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Leinster Rugby season preview: Strength ensures Cullen’s side remains the team to beat

Leinster machine rolls on and remains standard-bearer for United Rugby Championship


For all the disappointment of their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final defeat against La Rochelle last May, reaching that stage after that quarter-final win in Exeter and effectively retaining their Pro14 crown, not once but twice, constituted a highly creditable season by any yardstick.

They have now won eight versions of the United Rugby Championship's various precursors as well as four Champions Cups and a Challenge Cup, not to mention two B&I Cups and two Celtic Cups.

If it ain't broke why fix it indeed? Leinster have the most settled set-up, on and off the pitch, with Michael Ala'alatoa a younger, powerful replacement for the dependable and valuable Michael Bent.

Cian Healy has also been trying out tighthead in light of Andrew Porter moving across to loosehead, where he will start on Saturday against the Bulls at the Aviva, as both Leinster and Ireland look to give themselves the option of a Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong front row.


With Dan Sheahan likely to progress further, there's plenty of cover in the front row and with Dan Leavy and Max Deegan akin to new signings, and Rhys Ruddock and Caelan Doris apparently fitter than ever, Leinster's back row options are bordering on the ridiculous.

The nagging suspicion remains that they could still do with an overseas wrecking ball in the back five of their pack

Admittedly, Scott Fardy's retirement continues a slight leadership drain in recent times, what with Isa Nacewa, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Jordi Murphy all having left the building since their last Euro triumph four years ago.

Then again, that's the way of things, and the likes of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose should now be entering their prime years and also look primed to assume bigger leadership roles.

But Fardy's retirement still leaves a void. Recalling how Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn and Fardy each contributed handsomely to those four Euro stars and Will Skelton's performances for Saracens and La Rochelle in ending Leinster's last two tilts at a fifth star, the nagging suspicion remains that they could still do with an overseas wrecking ball in the back five of their pack to help them scale those heights again.

Granted, Skeltons don’t exactly fall off trees and, no less than many others, Leinster are actively looking for such an import; but the timing of the new Japanese league in May shrinks the options for a short-term signing a la Thorn in 2011-12.

The new law variation whereby pick-and-jams held up over the line lead to the concession of a drop out from the goal-line seems designed to neuter Leinster’s customary ruthlessness inside the opposition 22 but, no less than the 50-22 rule, no doubt their smarts will see them adapt as well as any of their rivals.

In any event, the Leinster machine rolls on and they remain the standard-bearers, for this competition and against their Irish rivals, but their status as 4/6 favourites to win the URC hardly reflects the sterner challenge that awaits.

Not the least of these is keeping such a deep pool of talent on board, one of Leo Cullen's many great skills. With 18 regular season URC games rather than the 21 of a full Pro14, there are less matches during November and the Six Nations, and while Leinster were always hardest hit they also had the best strength in depth to generally make hay during those windows. With less opportunities for game time, keeping everybody happy and motivated looks trickier than ever this season.

A curious schedule has handed them four games out of their first six at home, followed by their opening European game against Bath at the Aviva, so a strong start seems feasible. But after this they make the trek to Montpellier, with away festive derbies against Munster and Ulster to follow, in what looks like the first crunch period of their campaign.

Tweaking the European season has also loaded a longer post-Six Nations run-in, after which Leinster have only two scheduled home games out of five in the URC, yet there is the potential for 13 successive matches, including eight knock-out ties, were Leinster to go all the way in both competitions.

This will also include a somewhat ill-timed South Africa foray for scheduled games against the Sharks and Stormers (potentially in between the European two-legged last 16 ties and then the quarter-final) for which front-liners are thus likely to be excused duty.

But it’s a problem Cullen and co would quite like to have, and one Leinster still look best equipped to give themselves.

The men in charge

Steady as she goes. Leo Cullen enters his seventh season as head coach, alongside Stuart Lancaster (embarking on his sixth), Felipe Contepomi (his fourth), Robin McBryde (his third) and Emmet Farrell (his fifth as kicking coach). Even Guy Easterby has been there as team manager since 2010 and Mick Dawson has been CEO since 2001. You can't beat stability.

Admittedly, Johnny O'Hagan, so much more than a kitman for the last 50 years or so, has retired although Jim Bastick had been groomed as his successor. Influential contact skills coach Hugh Hogan has moved on after eight and a half years to join Dwayne Peel's staff at the Scarlets, while academy manager Noel McNamara has been recruited by the Cell C Sharks. Replacements for both have been lined up and will be announced shortly.

Key man

Robbie Henshaw. In truth, there isn't one really, for that's the thing about Leinster, it's all about the squad. Of course, the wellbeing of Johnny Sexton (retained as captain) looks critical for province and country, but Henshaw was a veritable rock last season and the form he delivered for the Lions, especially after his experience four years previously, could imbue him with the confidence to further underline his world-class status.

Players In

Nick McCarthy (Munster), Michael Ala'alatoa (Crusaders), Tom Clarkson, David Hawkshaw, Michael Milne (all promoted from Academy).

Players Out

Rowan Osborne (Munster), Scott Fardy (retired), Cian Kelleher (Ealing Trailfinders), Greg McGrath (Connacht), Hugh O'Sullivan (London Irish), Michael Bent (Taranaki), Paddy Patterson (Munster), Sam Illo (Connacht).