The argument was made to The Mole recently that Clermont have missed their chance to win the Heineken Cup, with a number of their most prominent players having passed their prime.
There can be little doubt that, taken as an entity, the Auvergnois are an aging team. Of course, time being its inexorable marching self, all teams are aging teams, but in contrast to the teams who contest the Pro12, and for whom the league is often used as a testing ground for talented young players barely out of their teams’ academies – and sometimes not even out of their teens – there’s not a huge amount of renewal or promotion from within in the Top14.
There are numerous contributory factors to this state of affairs, but probably the four most important are
- the primacy of the league title in the French mindset;
- the attritional, low-risk nature of rugby that has been bred by such a competitive league;
- the fact that the clubs are privately owned by individuals, who aren’t especially concerned with the development of players for the French national team;
- and the existence of the Pro D2 and a number of Federale leagues.
The Shield That Wags The Cup
Clermont were the only French team The Mole can remember in the recent past who vocalised that their season’s priority was the European Cup rather than the Bouclier de Brennus. The statement got a lot of publicity not only because for much of the season the Auvergnois looked like one of the best sides in the history of European club rugby – from the kick-off of their first pool game until the final whistle of their quarter-final, they seemed close to unbeatable – but also because French sides just don’t see things that way. Their league has a long and glorious history and is absolutely integral to the collective psyche of French rugby; a reasonable comparison would be the GAA Championship.
In terms of the aggregate of matches between two teams [i.e. the corresponding pair of home and away fixtures], there are very few gimme ties in the Top14. While they may occasionally lack a bit of heart on the road when obviously outgunned, the weaker teams defend their home patch with vigour. It’s at the heart of the game. Just like the GAA is based around the idea of competing parishes, one of the primary tenets of French rugby is the physical contest between two towns, the home side defending its patch against an invader. The primacy given to home fixtures derives from l’esprit de clocher [literally ‘the spirit of the belltower] which, like some other notable French idioms, doesn’t make a whole heap of sense when translated directly across to English but is nonetheless a readily understandable concept.
All this psychological and cultural grounding/baggage is great [meaning large or immense, we use it in the pejorative sense] but it’s too often reflected in league games where innovation and risk are at a premium. Coupled with the more manifest threat of relegation and the financial damages that are the natural accompaniment to a move down the leagues – hardly a side issue for privately-owned clubs – and you’ve got yourself two parts of a recipe for some turgid rugger.
This conservative approach both contributes to and is reflected in the age profile of French Top14 teams. Young players typically make more mistakes under pressure than experienced players – be they mental errors or errors of skill – and they’re also more likely to try off-the-cuff moves that aren’t in line with the coach’s gameplan, or even his mindset. We’ve gone over this ground before, but it’s worth recapping. Many French players learn their trade in the Pro D2 in their early 20s, and if they show sufficient talent, they may earn a job with one of the Top14 clubs.
The extent of this practice is easily examined by looking through the player profiles on the Clermont website. The ‘club formateur’ is where the player learnt his rugby [a Leinster equivalent would list Boyne RFC as Shane Horgan’s ‘club formateur’, for example], but more relevant is the ‘parcours rugby’ heading, which lists where the players had their previous professional experience.
Club captain Aurelien Rougerie, fullback Jean-Marc Buttin, props Raphael Chaume and Adrien Oleon, Portuguese flanker Julien Bardy, lock Loic Jacquet, backrow Alexandre Lapandry, winger Julien Malzieu and Fijian-born winger Noa Nakaitaci are the only players listed amongst the current squad as having unequivocally started their professional careers with Clermont, be it through their ‘centre de formation’ [i.e. the academy] or the professional team proper. That’s just nine players from the thirty-six listed who are Auvergnois [and Nakaitaci stretches that definition].
Public vs Private
Leinster started off life as a provincial representative team, and the methods by which the game is administered in Ireland has meant that the make-up of the team has stayed closer to its roots than that of Clermont [or many other French clubs]. With only four professional teams in Ireland – in contrast to almost thirty over two leagues in France – the system of progression for young players in this country is necessarily different. The majority of players in the Irish provincial squads are from the province, and the majority have had their formative professional experience with their province.
It’s because the Irish national team and the provincial teams are intrinsically linked in a way that the Les Bleus and the French clubs teams aren’t anymore that there aren’t more Johnny Foreigners knocking about the provincial squads.
With no second level professional league in Ireland for late-developing players to prove their worth, the provinces are [largely] ‘stuck with’ the coterie of players they choose to induct into their respective academies between the ages of 18 and 20.
As a result, the provincial squads are more static than their Top14 counterparts. There’s not much opportunity for coaches and executives to shop around outside the country, and internally, most of the players who have been brought into academies are brought in as part of a long term succession plan, so their home provinces are loathe to let them go to a rival.
The Evolution Of A Squad
While it remains to be seen whether or not Clermont have missed ‘their’ chance at the European title [rather than ‘a’ chance, which they indisputably did], it’s difficult to argue against the point that they’ve passed a notional peak and are now on the downside.
- Nathan Hines [37 in November]
- Jamie Cudmore [35 in September]
- Julien Bonnaire [35 in September]
- Gerhard Vosloo [34 last May]
- Aurelien Rougerie [33 in September]
- Lee Byrne [33 last June]
None of those guys listed above are bit part players: they’re all significant contributors. Nor is The Mole picking on guys who have just turned 30 and saying that they’re too old … 33 is getting on, and 35 is just old.
You Guys Are Old, We’re Experienced …
Of course, once you start looking with any level of detail at the age profile of what is purportedly an over-the-hill Clermont outfit, sooner or later the uncomfortable realisation [for fans of Leinster, at least] arrives that the province have a pretty similar bunching:
- Leo Cullen [36 in January]
- Brian O’Driscoll [35 in January]
- Mike Ross [34 in December]
- Gordon D’Arcy [34 in February]
- Isaac Boss [33 last April]
- Eoin Reddan [33 in November]
You can’t look at Clermont and say that they’re past their peak on the basis of their age profile, and then turn around and say that the same thing doesn’t apply to the Leinster side. However, the very obvious difference is that Leinster made hay like a combine harvester when they were at their zenith. Clermont managed to bank a Bouclier in 2009-10, but that’s the extent of the silverware.
Age Profile – The Long Term ForecastThe Mole has written before about the weight he puts in the age profile of Irish provincial squads as a general indicator of their potential to compete for trophies. The age bracket theory [i.e. 20-24, 25-29, 30-34] is hardly foolproof, but it’s a reasonable starting point. The depth chart of a squad for a specific season will give you clues to how competitive they’ll be in a clearly defined period, while the age profile is a longer term forecast.
With that as a proviso, we set out to look at the Leinster squad for the 2013-14 season on the basis of a year-by-year analysis of its members. In doing so, we began by looking at a slightly wider group of players, namely the Leinster youngsters who were selected for the Ireland U20s, the most senior representative age-grade. This was prompted both by arguable ‘gaps’ in the depth chart at some positions, and more general memories and anecdotal evidence of talented underage players who are no longer contracted to the province.
- Six Nations: P5 | W2 | D1 | L2
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W1 | D0 | L4
- Overall: P10 | W3 | D1 | L6
They didn’t have a successful year by any standards, and shipped a lot of points in their losses in the JWC [33-25 vs England; 42-26 vs South Africa; 57-15 vs South Africa again; and 38-24 vs Wales]. It was a particularly disappointing series of results given the calibre of the players involved: Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson [the latter two of whom were U19 in 2011] have already been capped at test level, and Kieran Marmion [another U19 that year] was a member of the senior squad that toured North America this summer.
Three players are currently contracted to the Leinster senior squad: centre Brendan Macken, backrow Jordi Murphy and tighthead prop Marty Moore. Five more – winger Andrew Boyle, centre Collie O’Shea, outhalf Cathal Marsh, loosehead/hooker James Tracy and tighthead Tadhg Furlong – are currently in the Leinster Academy.
Macken, Murphy, Moore and Marsh were all selected for the Emerging Ireland squad for the Tblisi Cup, though Moore remained unused throughout the three-game tournament and Marsh was forced to drop prior to departure out due to injury. So too was Andrew Conway, probably the biggest name of this group, and definitely the biggest story.
We’ve written previously [and in some depth] about Conway’s move to Munster, which came as a big surprise to pretty much everybody in Irish rugby. The young winger was the standout underage player of his year in Ireland, bagging 14 tries in 16 games at U20 level, but to date flashes of that talent have been few and far between at senior level. Dave Kearney’s concussion, combined with injuries to Rob Kearney [Pro12 final] and Brian O’Driscoll [ACC final], meant that Conway saw a lot of high stakes gametime at the pointy end of the 2012-13 season. The Mole will be watching closely next season – as will many others, doubtlessly – to see if the Blackrock alumnus can make any yards back on his former age-grade team-mates Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy.
- Brendan Macken: 24 appearances [17+7]
- Jordi Murphy: 23 appearances [7+16]
- Marty Moore: 5 appearances [0+5]
- Six Nations: P5 | W4 | D0 | L1
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Overall: P10 | W6 | D0 | L4
Leinster had a bumper crop in 2010, sending seventeen players to represent Ireland U20s, including six U19s. This is somewhat reflected in the makeup of the current provincial squad, with no fewer than eight players [including the South African project player Quinn Roux] born in 1990. However, balanced against that is the inevitability that as the years pass, some of these players will fall foul of injury or be deemed surplus to requirements.
It’s interesting to examine the various rates of progression to the senior squad amongst players born in the same year.Jack O’Connell, Noel Reid and Darren Hudson have, at 23 years old, relatively little Pro12 rugby behind them. However, that’s not necessarily an indictment on their respective abilities: Leinster have been very well served in their positions by Lions [Healy, Sexton/D’Arcy and Fitzgerald/Kearney] or NIQs [van der Merwe and Nacewa], which has meant a bit of a logjam down the ranks.
Nor does it mean that the learning curve will be as steep for them as it would be for somebody who left the academy after one year on the back of the same amount of exposure in the Pro12. These players have had to pay their dues in the B&I Cup and the UBL. There’s much on-pitch experience to be had, there are disappointments to be endured and there’s also a natural maturing process to go through. Players who go through the entire academy course avoid the worst excesses of hype and over-expectation and have the opportunity to segue relatively smoothly into a professional career without experiencing the growing pains of more high-profile starlets who are skipped ahead.
Ben Marshall and John Cooney are a little further along in their development, and Cooney in particular got on the pitch more often than he might have expected during the second half of the 2012-13 season due to Eoin Reddan’s injury on Ireland duty. Marshall is a bit of a dark horse. Under the radar at schools level with the not-particularly-powerhousey St Andrews College, and troubled with injury through the early part of his academy tenure, he nonetheless put in assured showings in his five Pro12 starts last season. Sometimes ‘encouraging’ is used adjectively to damn with faint praise or with an unspoken proviso, but other times it just means flat-out encouraging. The Mole would opt for the latter with regards to Marshall.
The standouts in this age-group are the backrow pairing of Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan, both well-established members of the Leinster squad: the 22-year old Ruddock has made 59 appearances and captained the side on a number of occasions, while Ryan has made 46 appearances despite a well-logged series of injuries.
Ryan’s U20 career was barely credible: he appeared in all twenty international matches in 2009 and 2010, starting eighteen of them. It seems a record unlikely to be equalled, given how difficult it is to become a bolted-on starter playing a year above your age-grade, and then the more mundane problem of staying injury free for four tournaments.
Ruddock was in position to equal it, but missed the last three games of JWC 2010 when he was called up to the Irish tour of New Zealand and Australia, making his full test debut against the latter.
- Rhys Ruddock: 59 appearances [36+23]
- Dominic Ryan: 46 appearances [32+14]
- John Cooney: 22 appearances [5+17]
- Noel Reid: 15 appearances [6+9]
- Quinn Roux: 12 appearances [8+4]
- Ben Marshall: 8 appearances [5+3]
- Jack O’Connell: 8 appearances [1+7]
- Darren Hudson: 8 appearances [2+6]
- Six Nations: P5 | W4 | D0 | L1
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Overall: P10 | W6 | D0 | L4
The luckless Ian McKinley earned a senior contract in May 2011 but was forced to retire before the kickoff of the next season due to a serious eye injury. McKinley had made his first start as a teenager in the 2008-09 season under Michael Cheika and, while it’s always difficult/futile to consider careers that never happened due to injury, he looked like a very good bet to be a long-term player.
Both hooker Tom Sexton and lock Mark Flanagan were part of the Leinster squad last season but failed to make much of an impact. That’s quite a harsh verdict: neither of them were afforded many chances and you couldn’t fault them for their effort, but at a big, successful club like Leinster, fringe players have got to do something positive to get themselves noticed when those rare chances pop up. Sexton has moved on to a three year deal with the Melbourne Rebels – a great opportunity for him in the land of his birth – and Flanagan will turn out for Pro D2 outfit Mont-de-Marsan next year, in a move that should give him the gametime he needs to progress in a tough, forward-oriented league.It’s interesting to note where some of the other academy graduates have landed: Eamonn Sheridan has been contracted by London Irish after a strong season for Rotherham Titans in the RFU Championship, while winger Michael Keating is still looking for his big break at Doncaster Knights. A player who didn’t make the Leinster Academy, and a former teammate of Keating at the Knights was Michael Noone. He was a peripheral squad member of the Irish U20s in 2009, stuck behind current Munster captain Peter O’Mahony for the No8 spot, but was picked up by Leicester Tigers last season following a strong showing in 2010-11 in the RFU Championship.
- Ian Madigan: 81 appearances [49+32]
- Dave Kearney: 52 appearances [40+12]
- Jack McGrath: 38 appearances [12+26]
- Six Nations: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W3 | D0 | L2
- Overall: P10 | W5 | D0 | L5
The 2008 Ireland U20 team wasn’t a particularly bad outfit – they won just one less game than their 2010 and 2009 counterparts, and two more than the 2011 side – but it certainly is a puzzling one. Those players are 24/25 years old this year, and the only players born in 1988 who have made any sort of headway in terms of test rugby are the Munster front rows Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer, who have one start between them [Kilcoyne’s against the US last June] – but both Sherry and Kilcoyne were totally overlooked at this level, and Archer made just one start in ten games.
Of the fourteen Leinster players who earned national honours [including four U19s], none of them are currently contracted to the province.
Of course, that only became a reality two weeks ago, when Old Belvedere centre Eoin O’Malley was forced to retire. O’Malley’s worth to the team – and how valuable he was in Joe Schmidt’s eyes especially – is reinforced by the number of games he played when fit over his short career. As a 21 year old, he played in seven games in his debut season in Michael Cheika’s last year, but it was under Schmidt that he made his breakthrough, starting 17 games [including a daunting Heineken Cup fixture against Clermont in the Stade Marcel Michelin] in 2010-11.
In total, O’Malley played 54 games [40+14] for Leinster between the ages of 21 and 24. When you take into account that his last season before retirement was utterly shattered by injury [he played in just 5 of a possible 33 games], it reinforces the argument that he had quickly become a regular in the Pro12 fixtures. With starts in the victorious Heineken Cup campaigns of both 2010-11 [as above, against Clermont] and 2011-12 [in the home fixtures vs Glasgow, Bath and Montpellier], it’s fair to say that he genuinely earned his medals.
Hooker Jason Harris-Wright was a member of the squad in 2010-11 and racked up 390 minutes of gametime in fifteen appearances [three of them starts], but moved on to Bristol the following year when Sean Cronin arrived from Connacht. Harris-Wright has since returned to Ireland and established himself in the middle of the Connacht front row. Lock Eoin Sheriff was picked up by Saracens following his release by Leinster, and while he’s currently very much a fringe player for the Premiership outfit, second rows mature later in their careers than practically any other position.
Niall Morris accepted an offer from Leicester Tigers after the 2010-11 season, and has gone on to make a great success of his move, scoring 13 tries in 41 appearances and earning a call-up to the Emerging Ireland squad this summer. In glorious technicolour hindsight, there’s little doubt that Leinster regret not fighting harder to keep him.
Morris made his decision and his move with gametime in mind, and with Rob Kearney set to return for the 2011-12 season from a long-term injury to rejoin the Heineken Cup-winning back three of Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan [who started 24 games and bagged nine tries that season] and Isa Nacewa – two Lions and the IRUPA Player of the Year – it was a pretty sound decision at the time.The Irish-qualified lock Tom Denton arrived at the province last season from Leeds and has yet to make an effective impression at first team level, although he put in some solid performances for the ‘A’ side in their victorious British & Irish Cup campaign. He’s workmanlike. He’s so well-defined by that word that you could capitalise it and make it a proper noun: Tom Denton is Workmanlike. It just struck The Mole that the word itself [and thus Denton himself] is redolent of one of those German compound words like arbeitsbereit or haupteigenschaft. If Denton [or tomdentonlock, to grind all unfilched joy out of the conceit] were a car, he’d be a Skoda: well-built, practical, unfashionable and unlikely to provoke the wilder extremes of emotion.
We’ve written before at some length about Leinster’s recent issues at second row, and while we’ve just spent about four or five minutes looking up the appropriate German komposita to damn Denton with some seriously faint praise, there’s not an awful lot more to be said.
- Tom Denton: 10 appearances [4+6]
- Six Nations: P5 | W5 | D0 | L0
- Overall: P5 | W5 | D0 | L0
The motherlode! 2007 was the first year of U20 rugby, with the ancien regime of U19 and U21 being rationalized into one age-grade. The U20 side won the Grand Slam, winning tight games against France [19-16] and England [13-6] on home soil and establishing a winning mentality amongst the members of the squad.
Unfortunately, the re-organisation of age-grades meant that there was no summer world championship, and so this talented and confident team were prohibited from testing themselves against the best of the southern hemisphere.
Eight players have since been capped at test level: Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley, Cian Healy, Jamie Hagan, Sean O’Brien and Tommy O’Donnell. Five of them, the exceptions being Cave, O’Donnell and Earls, came through the Leinster system. Three of the 2007 Grand Slammers – Earls, Healy and O’Brien – are Lions; Luke Fitzgerald, an international and a Lion, is also an ’87 kid, but he skipped age-grade rugby, making his full test debut in November 2006 against the Pacific Islands.
Leinster provided thirteen players to the Six Nations match-day squads, and while only three remain with the club – the three who went on to be Lions, it should probably be noted – seven of the others are currently contracted at top level clubs: Jones and Keatley at Munster, Tonetti and O’Donohoe at Connacht, Monahan at Gloucester and Hagan at London Irish in the Aviva Premiership, and Ruaidhri Murphy at the Brumbies in Super Rugby.
- Cian Healy: 117 appearances [76+41]
- Luke Fitzgerald: 108 appearances [93+15]
- Sean O’Brien: 82 appearances [65+17]
- Six Nations: P5 | W1 | D0 | L4
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Overall: P10 | W3 | D0 | L7
The age-grade change [from U21 in 2006 to U20 in 2007] makes comparisons with the teams that followed a little inaccurate. It’s not clear what date the age-limit was set at, for one thing: since 2008, it has been 1 January, but The Mole remembers in the past – in Ireland, at least – that it was set at 1 July, i.e. halfway through the year, to more or less tie in with the academic calendar.
Three of the Leinster players selected for the Irish U21s in 2006 [Sexton, Carr and Doran-Jones] were born in 1985; two were born in 1986 [McFadden and Toner]; and Sean O’Brien was born in 1987. Thus Robert Kearney would this have been eligible for this side but, like Luke Fitzgerald the following season, he had outstripped age-grade rugby and was already tearing it up at senior level – he played 25 games in 2005-06 for Leinster and scored 9 tries.
Having looked through the team sheets for the underage teams, it’s readily apparent that Leinster’s contribution to the top age-grade of international rugby has been considerably higher at U20 than it ever was at U21. The fact that this co-incides with Michael Cheika’s arrival at the province lends credibility to the oft-voiced opinion that he had a definite positive impact on both the structures and the mindset at the club. There’s a reasonable argument that says that between Cheika and Collie McEntee, Leinster essentially developed the academy structure that all provinces now operate.
Here’s a snapshot of the players who comprised the Leinster Academy for the 2006-07 season; here’s one for the 2005-06 group. There were only seven Leinster players selected for Irish U21 match-day squads over ten games in 2006; that’s about half the representation of any year since, and just over a third of the number selected in 2009!
In light of that, it confounds expectations that there are no fewer that six Irish internationals born in 1986 in the 2013-14 Leinster squad: Robert Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner and Michael Bent. It speaks of excellent and far-ranging recruitment: Sean Cronin arrived from Connacht already an international, but Richardt Strauss came to the RDS as an unheralded project player from South Africa, and Michael Bent [who has had a very up-and-down first year in Ireland, and been singled out for some unfair criticism that has bordered on abuse] was plucked out of New Zealand pre-qualified through an Irish grandparent.
Balanced against the preponderance of 1986-born players is the surprising fact that there’s not one player born in 1985 in the squad, of Leinster origin or otherwise. There were two in last season’s squad, Jonathan Sexton and Fionn Carr, and while Carr’s departure was mutually beneficial, the loss of Sexton is a potentially devastating blow for the province. How could it not be? For any club the loss of the starting Lions outhalf for all three tests of a victorious tour would be calamitous. While Leinster have an excellent replacement in Ian Madigan [and have recruited well in contracting the services of Jimmy Gopperth], Sexton’s influence is difficult to overstate: from the start of the 2009-10 season until the end of the 2012-13 season, Leinster won 55 of the 66 games he started in the No10 jersey.
- Robert Kearney – 131 appearances [112+19]
- Devin Toner – 127 appearances [84+43]
- Fergus McFadden – 96 appearances [77+19]
- Richardt Strauss – 83 appearances [65+18]
- Sean Cronin – 50 appearances [25+25]
- Michael Bent – 14 appearances [7+7]
- Six Nations: P5 | W1 | D0 | L4
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W3 | D0 | L2
- Overall: P10 | W4 | D0 | L6
Blindside Kev McLaughlin is the only Leinster-produced player of three in the squad born in 1984.
McLaughlin was big news as a Gonzaga College schoolboy, playing for two seasons on the Irish Schools side. However, a torn cruciate ligament prevented him from lining out for the U21 Six Nations in 2005, and he was taken to the U21 Rugby World Championship on faith having played practically no rugby following his surgery.
Injuries promptly derailed his progress again, and at one stage he seriously considered retiring from professional rugby. It wasn’t until the 2009-10 season [as a 25 year old] that he established himself as a prominent player in the Leinster squad; up until that point he had started just five games in three seasons.
Naturalised Irishman Leo Auva’a returns for a third season; his first was a pleasant surprise, but his second was lackluster to the point that there seemed a strong possibility that he’d be cut mid-contract. The late-season emergence of Jordi Murphy as a viable candidate at No8 and the continuing progression of academy strongman Jack Conan has sounded the knell on Auva’a’s [my brother owns an apostrophe factory; I got a good deal on ’em] long-term future at the club.
Murphy played the vast majority of his underage rugby in the ocho, but there was a feeling amongst the staff in Leinster that he was a little undersized for the position at senior level. However, while he might yet hit some sort of wall based on a lack of size, his performances last season in the league put some of those fears to bed: his explosive power through arm-tackles, his pace over a short distance and his natural ability with the ball were all very much in evidence.
Cillian Willis was a well-liked member of the Leinster squad and played Heineken Cup rugby in 2006 as a 21 year old, but like McLaughlin he was horrifically unlucky with injury in the early part of his career, as Brendan Fanning relates. Willis ended up back at Leinster as a short term replacement for World Cup squad members Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss at the beginning of the 2011-12 season and was able to use that as a springboard to restart his career in the Premiership with Sale.
The highest profile of Leinster’s signings, Springbok fullback Zane Kirchner has had his arrival date pushed back due to his inclusion in Heyneke Meyer’s squad for the Rugby Championship. News of his contract wasn’t greeted with universal acclaim in Leinster, and it’s doubtful that any player would be able to replace Isa Nacewa in the collective heart of the Leinster support. However, the fact that he’s still deemed good enough to be selected in the squad of the second-ranked team in the world somewhat mitigates the fact that he’ll miss the start of the Pro12 season.
As an aside, Ulster had by far the strongest complement of the 2005 U21s, providing future Lions Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe as well as Irish internationals Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Bath’s Ryan Caldwell, Wolfhound/’A’ internationals Lewis Stevenson and Worcester’s John Andress and current Exeter Chiefs outhalf Gareth Steenson. Big year!
- Kev McLaughlin: 95 appearances [78+17]
- Leo Auva’a: 25 appearances [16+9]
- Zane Kirchner: 0 appearances
- Six Nations: P5 | W3 | D1 | L1
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W4 | D0 | L1
- Friendly: P1 | W1 | D0 | L0
- Overall: P11 | W8 | D1 | L2
Quite a lot has been written about the 2004 U21s, who got all the way to the World Championship final only to be beaten by a New Zealand team that included future All Blacks Luke McAlister, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, John Afoa, Ben Franks, Hosea Gear and Jerome Kaino, the last of whom was awarded the IRB U21 Player of the Year on the back of his performances in that tournament*.
Many of those articles fall into hand-wringing exercises that centre on why so many of that successful Irish team failed to progress into regular provincial and/or international players in the same manner as their New Zealand counterparts.
In fairness, it did turn up two double Lions players in Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip, as well as another chosen for the 2009 tour in Tomás O’Leary. Tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick has also won caps for Ireland, and Denis Fogarty, David Gannon and Neil McComb have been fairly regular provincial players for Munster, Connacht and Ulster in the recent past. John Hearty played for four seasons in Connacht on the back of his four tournaments for the U21s.
However, it’s not great compared to the Kiwis. Two contributing factors present themselves: one is quite obvious, the other a little more involved.
Firstly, that was a really good New Zealand team: six of them would go on to be part of the RWC11-winning squad, with two of those six [Kaino and Weepu] being nominated for IRB Player of the Year. Not all New Zealand underage teams have the same rate of progress through to the test side.
Secondly, there was a clear and obvious pathway for those Kiwi players to progress along. Looking back through the digital mist of the internet to see whether or not certain players were selected for the Leinster Academy, so little information is available that it’s practically impossible to see who was involved, what form the provincial academies existed in, or if indeed they even existed in any recognisable way at all. Doubtless there were t-shirts with “Leinster Academy” emblazoned on them, but there were probably academies in every AIL club at the same time.
There was significant confusion about the structure of the game in Ireland, some of it as a result of the fact that no Irish sporting organisation had run a professional sport before, but unfortunately much of it coming from a power struggle between the provinces and the clubs, who were unrealistic in their vision of the future of Irish rugby. The union had backed the provinces as the vehicle for Irish professional rugby, and there was a fair degree of King Canute-ing from AIL clubs in the face of the oncoming tide.
Having started in the 2001-02 season, 2003-04 was the first season that the Celtic League took on the format recognisable of today’s competition. The two previous seasons’ competitions had included no fewer than nine Welsh club sides and had split the sixteen teams involved into two pools of eight with only one fixture between each side [i.e. no home-and-away fixtures]. This meant a seven game regular season with a possible three game knock-out season to follow.
This short fixture list allowed the AIL to put off the death sentence for a couple of seasons and co-exist uncomfortably with professional rugby, but the 2003-04 season saw the adoption of a 22-game regular season played out between twelve teams [including the now disbanded Border Reivers of Scotland and Celtic Warriors of Wales], a move which more than trebled the amount of regular season games that provincially contracted players were involved in.
Getting back to the present day, Jimmy Gopperth is a signing that Leinster wished they didn’t have to make, but his long career thus far – and his first couple of outings with Leinster in their pre-season friendlies against Ulster and Northampton – point toward it being a good signing nonetheless.
- Jamie Heaslip: 166 appearances [159+7]
- Jimmy Gopperth: 0 appearances [0+0]
* Incidentally, Connacht duo No8 George Nauopu and new signing Craig Clarke were also members of that New Zealand U21 team.
- Six Nations: P5 | W4 | D0 | L1
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W2 | D0 | L2
- Overall: P10 | W7 | D0 | L3
Players for the 2003 U21 side were drawn largely from those born in 1982, and it’s the third year [alongside 1985 and 1988] from which there are no Leinster-bred players in the current squad. This one is a little easier to explain.
While Leinster provided nine players to matchday squads over the ten games, and no fewer than eight of them went on to play for the province, there was an absence of effective long term planning at that stage in all the provinces. After all, it’s not as though rugby had been professional in other countries for decades and there was a model to follow; everybody was just making it up as they went along with greater and lesser degrees of success.
As such, oftentimes it was a case of sink or swim for these young players, few of whom would have had any experience or detailed knowledge of the professional sportsman’s lifestyle before they were just that … professional sportsmen. Certainly in comparison with the structures [education, match analysis, nutrition, strength & conditioning, injury prevention and rehabilitation, media training] that are now provided to members of the provincial academies, there was essentially no preparation, and with the AIL still contending its relevance beside the two-pool Celtic League [a system that proved no little success in Munster, it should be said], the idea of a ‘Leinster first, club second’ academy had little purchase.
Furthermore, the Leinster management was in a continual state of flux at the time: Matt Williams accepted Scotland’s offer of a national head coach position in June 2003, leaving assistant coach Willie Anderson to hold the fort until the arrival of Gary Ella, who lasted just one season. Declan Kidney took over for the 2004-05 season before announcing that he was returning to Munster in April of 2005, whereupon he was immediately stood down as head coach, with an interim team of Paul McNaughton and Gerry Murphy finishing out the season in charge.Loosehead John Lyne won his 21 Leinster caps under four different head coaches [Williams, Ella, Kidney and Cheika] in four seasons, for example. That’s never going to do anything for your career. Ciaran Potts had a promising start to his career under both Gary Ella and Declan Kidney, but unfortunately a seemingly innocuous medial ligament injury – not that medial ligament injuries aren’t bad ‘uns, but they’re typically not as debilitating as other knee ligament injuries – suffered in a 2005-06 Heineken Cup group game two weeks after his 23rd birthday turned out to be significantly more damaging than first suspected, and ultimately ended his career before the year was out.
Niall Ronan spent four years at Leinster [starting in the 2003-04 season under Ella] struggling for gametime behind Keith Gleeson and Shane Jennings, and after a desultory 2006-07 under Michael Cheika – in which he only made seven appearances, four of them under ten minutes in duration – he moved to Munster to play second fiddle behind David Wallace. It might have seemed a little counter-productive to move to a club with an even better openside, but it worked out well for him and resulted in a lot more gametime.
Beyond internal upheaval at Leinster, the arrangement of the season and the embryonic form of the Celtic League made development of a wider squad a debatable requirement. With only seven regular season games in the league and six in the group stages of the Heineken Cup – and all those games scheduled to take place outside the international windows – there was both less need to contract a big squad and less gate money to pay them.
Leinster played a total of fifteen games in 2002-03 between August and April, a season which saw them progress to the Heineken Cup semi-finals. In contrast, and as a reminder of how much the season has filled up in a decade, they played sixteen games between September and December [inclusive] of the 2012-13 season.
It’s also worth clarifying that during this part of the decade, Leinster were spoken of as an underachieving side, not a poor side. There’s a world of difference. The Leinster of the early-to-mid 00s were a side who were stacked with ability but didn’t win as many pots as they might have and built an unfortunate reputation for losing games they should have won.
The Munster dominance of the Irish pack over a roughly four year period [from 2006-09] has become somewhat embellished in hindsight to the point of ‘providing the Irish pack for the decade’, and it’s sometimes forgotten that Leinster had a strong, settled pack for the first half of the decade:
- front rowers Reggie Corrigan [47 Irish caps], Shane Byrne [41 caps, Lion], Paul Wallace [2001-03, 45 caps, Lion] and Emmet Byrne [8 caps];
- locks Mal O’Kelly [92 caps, Lion], Leo Cullen [32 caps] and Bob Casey [1999-2002, 7 caps]; and
- backrowers Trevor Brennan [1997-2002, 13 caps], Eric Miller [48 caps, Lion], Victor Costello [39 caps] and Keith Gleeson [27 caps]
Those players had largely come through the AIL system [indeed it’s possible that a couple of the elder statesmen of that group, like Shane Byrne and Reggie Corrigan, might have played pre-AIL club rugby] and had established themselves as front-line players for the province, some of them for the country, essentially since the game went open.
With a comparatively small number of games per season, there was neither much of an incentive for whoever the coach was at the time to drop in youngsters, nor – from the coach’s point of view – much particular need to plan for a relatively far-off future.
It’s perhaps as a result of this that Leinster’s only two 1982-born players are the likable, hard-working and modestly talented New Zealand journeymen Andrew Goodman and Aaron Dundon.
The Clontarf clubman Dundon is a naturalised Irishman in the eyes of the IRB [I’ve no doubt they’re keeping a close eye on him], and has been a good fit as third choice hooker. He’s got that pragmatic, professional approach where he knows that he’s behind two test-capped players who are both a good bit younger than him. It’d seem that he understands his place in the depth chart and that realistically he hasn’t got a significant chance of upsetting it unless he continually performs at his peak and one of the two hookers ahead of him gets injured or hits a bad trough.
Offsetting that is the fact that he was an amateur until he was 28 years old, so he’s not disillusioned with how his career has gone. He’s not a guy who was highly touted all the way up, but instead a chap who has kept plugging away and, in the cliché of all footballing underdogs, is very likely ‘just happy to be here’. That’s not to say that he’s there for the ride, rather that he relishes a late-career opportunity which he might well have thought had passed him by.
Richardt Strauss’ injury-hobbled last season saw Dundon pick up considerably more gametime than he had in either of the previous two seasons, and he gave a very good account of himself in general, but especially in terms of his throwing ability. There’s a cadre of knowledgable Leinster fans who’d rate him as the most accurate thrower of all the hookers, which might fall on the side of faint praise, but is praise nonetheless. Having just turned 31 recently, and with not too much tread worn off his tires in the pro game, Dundon has been a very solid budget pick-up who’s probably good value for another couple of seasons.
Andrew Goodman was a late arrival to Leinster last season, seeing out his role as captain and placekicker for Tasman in the NPC before pitching up at the RDS. He’s a player very much in the Dutchy Holland mould, a hard-wearing midfield back with an open personality and professional demeanour who can fill in at out-half at a push. Goodman was a Joe Schmidt choice, and having missed the pre-season warm-up games with a leg injury, it will be interesting to see how he fares in selection under Matt O’Connor. Likable as he is, it’s difficult to see him as a long-term option: he turns 31 in October, and the chap ahead of him in the positional depth chart turns 34 next February. There’s a genuine need to introduce some younger players into the No12 shirt.
- Andrew Goodman: 17 appearances [11+6]
- Aaron Dundon: 21 appearances [4+17]
- Six Nations: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Junior World Championships: P5 | W2 | D0 | L3
- Overall: P10 | W4 | D0 | L6
The standout here is obviously Shane Jennings, who’s entering his twelfth professional season [his tenth with the province] on the back of a Man of the Match performance in the Pro12 final against Ulster and his busiest season in Leinster colours.
There’s a line of thinking doing the rounds that Jennings is past his best and is just waiting to be knocked off his perch by one of the young openside pretenders who swarm around the RDS. It’s not a particularly well-founded school of thought, in The Mole’s opinion. While it wouldn’t be a wise move to entirely ignore something as fundamental to any player as his age, the matter of form and how well a player is playing should always top the hierarchy.
Firstly, 32 isn’t really all that ancient for a forward. You’re definitely in the third act of your career, but you only have to return to the top of the article and look at the ages of two of the Clermont backrowers who were amongst the outstanding flankers in European club rugby last season, Bonnaire and Vosloo, to see that it’s certainly not some sort of undeniable tipping point of decline. Those two lads are still playing at the very sharp end of club competition with two more years under their respective belts compared to Jennings.
Secondly, Jennings’ performance in the Pro12 final was amongst the best of his career. The Pro12 final doesn’t capture the imagination or carry the hype of a European Cup Final, but nevertheless it was a field stacked with talent:
- three World Cup winners [Muller, Afoa and Pienaar];
- seven Lions [Best, Court, Bowe, Healy, Heaslip, Sexton, O’Driscoll]
- the last six IRUPA Player of the Year winners [Williams 2013, Kearney 2012, Nacewa 2011, Bowe 2010 & 2008, O’Driscoll 2009];
- two of the last three Pro12 Players of the Year [Williams 2013, Pienaar 2011]
… and, in winning a well-deserved Man of the Match award, Jennings performed better than all of them in what was a vital and extremely hard-fought game. The Mole would hold that the Mark Twain retort is still applicable – and credible – when it comes to Jennings’ career.
The signing of Mike McCarthy from Connacht broke in December amidst quite a storm of gnashing teeth. The London-born lock was coming off a Man of the Match performance against the Springboks in the November internationals, and the news broke in the week between the Heineken Cup double-header.
Leinster had lost Quinn Roux to a long-term shoulder injury in the Pro12 fixture against Glasgow at the end of November, and would lose Damien Browne for the rest of the season by halftime in the home loss to Clermont with a recurrence of his own shoulder injury. There’s little doubt that Leinster would have paid a premium to buy the last six months of McCarthy’s Connacht contract out there and then.
Jennings and McCarthy are the only two 1981-born players in the squad. It’s normal [and frankly desirable] that as one goes further back into the past, one finds that fewer players have managed to stay the course. It’s Darwinian selection: only the strong survive.
There are a couple of real curios here, though. For example, winger James Norton scored eight tries in eight games between February and May 2004 in the second half of his debut season for Leinster as a 22 year old. That’s an impressive scoring ratio by any standards, and it is made more so given the fact that he broke his hip in a freak accident in October of that season. The next season [2004-05, under Declan Kidney] he played just seven games, but still managed to score three tries; the next season he was gone, retired from the professional game [he now runs a tasty fruit and veg shop in Glasthule].
Norton was a rare bird, a player who was selected to start in three different seasons for the Ireland U21s. In the period encompassed by this article [1998-2011], only four other players have shared that honour: Tommy Bowe, Jeremy Staunton, Des Dillon and Leo Cullen.
The St Mary’s winger started the first three games of the 2000 U21 Six Nations as an 18 year old; there was no summer tournament that year. He then missed the Foot and Mouth-disrupted 2001 tournament entirely [which extended to all of two games!] but made it back in time to start against New Zealand in the IRB U21 World Cup in June of that year. In his last year of eligibility, he found himself on the bench for the first four games of the 2002 U21 Six Nations before breaking back into the side for the last game of the tournament in France. He was then in and out of the run-on XV for the 2002 World Cup, starting on the wing in the losses against South Africa [42-22] and France [40-29].Scrum-half Brian O’Riordan was a two-season Irish U21 who made 14 starts at that age-grade but who, like the aforementioned prop John Lyne, was unfortunate to spend the four seasons of his Leinster career under four different head coaches. O’Riordan made his debut for Leinster as a 21 year old against Newport in October 2002, and came off the bench for Ireland ‘A’ against France ‘A’ in March 2005 a couple of months after his 24th birthday.
However, he was unloaded to Bristol, then in the Premiership, between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Bristol’s coach at the time was former England scrum-half Richard Hill, who knows a thing or two about the No9 role. It’s a vote of confidence in a player when the coach who selects you used to play your position; it’s their particular field of expertise.
Current team manager Guy Easterby had arrived in Kidney’s year in charge [2004-05] and was the starting scrum-half in Michael Cheika’s first season, having taken over from Cork-born international Brian ‘Bommer’ O’Meara, who promptly returned home to Munster. However, Easterby was already 35 years old by the time of the Heineken Cup semi-final in April 2006 [although the veteran Irish international was far from finished – he’d wind up starting against Leicester Tigers in January 2008, two months shy of his 37th birthday] and clearly wasn’t a long-term solution.
Cheika had recruited the highly experienced Australian international Chris Whitaker at scrum-half for the 2006-07 season, who would take the No9 jersey with Easterby as back-up, and then brought journeyman Chris Keane from Connacht for the 2007-08 season. Musical Chairs, Variation No9!
- Shane Jennings: 175 appearances [143+32]
- Mike McCarthy: 0 appearances [0+0]
- Six Nations: P2* | W1 | D0 | L1 [* games cancelled due to Foot & Mouth Disease]
- Junior World Championships: P4 | W2 | D0 | L2
- Friendly: P1 | W0 | D0 | L1
- Overall: P7 | W3 | D0 | L4
The presence of Leinster’s most capped player of all time, Gordon D’Arcy – who’s now heading into his sixteenth professional season – is obviously the stand-out feature of the 2001 U21s from a provincial point of view. He’s joined in the current Leinster squad by fellow 1980-yearmates and Irish internationals Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan.
D’Arcy had made his test debut as a 19 year old in RWC99 against Romania, so playing a second year on the U21s eighteen months later might have been considered a backwards step for him.
That may seem an unnecessarily harsh judgment, but The Mole was struck by the parallels with Tom Prydie’s central role in the Welsh U20s’ progress to the JWC semi-finals during June 2012. Prydie was the proto-George North, picked by Scott Johnson to play for the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup before his 18th birthday, and shortly afterwards selected by Warren Gatland to play for Wales in the 2010 Six Nations against Italy, making him both the youngest Welsh cap of all time and the youngest person to ever play in the Five or Six Nations.
Looking at his career since, it’s difficult to argue against the contention that he was promoted too soon. In three seasons with the Ospreys, he only made five starts, and ended the 2011-12 season on loan to Wasps, a move that didn’t stick. At the ripe old age of 21, he’s already in the second act of his career, rebuilding his worth with the Newport Gwent Dragons.
If he’s looking for a model to prove that you can make a big career for yourself after an early slump, he could do a hell of a lot worse than D’Arcy. Like Prydie, the Clongowes Wood College alumnus was another Gatland teenage test selection, and it’s difficult to point out how the experience benefitted his career in any way. Things seemed to come a little too easily for D’Arcy very early in his pro career, and as a result he didn’t always work as hard as he needed to.
In contrast to D’Arcy, Eoin Reddan had a long, slow ascent to his first cap. While he made the Irish Schools and U19s sides, he went uncapped at U21 level, with Kieran Campbell  and Pat McCarthy and Brian O’Riordan  taking the honours.
On leaving Crescent Comprehensive he joined Old Crescent, then moved across Limerick and up a division to Young Munster before earning his first professional contract with Connacht. He spent two seasons there until he was tempted with a move back home to Munster in 2003 to spend two years as Peter Stringer’s understudy. In 2005 Warren Gatland picked him up for Wasps, where he was initially understudy to English World-Cup winner Matt Dawson, before usurping his mentor and going on to play well over 100 games for the Londoners, winning the Heineken Cup and the Premiership as a starter.
Something that generally goes unmentioned [in comparison to long-serving forwards like Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen, for example] is just how experienced both Leinster scrum-halves are. Reddan has played almost 300 first class games – 249 club games for Connacht , Munster , Wasps  and Leinster , and 50 tests for Ireland. Details about Isaac Boss‘ early experience in New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship [NPC] are a little bit sketchy, but he has played in at least 225 games in the NPC, Super Rugby, the Magner’s League/Pro12, Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup as well as 17 tests for Ireland.
[Shimmers to flashback; cue voice-over]:
The 2001 U21 Six Nations suffered the same fate as the senior equivalent, with matches falling foul of government-imposed travel restrictions aimed to minimize the spread of Foot and Mouth disease. D’you remember those chemical-soaked carpets that were all over the place that year?
There are a few interesting names and stories amongst that age-group: Kieran Lewis was a test-capped centre who played 63 games for Leinster and 23 for Munster in eight pro seasons, but was in the no-win situation of being born in the same year as Gordon D’Arcy and a year after Brian O’Driscoll.
I’ve no doubt that some of our readers will know Niall Breslin from his second career as frontman for The Blizzards, and his third career as a sort of talent-show svengali/chancer with a lot of polish but little of the heart that characterised Aonghus McAnally, the doyen of the medium.
It’s sort of fascinating to see how many of these U21s went on to have some sort of Leinster career – in total, they racked up 743 caps, which averages out to over 67 caps per man. Granted, the caps accounted for by D’Arcy and Jennings  amount to almost half of that number, but the likes of Lewis, Gary Brown [whose last professional season for Leinster was the 2008-09 Heineken Cup-winning term], Brian O’Riordan and Gavin Hickie all had respectable professional careers.
- Gordon D’Arcy: 217 appearances [201+16]
- Eoin Reddan: 79 appearances [60+19]
- Isaac Boss: 76 appearances [46+30]
- Six Nations: P5 | W3 | D0 | L2
Gordon D’Arcy was the fullback in his first season of two for the team, 18-year old St Mary’s starlet James Norton was on the wing, three-time World Cup squad member Paddy Wallace was in the centre and The Mole’s favourite lost cause, Jeremy Staunton, ran the show at outhalf. They thumped Wales 35-17, hammered Scotland 41-8 and hosed Italy 95-7 … but got pipped in England by 20-11 and then demolished in France on the 18th of March, 51-24.
This was a team which featured a number of players who had won the U19 FIRA competition in 1998, including centres Shane Moore and Wallace [who was outhalf for the U19s], scrum-half Kieran Campbell, backrow Chris McCarey, lock O’Callaghan, hooker Adrian Flavin and props Andy O’Brien and Frank Roche [who had started for the 1998 U19s, but were subs on the U21 team].
Scrum-half/wing Simon Keogh played for five seasons with Harlequins between his two spells at Leinster, playing a whopping 131 games and scoring a scarcely less impressive 49 tries; his team-mates included Tory hero Will Greenwood, current Quins forwards coach Tony Diprose and a very young Chris Robshaw. In total Keogh had a decade-long professional career, playing in over 160 pro games and representing his country at every level up to and including ‘A’ internationals.
Andy Dunne spent two seasons there too, before a short spell at Bath, a return to Leinster for the 2006-07 season and then two seasons at Connacht. Blackrock prop Niall Treston started all five games of the Six Nations on the tighthead side a year underage [and indeed would start all six games in the same position the following season] but suffered a horrific legbreak for Leinster against Llanelli in 2003 which would eventually require six surgeries and effectively ended his career at 23 years old. Belvedere’s Shane Moore, captain of the victorious U19s back in ’98, had a short professional career with Connacht, but is best known for his long-term association with UCD.
This was Brian O’Driscoll‘s age-grade of course, but he had bigger fish to fry: the day after the U21s got beaten by their French counterparts, he scored a hat-trick in Stade France and inspired Ireland’s first win in France since 1978.
It’d be harder to find a test player in the professional era whose early career was more at odds with O’Driscoll’s than his team-mate and year-mate Mike Ross. Though they’re separated by just ten months in age, O’Driscoll had played 59 test matches for Ireland and four more for the Lions before Ross had played his first professional game.
- Brian O’Driscoll: 172 appearances [167+5]
- Mike Ross: 87 appearances [64+23]
- Six Nations: P5 | W4 | D0 | L1
- Junior World Cup: P4 | W1 | D0 | L3
- Overall: P9 | W5 | D0 | L4
Of the period covered in this exercise [1999-2011], the Leinster group of 1999 equals the 2009 group in providing 18 players to the top level Irish age-grade team of the time [U21 in 1999, U20 in 2009].
It’s difficult to overstate the influence that the Barry Gibney-led Blackrock College ‘Dream Team’, winners of two Leinster Schools Senior Cups in 1995 and 1996, had on Irish age-grade rugby in this generation.
Leo Cullen, Richard Woods, Bob Casey, Peter Smyth, Tom Keating and Dave Quinlan – all fully paid-up members of both Cup-winning sides – started every game of the U21 Six Nations in 1999. Brian O’Driscoll, who had been a sub on the 1996 team, started four of five games in the tournament; three months later he’d make his full test debut down in Australia.However, he was beaten to the punch by an eighth schoolmate, scrumhalf Cieran Scally, who in March 1999 was already playing in the senior tournament, featuring off the bench in Scotland and as a starter against Italy.
He had scored tries in his first two international games against Georgia and Romania in November 1998, but even at twenty years old he was an injury-compromised player, as Karl McGinty’s Irish Independent interview of April 2000 relates:
‘… the right knee, which required a cruciate ligament operation following a crunching challenge in his final schoolboys international against England, had occasionally niggled at him, but a little swelling was easily forgotten in the post-match euphoria which followed his international appearances.
However, a serious problem emerged last September [September 1999 – DM] when he went for routine physical testing with the academy. “I had lost a ridiculous amount of pace, while in the vertical jumps I scored the lowest out of anyone there – prop forwards, everyone,” he recalled.
“It was frightening and academy doctor Liam Hennessy said we’d have to get it sorted out and I went to Ray Moran for the scan.”
The doctor’s verdict was brutally simple. Scally might play the occasional social game in the future but his knee would never stand up to professional rugby or any sport which requires a lot of running.’The Blackrock scrum-half was a Gordon D’Arcy-esque phenom as a schoolboy rugby player: low slung, explosive, ferociously aggressive and seemingly a man amongst boys. The McGinty interview makes clear just how much Scally welcomed physical confrontation, and while his Leinster profile doesn’t leap off the screen as describing a physical monster, at 180cm [5’11”] and 85kg [13st5lbs] he was a very solid unit, and was the biggest scrum-half in the Five Nations [yep, the Five Nations] when he made his championship debut in 1999*.
*The other scrum-halves were Rob Howley, Gary Armstrong, Matt Dawson and Philippe Carbonneau. Scally was the biggest, not the best!
While five players from the Blackrock S.C.T. of 1996 would go on to win test caps for Ireland [by order of debut the list runs Scally, O’Driscoll, Casey, Cullen and Quinlan], it could easily have been more. Even in a team that would send two players to make their test debuts at 20 years old [Scally and O’Driscoll], captain Barry Gibney was the stand-out talent. As Eddie O’Sullivan says in his autobiography, “Never Die Wondering” [pgs 107-108]:
“Scally and Gibney were probably the two gems you’d pick out of a pretty special bunch, but both would have their careers cut short by injury. Actually, the first time I saw Gibney – a phenomenal backrow player – play Junior Cup, I remember remarking that he wouldn’t have looked out of place with a silver fern on his chest.”Gibney’s under-age career is the stuff of which schoolboy legends – that greatest tribute of them all! – are made: a starter on five Blackrock College cup teams [two Juniors and three Seniors], and the winning captain of three [Junior Cup in 1993, Senior Cups in 1995 & 1996].
Having led a Leinster Schools touring party around Australia unbeaten in the summer of 1995, he captained Ireland Schools to a Triple Crown in 1996, then led them on tour to Australia [again] in the summer of that year, beating Australian Schools, again going undefeated and winning the Players’ Player award.
Unfortunately, while Schools rugby forged Gibney as a player, it essentially used him up. Five seasons of cup rugby is a physically and emotionally draining experience for a young man. On top of that, representative rugby and especially the two tours to Australia meant that he [and others, like Cullen and Scally] essentially had no break from rugby for the two years of their Leaving Cert cycle.
Lads were putting in just as much effort as they would today, but strength and conditioning practices, while well-intentioned, were nowhere near as refined as they are at this time [something that will be said about today’s practices in twenty years, no doubt]. Advances in sports medicine in the fields of diagnostics, surgery and rehabilitation have probably been even greater. There’s no end of anecdotal evidence of schools players picking up significant injuries and managing them all the way through to the end of cup season; it’s just what they do. The cup is king.
Gibney captained Ireland U21s in the first two matches of their Triple Crown in 1998, but missed the last two through injury. He made his full Leinster debut – indeed, his one and only competitive game for Leinster – as a 20 year old in the interprovincial championship in August 1998 against Ulster, but was again injured in the match. The chap was long-term crocked; there’s only so much anybody can put themselves through.
It wasn’t all about Blackrock College alumni though: Boyne RFC products Shane Horgan and Mark McHugh would both go on to be capped [and to score tries] at test level. Horgan’s impact with Leinster was immediate, starting and finishing every one of the twelve games they played in 1998-99, his debut season. He was one of the famous five – along with Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Peter Stringer and Simon Easterby – to make their international debuts against Scotland in the 2000 Six Nations under Warren Gatland, and would go on to win 65 test caps and bag 21 tries.
Mark McHugh had some big highs in his long and picaresque career: he played for Ireland and scored a try against Tonga in June 2003, and beat one of the great European teams practically on his own, scoring all 27 of Leinster’s points against a Martin-Johnson-led Leicester in a Heineken Cup fixture in November 1999.
He left for a then-struggling Montpellier on a two year deal in time for the 2007-08 season, and after two seasons in the Top14, moved east along the Riviera to play for Nice in the Federale 1 [France’s third division] where he was able to prepare for life after sport by combining rugby with a job in finance.
The grand old man of Leinster deserves the last nod though. Leo Cullen is the oldest member of the Leinster squad and the most successful captain in the history of the club. Athletically, Cullen has suffered in comparison with Paul O’Connell, and is sometimes unflatteringly depicted these days as a one-paced plodder whose main virtue is his staying power.Firstly, staying power’s an under-rated asset! Still, it’s a characterisation that doesn’t pay sufficient respect to ability as a rugby player, talents that were recognised early by coaches who would go on to hold big jobs [more of which below]. Talent isn’t restricted to athletic ability; if it was, neither Cullen nor Ronan O’Gara would have risen to such heights in the Irish game.
The Wicklow man was one of the most highly decorated age-grade rugby players of the last quarter century. He won seven caps for Ireland Schools in two seasons, starting in the middle of the backrow under Declan Kidney in 1995 and retaining the No8 jersey under Keith Patton in 1996, a year of particular success for the schools side: they won all three of their spring game to complete a Triple Crown, and would cap that achievement with a win over Australian Schools in Australia that summer. The following season he started all four games for the Ireland U19s – again under Declan Kidney – captaining the side in the U19 World Cup in Argentina in 1997.
By that stage he had already won the first of his U21 caps, called up mid-tournament by head coach Eddie O’Sullivan to start at blindside [alongside David Wallace in the No8 shirt] for a very strong Irish U21s team that beat England and Scotland in February 1997, a month after his 19th birthday.
In 1998, his second year at U21s, he started every game at No8 under Brian McLaughlin [who would go on to coach Ulster to the HEC final in the 2011-12 season] and won a Triple Crown with schoolmate Gibney as captain. In 1999, his third year as a starter at the age-grade, he captained the team for all nine matches from No8, winning four out of five games in the U21 Six Nations. It’s a staggering amount of age-grade representative rugby.
Bill Belichic payed a rare tribute to a departing New England Patriot player when linebacker Mike Vrabel left for the Kansas City Chiefs:
“He … epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, playmaking, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level.”
It’s a great list of attributes, and if you take toughness as a measure of both the player’s durability and their determination, and composure as falling under both intelligence and leadership, it’s essentially a complete one. Cullen may not have the same versatility that he showed in the early part of his career, and he was never a flashy playmaker [in the Deion Sanders sense of the word], but his leadership, his toughness, and his intelligence have made an enormous difference to Leinster during his time with the club.
- Leo Cullen: 201 appearances [167+34]
This has been an interesting exercise to work through, not least because The Mole played with or against a number of the players further down the list. What lessons can be drawn from the research?
Firstly, that frequent judgment that a player ‘never made it’ or ‘never quite made it’ is pretty odious because it’s so one-sided. ‘It’ is a variable that changes according to whatever the speaker’s expectations of the player was, so long as the expectation hasn’t been achieved. When do you ever hear anybody say of a successful player that he ‘made it’?
“Johnny Sexton? Ah yeah, he made it.” Nobody has ever said that.
It reminds The Mole of that P.G. Wodehouse line: “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” There is no ‘making it’, because it’s such an indefinable and intangible target. There’s only ‘not making it’.
It’s Not The Caps, It’s The Mileage
Having a long professional career means that you’re a top quality player, even if you don’t necessarily rack up a lot of test caps. Leo Cullen has 32 test caps and Sean Cronin has 27 – that’s not intended as an attack on Cronin [although obviously there’s always going to be collateral damage by implication], but it does go to show that a number of caps isn’t always the ultimate reflection of a player’s worth.
There are a good few examples in the lists above of players who were just unlucky their careers coincided with those of … well, better players. As good an openside as Shane Jennings has been for Leinster and Leicester [and Ben Kay famously rated him a better player than World Cup-winner Neil Back], he was in the ha’penny place to David Wallace.
The trend continues, and will always continue. There’s every chance that some very good players will be stuck in the queue behind Cian Healy and Conor Murray for a long, long time.
Success Breeds Success
Earning success in international underage tournaments provides a degree of confidence to young players that can only be construed as beneficial to them for the first half of their career. It’s not the confidence or cockiness that comes from being a good schoolboy player; everyone who’s a pro was a good schoolboy player.
Going out and knocking over the best that other countries have to offer engenders more respect from the pros, because not all of them have done that. There’s a level of recognition that members of winning teams are afforded which other guys aren’t. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the players from the 2007 U20 Grand Slam-winning side are still gainfully employed in the pro game.
Even if you don’t win a cup or a tournament, by hitting the goal that was set by your coach and achieving a sense of satisfaction from your efforts, you’ve earned the knowledge that your dedication to performance, training, nutrition, rehab etc. during the season has an actual pay-off. It’s not just something that you have to take on faith, it’s something that you’ve experienced yourself.
With that in mind, The Mole is pretty sure that – to use a recent example – more players from the 2012 U20s will remain in the game than the 2011 U20s. It’s not that they were necessarily more successful than their immediate predecessors purely because they were better players; there were plenty of good players in that 2011 team. However, the early success is an impalpable aid that helps them to become more confident players going forward … a virtuous cycle.
“As a rugby player you want to be able to do your job. Training is hard. There’s no way you want to train Monday to Friday and not play. That’s why I came over here [to London Irish]. All I wanted to do was play week in, week out. That’s when you’re happiest.”
The above quote was taken from an interview with Bob Casey and is [as far as The Mole has read or heard] the most succinctly expressed and emotionally understandable statement that an Irish professional player has given about ‘giving up the dream’ and moving away from his home province.
Injury is a motherfucker. Lads like Dave Doyle , Ian McKinley , Eoin O’Malley , Conor McInerney , Ciaran Potts , Niall Treston , Ciaran Scally  and Barry Gibney  had promising careers cut to a dead halt by serious injuries.
Maybe this is too obvious to even type [heaven forbid we avoid the obvious game for f*cking once] but The Mole has massive sympathy for those lads who are cut down by on-pitch injuries. It’s not that lads who build up niggles that prevent them from performing at 100% don’t deserve sympathy: when you’ve had your fair share [more than your fair share?] of injuries, you’re familiar with both the tedium that goes with – that is – rehabilitation, and the knowledge that you’re never going to be quite at your best again.
However, the idea that one moment you’re performing at your maximum possible output, and the next moment your career is essentially over [whether you know it or not] … Jesus, that’s a heartbreaker.
There’s a lot of negative guff spoken about strength and conditioning, especially by older commentators who aren’t particularly knowledgeable on the subject. It’s not about being a douchebag in the gym doing preacher curls in the squat rack and knocking on balls for a living. It’s about learning from highly educated, experienced and motivated professionals and then having the discipline and determination to apply them to every aspect of your professional training – nutrition, rest, flexibility, pre-habilitation, weight-training, CV training, plyometrics, injury diagnostics, recovery and rehabilitation.
When you consider some of the highly talented young players who barely made it out of their teens on the pitch because of injury – Scally and Gibney, the Leinster Schools centre partnership of Terenure College’s Eamonn Travers and Clongowes’ John Lacy, who were staggeringly good – it’s worth considering that S&C isn’t the monster it’s sometimes depicted as. If these guys had the benefit of the expertise and knowledge that is available to players today, they might have had massive professional careers … because they certainly had the talent.