the enlightened attitude of Schmidt et al as selectors ensures that there is plenty of gametime to go around; this season is probably a year too early for Flanagan, and Toner has lapped up a lot of the gametime that Steven Sykes left in his wake, but expect to see Flanagan double his playing minutes next season. In the meantime, there’s somebody who has just arrived at the club who could probably teach him a thing or two …