Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin aiming to win Heineken Final starting spot and tour berth
IT is testament to Leinster's depth of resources that their Heineken Cup final starting line-up is not locked down even after the epic victory in Bordeaux.
Indeed, the problem for Joe Schmidt is that he cannot reward all his in-form players which, to be fair, is not the worst problem for a head coach to have.
This is borne out by the shadow side he sent to Rodney Parade returning home with a superb victory over the Dragons, despite not containing one starter from the victory against Clermont the previous weekend.
There is a stiff battle for a place in the back three following injury to Luke Fitzgerald, and Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin are scrapping at hooker, as are Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss at scrum-half.
Then there is Kevin McLaughlin. After some excellent displays in the run-in, the 27-year-old back-row was arguably the unluckiest Leinster player to miss out on selection for the semi-final, when Schmidt opted for the breakdown nous of Shane Jennings instead.
The Leinster back-row trio went extremely well in Bordeaux, but McLaughlin was still missed -- not just for his tackling ability (which he demonstrated off the bench through his contribution to Leinster's final-securing end-game) but mainly for his ability out of touch.
Brad Thorn has brought a great deal to the Leinster forward effort, but the New Zealand World Cup winner is no Victor Matfield at line-out time and has had to adjust to new calls and moves in a relatively short period of time.
The line-out wobbled against Clermont, who were considerably taller and had one of the world's fore-most experts in the air, Julien Bonnaire, in their ranks.
They will face another challenging examination against Ulster, where Johann Muller has overseen the most efficient operation in the competition and, while Jamie Heaslip is useful at the tail, McLaughlin's extra height makes a strong argument for inclusion in Twickenham.
The player himself is doing all he can to force his way back in, proving an excellent leader in Newport (his third win from three outings as captain) and banking on another big game in the Pro12 play-off semi-final against Glasgow this weekend to give Schmidt further selection headaches.
And his ambitions do not end there. McLaughlin has 72 caps for Leinster going back to his UCD, All-Ireland League days in 2006-07 -- a good return given his injury problems in the past and the competition in the back-row -- and getting a three-year deal earlier this season (most contracts are awarded on a two-year basis) shows how highly he is regarded in the province.
However, as well as his Leinster drive, McLaughlin is also desperate to add to the two caps he has won for Ireland (a start against Italy in 2010 and a second-row cameo in the World Cup warm-up defeat to Scotland last August). He feels he is in a pretty good position to satisfy both goals.
"I feel I'm playing as well as I've ever played and my body feels really good," said McLaughlin. "It's the first time in my career I've gone 15 months relatively uninjured so I'm feeling great, as fit as I ever have and I'm really enjoying my rugby at the moment, playing with a great team.
"I'm an ambitious guy and I want to play all the big games, but for the guys who don't get picked, it's hugely important you keep your disappointment to yourself and when you do get your chance to come on you make as big an impact as you can.
"There are definitely areas of my game I can improve," he added.
"I'm always looking to improve my attack.
"I'm work-ing with Joe as well as Jono (Gibbes) on that the whole time, so it's exciting times ahead.
"Hopefully I can push my name in for the tour to New Zealand.
"I've been really positive over the last few weeks. I know myself that I'm playing well so I'm just enjoying myself and, hopefully, I'll get picked for the next couple of big games. We'll see."