In the wake of their Heineken Cup semi-final win in Bordeaux against Clermont Auvergne, Leinster have released a statement detailing a whole raft of contract renewals and a few new signings.
One Year Wonders
Leo Cullen : with the belligerent 80-minute performance that Cullen put in against Clermont in Bordeaux fresh in the mind, his one-year extension is welcome news for fans of the province. Cullen was only the third oldest second-row starting the game [Nathan Hines is 35 and Brad Thorn 37], and if you can get through a Heineken Cup semi-final of that pace in one piece, there’s no reason you should be thinking of retiring.
While there are a lot of miles on the clock [171 games for Leinster, 56 for Leicester Tigers and 32 for Ireland], second row is a position where experience is vitally important, and while Leo may not be a world-class athlete, he brings world class toughness to every game he plays. The guy is simply as tough as an old boot. Clermont’s Portuguese flanker Julien Bardy had a fair run-up to the butt he landed to Cullen’s face in the last minute of the semi-final, and the Leinster captain hardly blinked.
Fionn Carr : Carr has played in 19 of Leinster’s 29 games this season, starting 14 of them and banging in five tries. That’s not too bad for a guy in his first season with a new team, and while there has been no shortage of moaning that he “should have stayed in Connacht”, The Mole has been impressed with Carr’s can-do attitude. He looks for work for eighty minutes of every game, chases kicks hard, hits rucks when he’s the first man there and in general has a good, positive attitude.
It’d be easy to pout, because he was the only show in town when he was at Connacht. The western province didn’t have many weapons, and he got a lot of ball and bagged a lot of tries. The situation is very different in Leinster, where there are attacking options all over the pitch and a much deeper squad with far more competition for places, and the Newbridge man has had to be patient. There’s no shortage of young wingers emerging in Ireland [Ulster’s Craig Gilroy, Munster’s Simon Zebo and Luke O’Dea, Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran, Leinster’s own Dave Kearney and Andrew Conway] and it could be that Carr is simply not going to get the test cap he probably deserves.
Declan Kidney gave the unfortunate Ian Dowling two cheap caps [both of them for the full 80 minutes!] on the summer tour to North America on the back of 3 tries in 22 appearances that season for a rampant Munster, while Carr couldn’t get a look in despite his 11 tries in 23 games for a very ordinary Connacht team. No-one likes to speak ill of a guy whose career was cut short by injury, but at close to 27 years old, Dowling was already in his prime and was never going to make it as a test winger; Carr was 23 at the time and lighting up the west.
John Cooney : the scrum-half hasn’t seen a whole lot of gametime this season, missing the chance to impress in the semi-final of the B&I Cup against Munster because of a broken jaw incurred playing for Lansdowne. 19-year old prodigy Luke McGrath stepped up to the plate in his place and had an exceptional game, confirming the promise that he showed in St Michael’s College in recent times and with Ireland U20s this year.
Both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss have signed up for a further two years, so a one-year contract isn’t exactly a show of faith in Cooney. His first start for the province was the horrific away defeat to the Ospreys at the beginning of the season, where a Spala-fresh Justin Tipuric terrorized him and probably made him look worse than he was. With Boss and Reddan in New Zealand, short-term returnee Cillian Willis took over the reins and was far more impressive, limiting Cooney to a few cameos off the bench.
Cooney is likely only going to see limited gametime next season. Despite the fact that Conor Murray’s form has hit the rocks, Kidney still looks to favour the Munster youngster over the more experienced Reddan; Boss is nowhere in his plans, so he’ll be a constant presence on match days in blue, and McGrath looks to be the heir apparent. Cooney needs to make the most of his opportunities. That doesn’t mean taking on a lot of ball – it means getting to your rucks quickly, having a good pass, making your tackles and not box-kicking badly.
Heinke van der Merwe : the once-capped South African has been an absolute rock since he signed with Leinster, playing in 58 games in less than two seasons. Due to the stance taken by the IRFU, next season will very likely be his last with the province.
He turns 27 in a matter of days, which is still young for a prop, and Leinster fans will hope that he gets the opportunity to challenge for more Springbok caps under new coach Heyneke Meyer. Firstly, he deserves more recognition than he has had in the international arena, and secondly, it’d mean that he’s playing Super Rugby, rather than for some French club that the province face in the Heineken Cup!
Brendan Macken : Macken emerged from Blackrock College with a degree of fanfare, so it’s not surprising that many people see his career at Leinster as a bit of a disappointment thus far.
His 2010-11 season was ended prematurely with a broken arm in February 2011, and this season the presence and form of Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden somewhat squeezed him out of contention even before Brian O’Driscoll’s return.
His undistinguished outings in the No12 jersey have confirmed that he’s a born-and-bred No13, but it’s the bad habits in his game that have stuck with him from his schoolboys days that are really impeding his progress. His passing skills are below par, his decision-making is poorly developed and he consistently uses his team-mates’ space. He’s a big unit at 188cm [6’2″] and 92kg [14st 6lbs] and has real gas, as evidenced by his six tries in four outings in the British & Irish Cup at ‘A’ level … but those flaws in his game are anathema to the type of rugby that Joe Schmidt wants Leinster to play. Macken is still very young [he’s got a clear two years on Munster’s Danny Barnes, for example] so there’s obviously time to improve. However, he has got to start listening to his coaches and be more of a team player: the aim of the game isn’t to get the ball to Bren Macken so that he can have a run.
Isa Nacewa : Nacewa has signed an extension to his existing contract that will see him in Leinster blue up to the end of the 2013-14 season. With three very young Irish-born daughters, common sense overtook consistency in the IRFU’s stance, and the New Zealand-born Fiji international will remain at the RDS for two more years. What more can you say about Nacewa that wasn’t said in the gushing press that accompanied his IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year award last season? He’s a wonderfully skilled, brave and selfless player.
Tom Sexton : the Old Belvederian is well-known for his ferocious work ethic and bravery on the pitch, and has signed a one-year development deal to continue his stay at Leinster. The first time The Mole saw him in action was when he was signaled off the bench in a pre-season game for Leinster ‘A’ against Munster ‘A’ in Donnybrook – with the next play of the game, he took off the back of a maul and went blind into three big forwards in red … it sounded like a car crash, or a washing machine getting thrown out of a window. Wallop!
Sexton has built himself into a mini-tank in the weights room, but he’s neither gifted with a big natural frame nor a lot of gas … which are seriously limiting factors. He has Richardt Strauss as a role-model of how a small guy can succeed at hooker, but he doesn’t have Strauss’s athletic ability. Basically, he’s Rudy, except really smart.
Mark Flanagan : as the Mole wrote before, Flanagan is an ex-Gaelic footballer who only took up rugby as a 16 year old, and as such has certain strengths and weaknesses which have to be taken into account when considering his development. As you’d expect from a former midfielder, he’s a smashing handler who showed against Cardiff in January that he can really go when he’s in open space … but you have to balance that against the fact that he’s understrength and still inexperienced as a rugby player.
Second row is a position that demands both mental and physical toughness, but there’s no one absolute way to play any position. Flanagan is a good runner and handler, so he should be encouraged to do those things, rather than let the skills atrophy. However, he has to hold up his end in the tight as well, because second rows who hang out in the backs all day are nobody’s mate. Second row is typically a slow burn in terms of the progress you see in young players, so a one year contract isn’t a huge sign of faith in Flanagan – the coaching staff will want to see progress on the pitch, not a year of stagnation or ‘bulking up’.
Two More Years! Two More Years!
Leo Auva’a : Big Leo came from Old Belvedere via Leinster ‘A’, and was originally given a short-term contract as cover during the World Cup. He has parlayed that into a two-year extension with a great run of games in the Pro 12, where he gives Leinster just what they need with Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip away on Irish duty – a big 193cm [6’4″], 125kg [19st 9lbs] line-breaker with quick feet and a great try-scoring habit.
Auva’a is Irish-qualified through residency and has featured in 18 of Leinster’s 21 Pro12 games to date, starting 11 of them and scoring 5 tries. Not bad going at all! With another pre-season behind him and more hard work in the weight room, he’ll become a more consistent contributor. That’s not to denigrate his efforts this season – he has been probably the second biggest bonus of the season in personnel terms [it’s hard to look past the signing of Brad Thorn], and has done exceptionally well to take advantage of the opportunity opened to him.
Isaac Boss : Boss has been a vital part in Leinster’s success under Joe Schmidt, his presence in the squad providing for a serious change in approach at scrum-half than with an Eoin Reddan-driven team. He’s experienced, physical and has far better basics than most people credit him with – even though he’s seen as more of a breaking scrum-half, Boss doesn’t get sucked into the wash too often and generally gets the ball away before he ends up at the bottom of a ruck.
Boss is a positive influence on the pitch in terms of his attitude to referees – he’s not one of those guys who’s always throwing his hands up and whining about slow ball, but he’ll point out obstructing forwards to the ref as though they’re ridiculous. Although he has recently turned 32 years old, he’s playing as well as ever – and arguably better than ever. Like his scrum-half colleague Reddan, he’s never been the most fashionable player: Ulster were at a low point when he was with them, and some people take his Kiwi background against him. Since moving to Leinster, he’s managed to earn himself a trip to a second World Cup, having played all of three minutes of international rugby since the 2007 edition of the tournament, and while his international days are probably over [again], he’s still a player capable of playing at the highest level of club rugby.
Andrew Conway : Conway is another underage hero who has of yet failed to thrive in the senior ranks. There’s simply no doubting this kid’s ability though, as his breath-taking try-scoring record at U20 level bears out: in two terms with the underage side, he banged in 14 tries in 16 games. It would almost certainly have been more, but Magner’s League/Pro12 duties took precedence in February 2011, taking him out of the U20s Six Nations that year and having him perform his try-scoring duties for Leinster in Treviso.
Conway is relatively slight and has been prone to injury, sustaining whiplash at one stage and having had surgery on his ankle. However, he’s got phenomenal pace, is extremely exciting to watch and despite his size, a genuinely brave defender. With a good pre-season, and an injury-free run of games, it’s only a matter of time before he lights up the Pro 12.
Aaron Dundon: with Richardt Strauss  and Sean Cronin  signed up and battling it out for starts in the No2 jersey, Leinster are well set at hooker. Strauss becomes eligible to play for Ireland through residency later this year, and has been an outstanding success as a project player.
There’s no point shelling out tons of money on a third choice hooker who’s a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Dundon is a hard-nosed 29-year old New Zealand-born No2 whose outstanding form for Clontarf in the AIL saw him contracted on to Leinster’s books in the 2010-11 season; he even came off the bench in the Magner’s League Grand Final against Munster. He’s a hard-nosed, nuggety forward who has the experience and the physicality to step into games in the Pro12 if needs be. He’s not a kid straight out of the Academy, or a guy who will pout if he doesn’t feel he’s getting enough gametime. He’s a role player, a guy who will do a job until an exceptional prospect comes along. Tying him down for two years is likely an inexpensive option; it’s certainly a wise one.
Eoin Reddan : Deccie’s Punch-Bag will be aiming to pick up his third Heineken Cup winner’s medal in less than three weeks’ time. Not too bad for a guy who has been dropped almost as often as Mike Catt. Reddan was excellent off the bench for Boss in the Clermont match, and while he has taken some stick for his attempted drop-goal, it was just another episode in the Find Fault With Eoin Reddan Experience. He’ll do forty great things, and the moment that he does something that’s a bit iffy, it’s all people want to discuss.
F*ck that. Reddan is probably the most under-rated international in Irish rugby at the moment. He understands the role of the scrum-half better than Conor Murray [which is only to be expected, given that he’s way more experienced] and there’s a noticeable gap in form between the two of them. Over the next season and a half of international rugby, The Mole is hoping to see Reddan and Murray used for Ireland like Schmidt uses Reddan and Boss for Leinster … a horses for courses selection predicated on game-planning for the opposition and exploiting specific weaknesses. In the meantime, two more years at Leinster alongside Boss gives the province good continuity.
Dave Kearney : Dave Kearney is another vastly decorated underage player, having put together 17 starts for Ireland U20s over the course of two seasons. After a very middling first half of the season before Christmas 2010, he had a blinding second half, scoring four tries in January and February and looking like just about the most dangerous broken-field runner in the squad at the end of the season … well, the most dangerous Irish-qualified one, anyway!
While he hasn’t been a particularly prolific try-scorer this season, Kearney has been consistently good … and remained uninjured and available for selection. He’s improved areas of his game that were weak, specifically his one-on-one defense. The difference was easy to see in the two Pro12 games against Edinburgh, where his opposite number was the free-scoring ‘Flying Dutchman’, Tim Visser. Visser dotted down two tries in the first game [running right over the top of both Kearneys for the second of them] but in the return match at the RDS, K2 marshaled him superbly, forcing him into touch, keeping him away from the ball and really crashing into him every time Visser was threatening.
Ian Madigan : nominated as one of three contenders for IRUPA Young Player of the Year, Madigan has had a breakthrough season for Leinster. He’s essentially been the Leinster outhalf for the Pro12, starting 14 of the province’s 21 league games to date – Jonny Sexton has started just 5 – and has used that platform to mount a campaign for a spot on Ireland’s tour of New Zealand. You can’t talk about Madigan’s season without mentioning his cracking try-scoring record: 8 tries in 23 games [15 starts] from outhalf is pretty much unheard of in the northern hemisphere.
Madigan’s passing abilities are unparalleled in the country, he’s got buckets and buckets of confidence and he’s got pace; he’s by no means the complete package [his tactical kicking is about as tactical as trench-warfare, for example], but he’s an incredibly exciting playmaker.
Rhys Ruddock : there was an awful lot of talk a number of months ago that Munster were hotly pursuing Ruddock, whose one-year deal was seen as a ploy to test the selectorial waters in Leinster. Ruddock captained the side several times during the World Cup [as a 20 year old] and has played in 21 of Leinster’s 29 matches this season; he’s currently tenth on the gametime list, and the youngest player in the top ten. Ruddock already has 41 first class games for the province under his belt, and is miles ahead of the curve.
There are even higher expectations of him than of Brendan Macken, largely because he debuted for Ireland as a 19 year old on the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia, but also because of his impeccable pedigree: he’s the son of a Grand Slam-winning coach, and started 16 times for Ireland U20s in two years. It’s worth bearing in mind that Sean O’Brien didn’t have his break-out year until he was 23/24 years old, and Kev McLaughlin only got into the team in the 2009-10 season, just as he turned 25. Ruddock is already a significant contributor, and a summer away from representative rugby – he’s been to two U20 World Cups and the aforementioned Irish SH tour in the last two ‘off-seasons’ – will replenish the batteries.
Michael Bent : the New-Zealand-born prop is Irish-qualified and replaces Nathan White  who is on his way to Connacht on a three year deal with the western province. Bent is used to playing both sides of the scrum, as Super Rugby uses the international-style 22-man matchday squad. However, with van der Merwe signed up for another year and tighthead a source of much brow-furrowing in the IRFU, it’s likely that he’ll mostly line up on the right side of the Leinster scrum, challenging Mike Ross and Jamie Hagan for gametime. This will give Leinster no fewer than three Irish-qualified tightheads in their senior squad; just two seasons ago there was only Mike Ross a distant third on the depth chart, with Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde sharing the duties.
Bent is currently contracted to the Wellington Hurricanes, and while he’s not a first team regular, there are different expectations of props on either side of the equator. If Bent can lock out a scrum at tighthead at Heineken Cup level, he’ll put himself in contention for international honours. If he can do it on both sides of the scrum, he’ll be more or less a cert for Irish match-day squads.
Tom Denton: the Irish-qualified Denton [who represented England at U18 level] is Leinster’s latest attempt to buy in a second row. In the recent past, there’ve been some dismal failures in South African project Steven Sykes [back in Durban with the Natal Sharks, and enjoying his rugby as though he had never been away] and the p*ss-poor Ed O’Donoghue … about whom the less said, the better.
Denton is a big, red-haired 24-year old who has been playing first team rugby for Leeds Carnegie for four seasons in a wide variety of competitions: he’s played Premiership, Challenge Cup, LV Cup, Championship and B&I Cup. In all, he’s got 60 games [and 42 starts] to his name, which is an encouraging start for a 24-year old lock. A season ago, before Leeds were relegated, he was starting games against the likes of London Irish, Leicester Tigers, Northampton and Stade Francais as a 22/23 year old. That’s a tough school to come through. One of the real weaknesses of the Irish system is that there’s no professional second tier – alright, there’s the British & Irish Cup, but that’s a maximum of seven games per season. Munster’s Dave Foley is only four months younger than Denton, and he’s played all of 7 professional first-grade games, with just four starts. It’s an issue.
The Mole isn’t expecting wonders out of Denton in his first season: he’s a lump of clay that will need forming. With that said, he’s been coached by high-calibre operators at Leeds, namely Neil Back [2008-11], and more recently Diccon Edwards, who was assistant coach to the excellent England U20s in the recent World Championships.
Three Is The Magic Number
Kevin McLaughlin : McLaughlin has been locked down with a three year contract that will keep him at Leinster for the prime of his career. The Mole has written before about how Locky could become Leinster’s answer to Toulouse stalwart Jean Bouilhou, and this new contract is a sign that the process is continuing!
McLaughlin is a guy who doesn’t look at all out of place in even the most high-calibre club games – he was a starter against Toulouse in the 2011 Heineken Cup semi-final – but doesn’t really have much chance of getting selected for Ireland on a regular basis with the presence of Ferris, O’Brien and O’Mahony as contenders for the blindside jersey. While it mightn’t be the most satisfactory career news for Locky on a personal level, it’s excellent news for Leinster: there’s a guy who’ll be available for selection on a week-to-week basis and can be trusted upon to have a senior role in any team that he plays in.