Leinster – A Tale of Two Units

For the fourth season in a row, Leinster came out on top of the Pro14. Over the course of those four editions of the tournament, the Blue Machine have won 64 games and lost 13, with only two losses in the last two seasons. It has been an era of unprecedented domestic dominance, but each campaign has had its own shape and eccentricities.

Leinster took their fourth consecutive Pro14 title – and eighth league title overall – with a terse and professional win over close neighbours and long-time rivals Munster in a deserted RDS a couple of weekends ago. The mid-season final brought a sudden close to what has been a strange, arhythmic competition: Glasgow Warriors and Benetton Treviso played out their practically meaningless fixture in Scotstoun at lunchtime on the same day, as if to highlight the ungainly scheduling that saw a league final played just a day after the last match – albeit a rearranged last match – of the Six Nations. 

Disjointed

The two conference system was retained, despite the fact that the Cheetahs and Southern Kings were pulled from the competition, and the official name of the Pro14 was retained, despite the fact that only 12 teams were involved. 

In practical terms, and with the most perfunctory of apologies to those who may be offended by the following, it was apparent by Christmas that only three teams were really competing for the trophy: Leinster, Munster and Ulster. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ was never wider. The three aforementioned provinces each won 14 of their 16 games, while none of the other nine teams in the league took more than eight wins. 

Christmas time is always an obvious marker in the season, but this advent was significant in structural terms: on the 23rd December, after months of rumour and eight rounds of competition, Pro14 Rugby announced that the league schedule, still somewhat nebulous, would have its typical format curtailed. The regular season would be cut down to 16 games, the semi final stage would have a line drawn through it and the two conference toppers would play out a final in late March. This battlefield amputation was decided on in order to provide for a new cup competition to [thematically] welcome the South African Super Rugby franchises to northern hemisphere competition and [pragmatically] to provide for the greasing of parched tills with moneys from a new broadcast deal from Super Sport. 

On a combined log, Ulster’s superior points difference would have edged them ahead of Munster for a second place finish. Unfortunately for the northern province, and despite the fact that they were beaten finalists in the 2019-20 edition of the tournament, they were in the same pool as reigning champions Leinster. The Blue Machine put them through the grinder for bonus point wins in the RDS and Ravenhill in January and March respectively, and with Munster taking their conference at a canter – they finished 19 points ahead of second-placed Connacht – yet another instalment of Big Blue vs Suddy & Red [the fourth in seven months] was inked in. 

Gravediggers

As inchoate as the league campaign was – disrupted by the postponed denouement of the previous edition of the tournament, then the completion of the 2020 Six Nations, and then played alongside the one-off Autumn Nations Cup in October/November and the 2021 Six Nations in February/March – it was reflected in the miniature by the alternately effervescent and dour rugby played by the champions, who fielded dreadfully disjointed centre and backrow units and struggled with a key law change before successfully executing their title defence. 

Lexeter

The effects of the changed interpretation to the breakdown that came with return-to-play in August 2020 have had a significant impact on Leinster’s approach to their attack, and thus their style of play, this season. Through the period September 2016 – February 2020 Leinster had earned some renown for frequently retaining the ball for 20+ phases while stretching defences laterally. That was their modus operandi: a lot of time on the ball, a lot of probing and then enough ball players and explosive runners to exploit a breakthrough in any column of the pitch. While the coaches worked to make them ‘comfortable in chaos’, it seemed that there was an equivalent [but less publicised] approach that drilled into players the importance of working hard off the ball to get into positions to create depth, time runs as carriers or decoys, run trail lines to support the carrier and, crucially, to protect the ball at the tackle, either as a carrier via ‘bodyball’ – a holdover from Joe Schmidt – or, if a support player, as a rucker.

In any case, the extremes of ball retention that Leinster exhibited over this period played to the manner in which the laws of the game were interpreted at the time. Opposition jackals [or poachers] had to ‘survive the clearout’, which meant that, when combined with the leeway afforded to the ball carrier on the ground, support players had a crucial two or three extra seconds to move a threat off the ball before the team conceded either possession or a penalty for the ball carrier holding on. The weathergage was with teams who handled the ball a lot, as they were given every opportunity to retain the ball and tire opposition defences out. 

This happy world ended with changes earmarked by World Rugby in March 2020: bodyball was interdictum and jackals went from impact bags to protected structures. 

The key elements that disrupted Leinster’s approach were the [literal] excision of wiggle room for the ball carrie, and the protection of the jackler. Law changes in rugby union, no matter how well considered at committee level, always bring some unintended consequences in their wake.

There were some very ugly games in the opening days of return-to-play, with a marked increase in penalties against the team in possession and a numbers of games blighted by bomb/tackle/jackal tactics. It seemed to The Mole Leinster suffered more than most; perhaps they had a little further to fall.  

Because of the shutdown imposed by the global pandemic, these changes came [in regulatory terms if not chronologically] in mid-season; teams were still fighting for trophies, and championships that had started under one set of interpretations and would finish under another. In those circumstances, being a reactionary is about the best you can do. Don’t tell Chairman Mao. 

In short order, it seems from the outside looking in that Cullen and Lancaster shifted Leinster’s emphasis from being a team who controlled the ball to a team who controlled field position. Attacking different places in an opposition defence around the middle of the field became a much riskier tactic; it was far more pragmatic to establish position in your opponent’s 22 and bludgeon your way over with in-fighting and trench warfare. There has been more than a trace of Rob Baxter’s Exeter in their methods this season.

Contributing Factors

Largely as a result of this change in emphasis, this season’s Leinster didn’t appear either as clinical nor as fluid as previous versions. The effort was always readily apparent. What sticks in The Mole’s subterranean mind was the oppressive, inevitable quality to their try-taking near the opposition line, rather than any stand-out memories of wing-heeled grace from distance. However, there were other contributing factors to this callous betrayal of invention in favour of ruthless pragmatism.  

Leinster struggled to put a midfield together all season.  Over the 19 games from the start of October until the end of March, 11 different centre partnerships were selected to start; this doesn’t take into account the ad hoc combinations that sprung up in-game due to injury or substitution. 

Leinster jury-rigged some centre-partnerships on short notice in 2020-21, with fullback Jimmy O’Brien filling in at outside centre on a number of occasions and Ross Byrne – a confirmed outhalf if ever there was one – expanding his resume with a brace of outings in the centres.

Behind the scenes, the province was more or less crippled with midfield injuries. Conor O’Brien’s season never even got started. He underwent hamstring surgery late in the offseason and didn’t make it back to the RDS pitch before tearing his ACL in training in December. His namesake Tommy O’Brien was injured against the Ospreys in the fifth game of the season and missed the remaining 14 games between the original injury and a hamstring injury picked up on his return to training.  Rory O’Loughlin injured his shoulder in the same Ospreys match and missed the next eight weeks, before re-injuring it in his first game back [against Connacht] and missing another six weeks. 

Garry Ringrose broke his jaw twice – once against Italy in October and again against Northampton in December before damaging ankle ligaments in Ireland’s Six Nations 2021 game against Scotland in March; he only made four appearances for his province between the start of October and the end of March.

When the shit hit the fan, Ross Byrne turned out to be the hero centre Leinster never knew they needed. Byrne stepped in for Garry Ringrose at outside centre [I kid you not] in a key interpro against Conference A rivals Ulster in early January when Ringrose was recovering from his second broken jaw of the season.

[Photo credits: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile]

Even players who weren’t long-term scratches were hindered by bangs and niggles and were frequently unavailable for selection. Ciaran Frawley played in both Heineken Cup games – starting against Montpellier and coming off the bench for Ringrose against Northampton – but between hamstring and shoulder problems barely featured for Leinster in 2021, playing just two of ten games since the turn of the year

That inability to get on the pitch was frustrating for fans of the province, as the Nos10/12 partnership of Frawley and Harry Byrne was a treat to watch in October and November, when Leinster piled up handsome wins over Zebre [63-8], Edinburgh [50-10] and Cardiff Blues [40-5] with the young first and second five-eighth partnership running a very entertaining show. 

Blue Riband Race

A silver lining amidst the dark clouds of injury and disruption was the emergence of Kildare teenager Jamie Osborne, who debuted off the bench against the Scarlets and made an immediate impact. Very few teenagers have played for Leinster in the professional era [though Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney are amongst them] and before Osborne’s recent debut, there were only two in the last decade: Adam Byrne [2012] and Scott Penny [2018].

Jamie Osborne on day-boo against the Scarlets in late January. Osborne didn’t miss a step in his introduction to professional rugby and is remarkably accomplished for a teenager. This isn’t the late 1990s anymore, when players coming out of school were more professional than their senior counterparts, so to be so comfortable and competent at such a young age is impressive.

Osborne has looked assured far, far beyond his years in his six appearances to date; in The Mole’s slow-moving but [self-assessed] mordant judgment, he’s as good as Robbie Henshaw was in his debut season for Connacht. More in the Jauzion mould than the O’Driscoll mould – he’s 192cm [6’3”] tall and weighs 95kg [15st] – the Kildare man looks to already possess all the tools he needs to succeed as a centre: he can run, pass, kick, tackle and he makes good decisions on and off the ball. He doesn’t crowd his team-mates’ space, doesn’t over-use the ball, he can get over the gainline, he can pass off both hands on the move, he can kick for length and he can hit. 

A product of Naas RFC and currently a member of the Sub-Academy, he will join Conor O’Brien [Mullingar RFC] and Ciaran Frawley [Skerries RFC] as the third centre in the group to have risen through the Leinster Youths ranks, rather than via Leinster Schools. That these three players – O’Brien, Frawley and Osborne – are in the mix at Leinster is a testament not only to their innate abilities, but also to the work that the Leinster Branch have done to identify and nurture the undoubted talent that exists around the province outside the traditional hotbeds of rugby. Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy made centre the province’s blue riband position over the course of their storied careers, and it’s no stretch to imagine that Drico’s heroism and stellar accomplishments made a lot of youngsters want to wear the No13 jersey … and convinced a lot of mini-rugby coaches to put their best player at outside centre. 

It’s not that the original sources have failed [the august Blackrock College can name a pair of centres in Garry Ringrose and Tommy O’Brien in the current Leinster squad and a third, Liam Turner, in the academy], but the resources and programmes that have been put in place over the last fifteen years have widened the province’s reach and gone some way to provide the structures and facilities that young players from rugby-playing schools have benefitted from as a matter of course. 

Transitional Paragraph … It Is What It Is

While that amount of midfield disruption was always going to impact Leinster’s slickness to some extent, when the coaches were able to get Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley in tandem, the attack had rare potency against Pro14 opposition. It’s a pairing in its infancy, but one that offers an intriguing new direction to the province. That a ‘two outhalves’ set-up is viable has been shown in differing formations by England [Ford and Farrell] and New Zealand [Mo’unga and Barrett], but it’s something that hasn’t really been seen in Irish provincial rugby for fifteen years or so, since David Humphreys and Paddy Wallace combined at No10 and No12 for Ulster in their 2005-06 Celtic League-winning season.

Having good decision-makers with the elite passing and kicking skills required to execute their responses to what they see happening in front of them has become more important in a game where you cannot endlessly retain the ball. In 2021, if you miss the opportunity for a linebreak or a given mismatch, and are reduced to playing crash test dummies in the middle of the pitch, you’re far more likely to turn the ball over than you were in 2019.

That puts an emphasis on the need to have an exit strategy not just from your own 22, but really everywhere in your own half. Having multiple tactical kicking options in the three-quarter line becomes less of a luxury and much more in the way of a necessity. Being able to establish territorial pressure from an otherwise unpromising possession scenario is returning as a more and more viable strategy, and it has been a feature of some of Leinster’s more efficient performances this season.

Health and safety with the Leinster backrow. Shur it’ll be grand.

Injury Factory

The backrow is an injury factory; that’s no news. In terms of casualty rates, it’s like an Industrial Revolution-era mill. Of Leinster’s nine backrows contracted to the senior squad, only three were available for selection for the Pro14 final: Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan. Observant readers may have figured that out before The Mole pulled back the curtain for the big reveal.

Max Deegan and Dan Leavy are both in recovery from season-ending knee surgeries; Will Connors is out for a number of months with a knee injury picked up in Irish cap; Caelan Doris is dealing with the head injury symptoms that have kept him sidelined for more than two months; Scott Penny, the Pro14’s recently announced Young Player of the Year [or ‘Next-Gen Star of the Season’ for the two Millennials who read this] has a broken hand, Josh Murphy a broken nose. 

Yesterday And Today

The breakup of gametime between specific players was radically different this season [2020-21] compared to last [2019-20]:

Leinster’s 2019-20 backrow by gametime [click to embiggen]. Max Deegan and Caelan Doris led the way, and were rewarded for their form with Six Nations caps in February. Will Connors would have to wait eight months but he too would win his first cap in the same tournament. Jack Conan, on the other hand, didn’t play a single game of rugby for almost exactly 11 months following his injury at the World Cup. He had it easy compared to Dan Leavy, who missed 18 months of the middle of his career.
Leinster’s 2020-21 backrow by gametime [click to embiggen]. Doris, Deegan and Connors, the top three in terms of gametime last season, slipped to the bottom of the charts this time out, propped up by a couple of Academy Year 1 prospects. This was exclusively due to injury with regards to Deegan, a mix of injury and international duty for Doris, and a heavy dose of international duty with a side order of injury for Connors.

Who to choose when they’re all fit? It’s a hypothetical. They’re never all fit. Not even at the start of the season. Even with what essentially amounted to a six month long off-season, Leinster went into return-to-play one backrow – long term injury scratch Dan Leavy – shy of their full complement. Another [former Junior World Player of the Year Max Deegan] was written off for the season just twelve minutes into making his seasonal debut. Deegan and Leavy are just the most recent two players to have seasons written off due to knee ligament injuries, following Will Connors [Aug 2018], Josh van der Flier [Feb 2018] and Jordi Murphy [Nov 2016]. It’s a grim conclusion for the coaches to countenance, but that probably steps outside the realms of anecdotal evidence to data: they’re likely going to lose a backrow player every season to a serious knee injury.

Poacher Turned Gainliner

Leinster have been without Dan Leavy, their prime poacher, a regular Danny the Champion of the World, for the guts of two years; it has left them without a headline turnover threat. Brave Dave Kearney was actually the province’s leading turnover winner in the Pro14 this season! Scott Penny came in a creditable but hardly earth-shattering second. From the outside looking in, it seems like the one distinct element of the openside role that he needs to improve before making the step-up to test level.

Penny was a prize groundhog at agegrade level, and has the strength and low-slung build to excel in the role. It’s a little surprising that he hasn’t yet carried that expertise through to senior rugby. However, there are some mitigating factors. Over the course of the season, it looks as though Leinster haven’t gone all-out on attempting to poach, preferring to concentrate on good spacing and linespeed in their defensive play. Penny has also picked up a huge offensive load, to the extent that he rivals Ulster’s Springbok behemoth Marcel Coetzee in a number of ball-carrying, line-breaking and try-scoring categories.

Number Eight … Number Eight … Number Eight

Leinster picked seven different players to fill the No8 jersey over the course of 19 games. Despite having three test-capped No8s in the squad, Rhys Ruddock – a blindside by trade – ended up starting there most often. The bigger emphasis on ball-carrying as an ocho tied in well with his off-season decision to focus on becoming lighter and more powerful, and an early season run of games saw him build up considerable momentum in his charge to regain a place in the Irish backrow. 

His forced switch to No8 provided the opportunity for blindside Josh Murphy [26] to have the best season of his career to date. The UCD medical student has by far the lowest profile of the Leinster backrow corps and has certainly been a slower burn than fellow St Michaels College alumni Max Deegan and Scott Penny. Part of that is due to his natural style of play – a sort of gristly, wrestling style – and part is due to his deliberate rate of physical progression. As an age-grade international [he made 13 appearances for Ireland U20 over three tournaments], he was a tall, and if not gangly, at least loose-limbed, lineout forward whose play in the loose was marked more by its diligence than its explosiveness. He entered the academy before the 2015-16 season [remarkably, he is the only player from that intake currently contracted to Leinster] and first featured for the senior team in his third year, the 2017-18 season, when he made a very solid eight starts at blindside in the Pro14.

Murphy’s point of difference at this stage was his height; as a lean, bottle-shouldered 198cm [6’6”], he had been a very effective, even outstanding lineout jumper in his schooldays. However, he also had a wide streak of grit in him, and it’s that quality that has come to the fore as he has steadily packed on some muscle over the last four seasons. 

Murphy was part of an all-conquering Leinster Schools team that The Mole saw a couple of times in midweek, post-lunch games at Donnybrook – it was during the recession, I was carrying around a briefcase full of old newspapers – alongside Ross Byrne, Nick McCarthy, Nick Timoney, Billy Dardis, Rory Moloney, Jerry Loughman, Oli Jager, Harry Brewer, Fergal Cleary, a very young James Ryan and a host of other schoolboy legends. They used to hammer everyone. At that stage, he had the same sort of build as Dubs engine James McCarthy: Jager and Loughman would fling him up into the air at line outs and you’d wonder if he’d come down at all.

This season he showed a lot more than he had previously in the offensive line of things. He finished sixth of all players in the Pro 14’s Successful Carries rankings [behind Munster’s Gavin Coombes, Penny, Ruddock, the Scarlets’ Kalamafoni and Ulster’s Marcel Coetzee] but it was his rate of success that stood out: while the five players ahead of him in the Successful Carries rankings occupied the top five places in terms of their quantities of carries [Overall Carries], Murphy was down in thirty-first. His rate of success as a gainliner was way ahead of anybody in the league. 

72% [rounded up] of Murphy’s carries were over the gainline, compared with 62% for Penny, 58% for Coombes, 52% for Ruddock, 50% for Coetzee and 41% for Kalamafoni. There’s genuine value in making a lot of carries per game – somebody has to tackle you every carry you make, which puts stress and fatigue on the opposition – but that rate of success is something The Mole never thought he’d see from Murphy. 

Wind Up

Leinster’s injury problems in the backrow have been at the extreme end of circumstances this season, but coaches have to take into account wear-and-tear in the backrow as a matter of course. That’s no news. The more telling story of injuries this year has been in the centres, and it has been instructive with regards to the importance of building a sense of understanding between midfield partnerships and the benefits that accrue to the entire team from same.

The small tolerances required with regards to basics such as holding depth, delivering passes and reading late changes in running angles were highlighted in the Pro14 final, when a threequarter-line that hadn’t started a match together all season – and O’Loughlin and Larmour had actually never played together as No13 and No14, surprisingly – made plenty of chances but couldn’t finish them off. Cullen and Lancaster will have put them through their paces over the last fortnight of training with a view to increasing their cohesion as a unit and their efficacy as individual try-takers.

6 thoughts on “Leinster – A Tale of Two Units

  1. Excellent stuff, great work, delighted to see the return of the Mole!

    Fingers crossed there won’t be as long a gap for the next one…and bring back the podcast too, at least for the H cup knockouts for God’s sake

  2. Another DM powerhouse tome of work.
    The backrow attrition rate always seems to be extreme at Leinster. Over the last 10/12 years, I can barely recall a big match when more than 4 backrows were available for selection. I think on one or 2 rare occasions when there was up to 5 backrows available, they went for 6-2 split on the bench.

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