Leinster’s Second Row Puzzle

Leo Cullen has been the rock on which Leinster's success of recent times has been built, but he can't go on forever. It's natural that people are discussing his future, given that he turned 35 the other day.

Leo Cullen has been the rock on which Leinster’s success of recent times has been built, but he can’t go on forever. It’s natural that people are discussing his future, given that he turned 35 the other day. His toughness and disruption at the breakdown make him a sponge for punishment and cheap shots, but he’s hardly an innocent on the pitch himself.

Much has been written over the last few weeks on the subject of locks in Ireland, most of it orbiting around the leaked news that Mike McCarthy will be playing his rugby in Leinster for the next three seasons.

We’ve covered some of this ground before in previous articles on Tighthead Locks and Brad Thorn Coming To Leinster but the media furore around the McCarthy signing and the ongoing instability of the lock position in Leinster is what makes it worth looking at again.

Since that Brad Thorn article was written in March of this year – about nine months ago – the legendary Kiwi has come and gone [with a Heineken Cup winner’s medal as a souvenir]; Damien ‘Big’ Browne received another year-long deal; Tom Denton and Quinn Roux have arrived from Leeds Carnegie and Western Stormers respectively; Mike McCarthy has, in the absence of Paul O’Connell and the space of six weeks, broken into the Irish side and signed up for Leinster for three years from June 2013 to June 2016; Mark Flanagan has played a whopping six minutes of rugby; and Devin Toner seems to have lost the confidence of the coaching staff.  Flux hardly covers it.

All Of Our Institutions Have Let Us Down – The Church, The Banks, The Leinster Academy …

On the subject of Leinster locks, the most salient fact is that there was an institutional failure to produce a second row good enough to play regularly for the province between Bob Casey [born mid-1978] and Devin Toner [born mid-1986]. That’s eight years, which is a long time by anybody’s standards.

Leo Cullen

Cullen has togged out in 186 games for Leinster, and started 150+ of them. Tall trees cast long shadows. Heap big wisdom there, Cochise.

Leinster have been incredibly well served by Leo Cullen [currently in his thirteenth season with the club, not including the two years he spent at Leicester between June 2005 and June 2007] and Big Mal O’Kelly [who did thirteen seasons at the province as well, and had two seasons right at the start of his career, when the professional era was in its infancy, with London Irish]. Between them they’ve played well over 360 games for the province, and they’ve cast a long shadow under which prospective candidates have found it difficult to grow … but you can’t blame players for being good and not wanting to give up the jersey.

Mal O'Kelly won 92 caps for Ireland and appeared for Leinster 183 times in his thirteen seasons with the province.

Mal O’Kelly won 92 caps for Ireland and appeared for Leinster 183 times in his thirteen seasons with the province; just like John Hayes at Munster, he has left some mighty big shoes to fill.

In O’Kelly’s last season [2009-10, as a 35 year old], he played 22 games for Leinster, starting 13 of them. He was a significant contributor right until the end of his career, as befits a player who was voted into the Irish Team of the Decade by his IRUPA peers; that he didn’t become Irish rugby’s first centurion was somewhat unlucky.

In Brian O’Driscoll’s recently broadcast HSBC-sponsored interview [they also sponsor Mexican drug-dealers], he stated that Leo Cullen was the best captain and the finest leader of men he had ever played with:

“He [Cullen] marries what he does on the pitch with what he says and … the cool, calm collected way he delivers the message.” 

Considering that O’Driscoll has played with Keith Wood, Martin Johnson, Scott Quinnell, Paul O’Connell and Lawrence “Buy My Book” Dallaglio, that’s high praise indeed. Cullen probably doesn’t have the number of test caps that he should have, but his Irish career spanned almost a decade and, lest it go unsaid, he captained Ireland on two occasions in RWC 2011.

It’s incredibly difficult to prosper or gain recognition when there’s an All-Decade player ahead of you, be it at club or country. In a position-related case, as great [and the word is used advisedly] a player as Simon “Give Us A Hug Shawsy” Shaw only came into his own for England and the Lions [sorry, THE LIONS] once Martin Johnson retired.

Lost Prospects

With a limited number of professional teams in Ireland, and the difficulty that persists in fighting your way into the national side from a team outside the four provinces, players who can’t force their way into match-day squads with their home province when they’re relatively young [let’s take a limit of 24 years old] can get lost in the wash.

Lads like Des Dillon [born 1980] who, like Cullen, was an outstanding schools No8 but was certainly physically big enough to play in the second row, and “Man Mountain” Aidan Kearney [born 1979] had the size and the strength to be pro second rows, but for a number of reasons didn’t pan out. An awful lot of that was due to toughness and attitude [or lack of it]; some of it was down to the professional game in Ireland still searching for the right structures to support player development and retention; and some of it was due to mismanagement in the middle of the last decade, which saw four different coaches in four years in Leinster between the 2002-03 season and the 2005-06 season.

David Gannon has played for Connacht, the Exeter Chiefs and the Southland Stags in New Zealand – his commitment to the game and to his teams has been unflinching. Unfortunately, being a standout at underage level doesn't always mean you'll be a standout in the pro game, even with as good an attitude as Gannon has shown.

Outside of two [brief] stints with his home province, David Gannon has played for Connacht, the Exeter Chiefs and the Southland Stags in New Zealand – his commitment to the game and to his teams has been unflinching. Unfortunately, being a standout at underage level doesn’t always mean you’ll be a standout in the pro game, even with as good an attitude as Gannon has shown. Nonetheless, he’s made a solid pro career for himself and is a player for whom The Mole has a lot of time.

David Gannon [born 1983] had an absolutely stellar Irish U21s career [he started 20 out of a possible 21 games over two seasons and four tournaments, and captained the team to the 2004 U21 World Championship final against New Zealand, beating Argentina, France and Australia along the way] but has been a hard-working journeyman in clubs one step off the top level, rather than a potential international.

In the last decade – dating back to Gannon’s first U21 Six Nations season in 2002-03, when he was a year underage – there has only been one season in which Leinster haven’t supplied a starting second row to the Irish U21/U20 team in the Junior Six Nations [the age-grade dropped one year after the 2005-06 season]: that was in 2004-05, when the second row was composed of Ulster’s Lewis Stevenson and Ryan Caldwell and Munster’s Mark Melbourne.

  • Gannon started all ten games in the 2003 and 2004 tournaments;
  • Devin Toner [currently Leinster contracted] started 5 out of 5 in 2006;
  • Conor McInerney [Leinster Academy graduate] made 5 starts out of 5 in the Grand Slamming 2007 team [but unfortunately had to retire due to injury after a stint with the Ospreys];
  • Eoin Sheriff [Leinster Academy graduate] made 5 starts from 5 in 2008, and is now contracted to Saracens;
  • Ciaran Ruddock [Leinster Academy graduate] made 5 of 5 starts, and Mark Flanagan [currently Leinster contracted] started 2 of 5 in 2009;
  • Ben Marshall [currently in his final year in the Leinster Academy] made 5 starts out of 5 in 2010;
  • Mick Kearney [now contracted to Connacht] started 4 of 5 in 2011; and
  • Tadhg Beirne [currently in his first year in the Leinster Academy] started 1 of 5 in 2012, but featured prominently in JWC 2012.

Looking at the list above, it’s clear that it’s not as though Leinster haven’t been bringing second rows into and through the academy; it’s just that no outstanding candidate has yet emerged. Second row is a position which at the top end demands massive levels of strength and mental toughness [which are difficult to find in combination in lads in their teens and early twenties] combined with extreme size [197cm+ tall, 110kg+ in weight] and athleticism. It hardly needs saying, but there’s not a ton of these lads knocking about in Ireland. There’s also a limited amount any academy program can do for a player who doesn’t have the natural stature to tape his ears up and play in the row: anybody can get stronger and heavier from lifting weights, but there’s no exercise that’s going to make you taller … even if you hang out of the bannisters like Peter Shilton.

The Pelous Fund

Clone the man, teach him English.

Clone the man, teach him English.

So if you get a teenager who comes knocking at your door standing 200cm tall and weighing in at 115kg, who’s extremely competitive, highly athletic, physically mature, as strong as a professional athlete several years his senior and who has been playing rugby for a decade or more, it’s a bit of a rarity.

You can give those lads a roll of insulation tape and lob them into pro rugby before their twenty-first birthday party, because they’re once in a generation players. Otherwise, learning on the job at the pointy end of European rugby won’t cut it for clubs who want to win trophies. In big clubs and big tournaments, it’s a position for grown men or absolutely exceptional young internationals.

Look at the roll-call of the last ten HEC-winning second-row partnerships:

  • 2011-12 [Leinster]: Cullen [34] & Thorn [37]
  • 2010-11 [Leinster]: Cullen [33] & Hines [34]
  • 2009-10 [Toulouse]: Albacete [29] & Millo Chluski [27]
  • 2008-09 [Leinster]: Cullen [31] & O’Kelly [34]
  • 2007-08 [Munster]: O’Connell [28] & O’Callaghan [29]
  • 2006-07 [London Wasps]: Shaw [33] and Palmer [28]
  • 2005-06 [Munster]: O’Connell [26] & O’Callaghan [27]
  • 2004-05 [Toulouse] Pelous [31] & Millo-Chluski [22]
  • 2003-04 [London Wasps]: Shaw [29] & Birkett [24]
  • 2002-03 [Toulouse]: Pelous [29] & Gerard [25]

The average age of HEC-winning second rows over the last decade is 29.5. That tells its own story. The big outliers are Thorn [37, Leinster 2011-12] and Millo-Chluski [22, Toulouse 2004-05].

When a Fabien Pelous [who debuted for France as a 21 year old] or a Paul O’Connell [who played for Ireland as a 22 year old] or a Martin Johnson [who started for England as a 22 year old] comes along and starts bashing everybody up during training, he becomes the centrepiece of your team for a decade. Players like that are born, not made.

If, by throwing money at the problem, you could make a Fabien Pelous in an academy, any self-respecting CEO would just stick an extra fiver on every ticket for the season and tell the fans it was a Pelous fund – and the fans would gladly pay it. However, you can’t do that. To a large extent, you just have to cross your fingers and hope that the next genetic lottery winner in Ireland comes along … and he already did, to Ravenhill. It’s Iain Henderson.

Big Dev, Big Target

The age profile of second rows is one of the reasons why people who say things like “this is a make-or-break season for Toner” are, in The Mole’s opinion, way off. What – are Leinster going to cut him? He’s 26 now, and has over 110 Leinster games under his belt – why would you let him go now when you’ve spent seven years training him up? It hasn’t been a one-way street either; Toner has delivered plenty of good performances over the last four seasons. Maybe he’ll never be an Ireland regular, but he’s only coming into his second row prime.

Dev Toner comes in for a huge amount of criticism from fans of other Irish provinces, which is inexplicable for such a mild-mannered guy!

Dev Toner has been a contributor in each of Leinster’s Heineken Cup wins. He started four and came off the bench in another two in 2008-09; started two and came off the bench in four in 2010-11, and started three and came off the bench in five in 2011-12. For a 26 year old second row, he’s got a good body of work behind him, with 113 appearances for Leinster. Toner comes in for an awful of criticism, especially from fans of the other provinces. It’s odd: it’s not like he’s getting a load of easy test caps, or has had a particularly easy run at his home province; nor is he a niggly presence on the field. Where’s the beef? Why all the Toner-hate?

What was Mike McCarthy doing in 2007-08, when he was the same age as Toner currently is now? He was playing on the blindside for Connacht and only starting about half their Magners League games. Donnacha Ryan only made his first Heineken Cup start two months before his 27th birthday [against London Irish, in October 2010], was promptly dropped, ended up playing the second half of the season on the flank [including both Magners League semi-final and final] and didn’t start another HEC game for more than a year. Judge those two players on their respective seasons as 26 year olds and you wouldn’t imagine that they’d be Ireland’s starting second rows for the 2013 Six Nations.

Measuring Irish second rows against Paul O’Connell’s standard is natural, in that he has set the standard for lock play in Britain and Ireland since Martin Johnson’s retirement. That might seem to overstate the case, but the basis of the argument is that he started all six Lions tests of the 2005 NZ tour and the 2009 SA tour [and indeed was tour captain of the latter]. In between those tours he won two Heineken Cups for Munster and a Grand Slam for Ireland. His credentials as the best northern hemisphere second row of his generation are close to unquestionable.

However, it’s also a standard that few will ever hit, and you can still be a more than competent test player without being as good as O’Connell.

Players become more competitive as they get older; when you’re young, even if you’re totally focused on your sport – and few youngsters are that single-minded – there’s always another match. Indeed, there seems to be no end of matches stretching out in front of you. Winning every collision, dragging yourself off the turf after every breakdown, never letting somebody get one over you, seeing off young pretenders: those are the competitive instincts that both ensure players have long careers and are exacerbated as they hit their prime and come down the stretch towards retirement. A fine example would be Leo Cullen who, though he has worn an awful lot of tread off his tires and isn’t as athletic as he was in his late 20s, is not just wiser, but probably more competitive and more bellicose at this stage of his career than he ever was in the past.

The challenge for Toner is to become more of an authoritative figure on the pitch; this will always be difficult when he’s in Cullen’s [figurative] shadow. Cullen is the most successful leader in the history of the province and is the standing captain; people who think that Toner is going to push him out of the starting XV by dint of form don’t really understand the dynamics of a team. For example, Donnacha Ryan is playing great stuff at the moment, but where did he end up playing when Paul O’Connell came out of the blue to play a couple of HEC matches in October, having been out for six months and nowhere near form or fitness? He found himself on the blindside.

While Leinster have experimented with Toner scrummaging behind the tighthead – and it hasn’t always been the disaster it has been written up as [see Leinster’s second half destruction of the Llanelli scrum in the HEC fixture in Parc y Scarlets] – Cullen and Toner together is not a great partnership; they’re too similar in their strengths and their weaknesses, and neither are explosive, hard-charging contact kings. A truer test of Toner’s viability as a Leinster first-string second row will come whenever Leo Cullen retires.

Mark Flanagan

Flanagan is perhaps the biggest unknown in the Leinster squad. Parachuted into a strong Leinster team at the last moment to replace an ill Damien Browne for a January 2012 game against Cardiff, he made an eye-catching contribution with a couple of long midfield breakaways. It’s not really what you expect to see from second rows, and while the ability to motor with the ball in hand is a massive plus for any rugby player, work-rate, scrummaging and collision-winning are the bread and butter of your day in the front five.

Mark Flanagan hits up the Cardiff defensive line a year ago in the Pro12. A long term back injury has kept him out of contention for the first half of the 2012-13 season, and it remains to be seen whether he can translate athletic potential into regular performance.

Mark Flanagan hits up the Cardiff defensive line a year ago in the Pro12. A long term back injury has kept him out of contention for the first half of the 2012-13 season, and it remains to be seen whether he can translate athletic potential into regular performance [image courtesy of Sportsfile/Brendan Moran].

In his only other start of the season, his next outing saw him subbed off at halftime … never a good look. It occurred in a little-seen 10-10 draw with Glasgow in horrific conditions at Firhill, a match that took place on the same day that Ireland beat Italy in the Six Nations in Dublin. Since then, Flanagan has hardly played a minute. A long-term back injury required surgery over the summer, and it’s only now that he’s coming back to contact training. However, he has spent the intervening period in the weight-room, and has come back considerably broader, having added 7kg to his 201cm frame since September 2011.

We’ve written before that as a rugby player Flanagan is a work in progress, having only taken up the sport as a 16 year old. His athleticism is the strongest aspect of his game and saw him make an impact for both Ireland U18s Youths and Ireland U20s [2009] within just a few years of swapping his Westmeath minors jersey for Leinster blue. However, in order to progress he needs games and a run without injury interruptions, and it’s difficult to see where these games are going to come from this season. The B&I Cup fixtures in January will probably come too early for him, and with no Leinster second rows involved in the Irish set-up and Leinster fighting for a top-four spot in the league, it will be difficult for him to break into the team for the Pro12 games in February and March during the Six Nations.

Ben Marshall

In his third and final year in the Leinster Academy, St Andrews and Old Belvedere product Marshall has performed well in the four games he has played for the senior team this season [he was pretty much Leinster’s lone bright spark in the hammering they took from Connacht at the Sportsgrounds and had a cracking outing against the same opposition in the RDS] and he’s got a competitive streak that, while not yet a hard edge, is an encouraging sign for his future. There’s a level of physical and mental toughness that’s a necessity to play in the front five, and you can’t fake it.

Ben Marshall has taken every chance offered to him in his final year in the Leinster Academy, and looks certain to have snared a senior contract for next season. [Photo Credit: Sportsfile_Brendan Moran]

Ben Marshall has taken every chance offered to him in his final year in the Leinster Academy, and looks certain to have snared a senior contract for next season. It’s important to be able to contribute to the senior side in the final year of the academy; there’s no shortage of players who have graduated from the Leinster academy but haven’t earned contracts afterwards. [Photo Credit: Sportsfile_Brendan Moran]

He looks to The Mole like a hybrid 5/6 at this stage of his development, the sort of player that Leinster [and Ireland, perhaps] were pushing Kev ‘Locky’ McLaughlin to be during the 2010-11 season. McLaughin started in the second row against Aironi and Glasgow at home in the league that season, and had another couple of games where he swapped in there during the second half, but as he said himself he didn’t feel that the extra bulk he was carrying at 113kg suited his game. Marshall is better suited to that job than McLaughlin was, because he’s got a naturally bigger frame [196cm/6’5″ and 112kg/17st8lbs] and has spent more time in the second row – he started 8 out of 10 games for Ireland U20s in 2010 in the No5 jersey.

Marshall has come a little under the radar for most, including Leinster fans. St Andrews isn’t a particularly renowned rugby school [although Munster’s Felix Jones is also a recent graduate], and in recent years, talented schools players have typically impacted on the rugby public’s mind with a showcase performance in a televised final. However, sans cup glory, he nevertheless emerged through the tried route to the Leinster Academy of representing Ireland as a starter at U18 Schools and U20 level. Despite a couple of serious injuries keeping him off the pitch for the second year of his stint, he has been highly rated by Leinster staff since his arrival at the team, and his recent outing against Connacht [his first start in the second row, having worn the No6 jersey in previous run-ons] was an impressive first effort that featured a high work-rate, a number of strong carries and some aggressive clearing out at ruck-time.

Tighthead Locks [Redux]

When Brad Thorn was contracted by Leinster earlier this year for the business end of the 2011-12 season, a few revealing thoughts from the Leinster backroom staff made their way into the national media. By explaining the impact of a tighthead scrummaging lock, there was certainly something of an effort to swing public opinion, but it was also genuinely reflective of the thinking and experiences of the three chief coaches, Schmidt, Gibbes and Feek.

The casual reader may not remember that Jono Gibbes was actually in place for two full seasons before Schmidt arrived at the province. He was just 31 years old when he arrived in Leinster from Waikato in the summer of 2008; it was his first job since retiring as a player. In his playing prime, Gibbes lacked the top-end pace and mobility to be a long-term All Black flanker [though that’s not to say that he wouldn’t have excelled in a number of other teams] and he also suffered from just being a bit too short to be a top-flight lock. He fell between stools, but he was still a bull of a forward at test level.

Greg Feek arrived shortly after Schmidt, contracted by Leinster to ensure that the battering their scrum had taken in the 2009-10 Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse wouldn’t happen again. His reputation has only increased over the last couple of seasons, which has led to changes in his job description.

With Feek assuming more responsibility in the Leinster set-up, and thus becoming a more central figure in the coaching staff, one of the tenets of the current Leinster forwards regime is that there are two distinct positions in the second row, and that the emphasis swings on the scrum, rather than the line-out or restarts.

'Shrugging off' hardly does it justice. Mike McCarthy throws Pumas openside Juan Leguizamon away in the recent November international between Ireland and Argentina.

‘Shrugging off’ hardly does it justice. Mike McCarthy throws Pumas openside Juan Leguizamon away in the recent November international between Ireland and Argentina. McCarthy will bring a ball-carrying and hitting power that Leinster have been missing in the second row this season.

Mike “Mick” McCarthy 

The signing of McCarthy, fresh off the back of a Man of the Match performance against South Africa, the most physical pack in world rugby, ticks a lot of boxes for Leinster. If you’re going to test the mettle of a tighthead lock against any team in the world, it’d be against the Springboks; not only did McCarthy pass the test, he came through with flying colours.

This isn’t “Useless” Ed O’Donoghue getting a three-year deal on the back of an iffy, non-test performance for an Ireland XV vs New Zealand Maori; this is a guy who can get it done against the Boks and the Pumas.

Damien Browne is an honest, tough player who brings huge inert strength to the scrum, but there are serious limitations to his game: his 125kg frame is difficult to get up in the air at lineout or restart time, there isn’t a quick-twitch fibre in his body, he doesn’t offer a line-breaking threat with the ball in hand and he has limited mobility. McCarthy offers a big upgrade in a number of these areas, while allowing little fall-off at scrum-time. His Action Man style of play – big tackles, big carries, a running engine and a full load of aggression at the breakdown – will allow Leinster to play a wider variety of players beside him, because he brings so much to the table.

Quinn Roux

Quinn Roux has had little luck since arriving in Dublin, but while his experiences would seem to be an unfortunate echo of compatriot Steven Sykes’ time at the province, there are significant differences. Sykes struggled to fit in with the rest of the squad, and didn’t really adapt to life in Ireland particularly well; a series of niggling injuries kept him off the pitch and prompted questions about his attitude.

In contrast, Roux has made a good impression amongst fellow players and the coaching staff with his willingness to put himself about and the degree of power he brings to the table. Apparently the words “physical” and “physicality” occasionally get an outing when he comes up in conversation. However, he suffered a pretty horrific shoulder dislocation against Glasgow, which will massively limit his impact in what is a season-long contract. Leinster fans only got to see 108 competitive minutes out of him between a busted collarbone and the shoulder injury, so there’s not an awful lot of evidence on which to base judgment.

There are a number of issues to consider about Roux’s immediate and mid-term future: will Leinster extend his contract with him having played so little rugby? While silence has descended over the IRFU’s NIQ/NIE Player Protocol since it was announced this time last year, that’s not to say that it has ever been officially rescinded. If Leinster are only allowed spend one NIQ/NIE slot on a second row, is an unproven 22 year old the best bet?

Secondly, after a very unlucky introduction to Irish rugby, will Roux even be interested in sticking around if he is offered another contract? This is a [back to the Rumsfeld well] known unknown; it’s going to be an issue, but it’s impossible to predict the answer. Richardt Strauss had a very tough time in Ireland during his first season [2009-10] as a 23/24 year old – Michael Cheika simply wouldn’t pick him – but stuck it out and was a constant in Joe Schmidt’s first Heineken Cup winning team the following season. Robbie Diack arrived in Ulster as a 22 year old from the Western Stormers before the 2008-09 season, and has stayed around long enough – while becoming a rock solid member of Ulster’s squad, it should be said – to become Irish-qualified under the IRB’s residency rules.

Both of these players were young when they moved over and, unlikely as it may seem to you or I that rugby-obsessed South Africans in their very early 20s have the realism/cynicism to close a door on childhood dreams of playing for the Springboks in order to experience a different culture and [perhaps] play test rugby for a different nation, it’s not as though it hasn’t happened in the very recent past.

Three things are key to understanding Roux’s prospective future in Ireland: the emphasis on the scrummaging, cleaning out and general ‘enforcing’ aspect of the tighthead lock position in Leinster under Gibbes and Feek; the need to ‘get more Irish’, as IRFU requirements about non-Irish players become stricter and more prohibitive; and the constant need to introduce new players so that the squad doesn’t get old overnight.

Eben Etzebeth and Quinn Roux tower over some Western Province assistant coach who's puffing himself up like a bullfrog. "Take a walk around my massive second row, bro."

Eben Etzebeth and Quinn Roux tower over some Western Province assistant coach who’s puffing himself up like a bullfrog. “Take a walk around my massive second row, bro.” That’s a nice flip-flops and socks combo you’ve got going on there Etzebeth, by the way.

With the arguable exception of Ulster’s Iain Henderson, there’s not an Irish-qualified second row in the five year age bracket around Roux who can match his power output, his bulk and his aggression at ruck time, three of the most important characteristics of a tighthead second row. His direct contemporaries – Leinster’s Ben Marshall and Munster’s Dave O’Callaghan and Brian Hayes, all of them born in 1990 and Irish U20 internationals in 2010 – certainly can’t, and nor can their predecessors Ciaran Ruddock, James Sandford and Mark Flanagan. Going back another year, we’ve seen nothing from Ian Nagle or Eoin Sheriff to suggest that they match up well either. Dave Nolan, their team-mate in the Irish U20s of 2008, looked to have the frame at 198cm/6’6” and 120kg/18st12lbs, but has been cripplingly unfortunate with injury. Roux has slimmed down from the 122kg he weighed at Western Province to a more manageable 117-118kg, but there simply aren’t many lads knocking around the streets and fields of this bonny isle who can compare with the steak-fed Akrikaaner monsters of the high veldt when it comes to being collossal brutes.

The acquisition of Mike McCarthy for a three-year period [and it’s worth remembering that Leinster approached the player two years ago, when his contract was last up for renewal with Connacht] indicates a degree of long-term planning that all the Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn signings in the world – brilliant though they were in the short term – can’t supply.

With McCarthy around and in the prime of his career, Roux wouldn’t be expected to step up immediately and shoulder the burden that Hines bore; he’d lighten McCarthy’s load in the Pro12, and hopefully would progress quickly enough to challenge for his position in a couple of seasons. The real pay-off will come if/when he becomes Irish qualified; at that stage, Leinster will have a 25 year old, 120kg Irish-South African tighthead second row in their squad for the next seven or eight years.

Highlight reels are always a bit suspect; they obviously only show you the good parts of a player’s game. On the other hand, there has to be good parts to show in the first place. So, with that healthy caveat out of the way, here’s Quinn Roux bashing into people for six and a half minutes:

Ground Control To Ginger Tom

The Tom Denton signing is a long-player and low risk; despite being English-born, he’s Irish qualified, after all. Leinster signed him from Leeds Carnegie [who are in the RFU Championship, and incidentally in Leinster’s pool in the British and Irish Cup this season] and the likelihood that he was raking in cash with both hands over there seems limited; it’d follow that he’s hardly costing Leinster huge wedge.

Tom Denton turns out for Leinster 'A' in the British and irish Cup against his old side, Leeds Carnegie. Denton is in his first year of a two year deal, and hasn't made a serious impact yet. With that said, he's got the frame for the job and he's a hard-working player. The second half of the season should see him more familiar with Leinster's patterns, and it will be interesting to see how he goes. [Image courtesy of Sportfile & Stephen McCarthy]

Tom Denton turns out for Leinster ‘A’ in the British and irish Cup against his old side, Leeds Carnegie. Denton is in his first year of a two year deal, and hasn’t made any significant impact yet. With that said, he’s got the frame for the job and he’s a hard-working player. The second half of the season should see him more familiar with Leinster’s patterns, and it will be interesting to see how he goes. [Image courtesy of Sportfile & Stephen McCarthy]

Given his age, Irish-qualification, low profile and [probable] low wage demands, he’s comparable to a recent academy graduate … and, when you do make the comparison to Leinster Academy graduates of the same vintage [say Eoin Sheriff and Ciaran Ruddock] he has played an awful lot more competitive rugby even if, in contrast to those players, he missed out on representative rugby at U20 level.

At 198cm/6’6” and 115kg/18st1lb, Denton is significantly bigger than those lads as well, and has the potential to get bigger and stronger still: Schmidt was quoted as impressed that he was “throwing some heavy tin around in the weights room” during preseason. Given that he came on to scrummage behind the tighthead against Ulster in Ravenhill [moving Devin Toner to the left of the pairing], you’d imagine that strength and size will continue to be a priority for him, even at the expense of a bit of mobility …

… which would essentially mean that he would become a statue. As those watching Leinster’s recent win in Edinburgh will have seen – particularly for WP Nel’s try – Denton is painfully one-paced. He makes Damian Browne look like Carlin Isles. He can’t even claim fatigue as the excuse behind being burnt by the Edinburgh tighthead; he had only been on the pitch for 16 mins.

A clear idea of what Leinster look for in their second row corps is beginning to emerge, and The Mole imagines that the coaching staff are hoping that Denton will become a like-for-like replacement for Damien Browne: a Pro12 level tighthead-scrummaging lock. He’ll need to get bigger, stronger and tougher en route: provide more shunt in the scrum, win more collisions [whether tackling or carrying], become an accomplished mauler and be far, far more aggressive at clearing out rucks. Four months of the season are played in wintry conditions, and a lack of pace in the front five can be accommodated on sticky tracks if you can compensate by dint of strength, size and aggression, but there’s a long way to go on all those counts for the Irish Yorkshireman. Denton is on a two-year deal, and by the end of next season, if he’s good enough to start games against the majority of Pro12 teams – with the exception of the likes of Ulster, Munster and the Ospreys – he’d be worth his place in the squad for a second contract.

Flux Capacitor

While The Mole has been reasonably optimistic about the prospects of those six players briefly profiled above, the pessimistic take – perhaps even the crux of the matter – is that there are question marks over every single one of them. McCarthy obviously has the fewest, but he’s never played for Leinster, and will have to adapt to new team-mates, a new environment, a different gameplan and new coaches; Toner has been around the Leinster set-up for seven seasons, but hasn’t yet graven his name irrevocably into the team sheet as contemporaries Sexton, Heaslip, Kearney, O’Brien etc. have done over the same period.

Flanagan has played incredibly little rugby over the last 12 months, and Marshall hasn’t yet graduated from the academy; having potential is better than not having it, but if called on next season to start 12-15 games, would they be capable of putting in strong, 80 minute showings all the way through? The behemoth Roux may or may not even be around next year, given the nature of his contract. Denton hasn’t hit the ground running, and has yet to have a signature moment [never mind game] in his seven outings for the senior team.

As big a question as any of these is the future of captain Leo Cullen. In his absences over the last two seasons, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings and Rhys Ruddock have captained the team on a number of occasions [with Devin Toner and Kev McLaughlin also having led them out], but replacing Cullen’s leadership will be a significant task. Players can grow into the captaincy, but there’s little doubt that when the big Wicklow man steps aside – whether that’s at the end of this season, at the end of next season, or possibly even in two years’ time – Leinster will lose more than the player.

27 thoughts on “Leinster’s Second Row Puzzle

  1. Fantastic post Mole. The effort you put into that: thank you!

    I don’t buy into the make or break stuff either but I don’t think Toner has what it takes for H-Cup level: he could still have a long career with Leinster though. Quinn Roux is clearly a great talent if he stays fit but you correctly raise questions over how motivated he will be to stay on. If he does both those things (stays fit and in Dublin), it will be great for Leinster and Ireland.

    McCarthy will hopefully fit in and is exactly what Leinster need right now, even if he doesn’t have that many more years ahead of him. Personally, I like everything I have seen of Ben Marshall so far.

    On the captaincy front, the two notable absentees from your list of replacements for Cullen are Kearney and Sexton. I see today rumours are circulating in Midi Olympique about the latter, whose IRFU contract is up for renewal in June. MO trundled out the same story a couple of times about BOD and it never panned out. While the 3 big French clubs who will need a 10 at some point soon (Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz) could presumably write a big paycheque, you have to think it would come at the wrong point in the RWC cycle for Sexton. Hopefully just bluster from his agent.

  2. Just to say thanks for a fantastic piece of analysis. On a par, at least, with your work on the future Leinster three-quarters last year.

    I too am sceptical about Dev despite the sound points you make. It may be dis-loyal but I find myself looking past him to see who, alongside McCarthy, will assume the HCup mantle when Leo eventually leaves us.

  3. Fantastic post. The whole ‘make or break’ argument about Toner is overdone, but I would see the first season after Cullen’s retirement as being something of a dealbreaker for his career as a Leinster player, if not as a professional rugby player.

    The difference between Toner and Ryan/McCarthy is that with Toner it seems to be a case of one-steo-forward-two-steps-back the whole time. Every time he seems to have made a breakthrough, he then seems to slip back. Last yer in the Pro12 final, we thought ‘Toner’s really laid down a marker for next season’ but he hasn’t backed it up at all. He’s been first reserve at second row for so long now, but management just don’t seem to see him as a viable first pick. Will they ever? And there’s always the suspicion that he lacks the real mental and physical toughness for the role. If he’s stuck as first reserve even after Cullen exits, he may look elsewhere.

  4. Another great article Mole. Amazing combination of depth, breadth, pop culture references & photo captions that make me laugh out loud, or lol as I believe the young people say.

    Regarding Toner it seems to be a lot of the discontent with him comes from Leinster fans rather than those of other provinces. I spend a lot of time on the North Stand with angry young men screaming at him & that’s just my mates. I think people lose sight of the fact he started playing for Leinster in the 2nd row at 19, which makes him an uber-freak, as your age breakdown shows. He’s only coming into his lock prime now & even if he plateaus where he is now you’ve still got a competent 2nd row, who rarely seems to get injured & clocks up massive game-time. Doesn’t seem that bad to me. He’s judged more harshly than some on account of his height & experience, thee’s not much need for the gnashing of teeth & groans that often accompany his outings.

    McCarthy is a great get, end of story. He’ll also be a great partner to bring up new & improving 2nd rows alongside him, especially with his work-rate.

    I’d love to see more of Quinn Roux, but that matter is out of our hands. Plus there’s the fear he might eat me. What a giant of a man.

    • Agree Toner gets a lot of criticisim at times but he has been a good servant to leinster,much better than some of the stop gaps who have been brought in(Ed,Sykes) he reminds me of Luke Charteris in wales, similar height and took a long learning curve at dragons to finally really break into the welsh team at the last worls cup at 28 years of age. You wonder how the likes of Copeland who has looked so impressive for Cardiff this year was allowed slip through the net when he was playing so well for Marys in the AIL a few seasons ago.You would wonder was he even approached by Leinster or was he a guy who knew he needed first team action at this stage of his career. One to keep an eye on.

  5. So if you get a teenager who comes knocking at your door standing 200cm tall and weighing in at 115kg, who’s extremely competitive, highly athletic, physically mature, as strong as a professional athlete several years his senior and who has been playing rugby for a decade or more, it’s a bit of a rarity.

    I think I and all my compatriots up north know this and are duly thankful for Iain ‘I still play like I’m togging out for BRA on a Saturday morning in the mud’ Henderson.

  6. Classic Mole Towers publication.

    What think ye of the Carlin Isles rumour (now proven false). Got some stick on leinsterfans but I dont see any harm in giving him a trial. Would be nice to see “genuine pace” on the wing again if he could prove himself competent at tackling and passing. Ngwenya has improved drastically since he first came on the scene. The question of whether it’s in Leinster’s or Ireland’s interest or plans is separate.

  7. There was a Leinster rugby camp specificaly aimed at “tall players” about 2 years ago. Did anything ever come of that? I think the global game has changed to the extent that the emphasis in the second row does not need to rely on (exceptional) height anymore. 6″4′ is tall enough to win any line-out ball in a well timed system. There is a shift towards dynamic players who are strong enough to smash any ruck and still have the ability to link up in a back-line (the amount of support and interlink play that Sam Whielock gets involved in for the ABs is a good example). Obviously there will always be room for a giant with no regard for his own well being mashing every ruck on the pitch, but there is no room for the tight five player who can not and should not ever touch the ball anymore (this goes for props too). As you noted with Kev McLaughlin’s early career the provinces are beginning to look at back-rows withthe ability to convert and visa-versa, such as Henderon in Ulster (and personally I think Dave O’Callaghan in Munster should be encouraged more in tothe second row). The roll of the hooker in the professional era has changed radically to essentially a 4th back-row around the pitch, the rest of the tight 5 needs to follow suit.
    Luckily in Ireland we have Healy at 1 and Ryan in the row (if we could find a 3 and a 5 with similar skill and dynamics outside the scrum we would be laughing-thats not to take away from Ross or McC who do a brillaint job, but dont offer a huge amount outside of their specified rolls).

    • I disagree with that last point. I think the tight 5 should be selected on the basis of a solid scrum, line out and ruck smashing. Anything offered in the loose should be seen as a bonus. Its even more relevant with 3 brilliant ball carriers available in the Irish back row. As the Mole has commented on before, I personally want to see the end of the heavies taking the pill in the contact for a 70cm gain while dragging Seanie and Fez into a ruck

      • I see your point, but I’m not talking about ball-carrying, Im just talking about lads who dont cack their pants everytime the ball comes anywhere near them. Differernce between NZ and the rest of the world is that when their back 3 make a break all the closest support players (generally the fastest backs and flankers) are free to ruck over safe in the knowledge that the fatties coming up behing will still have the necessary footballing skill to throw a few passes out and finish it off… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hC-VDy9AYmI
        There should be no room in professional rugby for players without the footballing basis anymore!

  8. Super piece as ever and on the Pelous fund, Ulster and Ireland appear blessed by the appearance of Iain Henderson. Another who may have slipped through the cracks at Leinster is Robin Copeland. Had a good game in the morass in Musgrave last week, albeit at 8. While mainly a backrow, he’s a lot of experience at lock and has size, athleticism and footballing ability. Having admitted he wasn’t ready for pro rugby initially, at 25 is a bit of a late bloomer and would have been a good option to bring back to his home province. Eoin Sheriff’s making a lot of progress at Saracens too and might be in the same boat and, as you say, like props and soccer center halves, locks usually need time to develop. McCarthy’s a good signing, great engine and has the necessary mad streak to make his presence felt.

  9. I’m still disappointed that macca is leaving but at the same time I’m almost salivating at what he can bring to the table at Leinster and what Leinster can do with him to up his game, I think he is going to lay waste to some teams in the Heineken next year. Couple that with Joe teaching him how to pass better, and being part of a team that follows the ball carrier and doesn’t allow them to get isolated, and the breaks he makes at Conn now will finally get the rewards they deserve on a consistent basis.

  10. What a great article. You’re really making a mockery of some of the muck being printed by our mainstream press!
    I can’t see why Roux would be lacking the motivation to stick around if hes offered an extension. Hes an absolute beast and has the type of presence that simply commands respect. Himself and McCarthy would be a seriously powerful row.

  11. A very well-structured, knowledgeable and entertaining piece. I know that articles like this take an age to craft, but please think of the hungry masses who survive on very thin stuff at present – thanks!!

  12. Another quality piece, Mole. I agree that Toner gets a disproportionate amount of flak, down to the fact that he’s been around for a while, progressing steadily rather than exploding through in the hour of need. While Leinster’s need for a Hines-ex-machina has become more acute, as you point out above Toner is clearly not a tighthead lock. He still looks like a decent second row option for now, but it will be interesting to see which of the candidates pan out. Fingers crossed for a second row that’s as competitive as the back row….
    On a separate note – tighthead prop, second row, small midfielders – do we just generally have a issue producing big players?

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  14. That’s up there with your very best mole, thanks. Only defence I’ve heard to compare was Debbie daley’s. Fair play to her too!

  15. So, I just read today that Ed O’Donoghue is starting for the Reds – The Reds! – in the Super15 this weekend. http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/union-news/reds-unleash-big-ed-to-counter-tahs-20130221-2ett9.html

    If ever there was time for a web acronym: WTF?

    What really went on at Leinster? Why was he judged to be so bad? How can he now be starting for the Reds? I know they have injuries but this is still Super15, so his coaches clearly can’t think he is that bad.

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