Saturday 10 December 2016

Alan Quinlan: Young blood can turn Leinster's year in transition into one of glory

Cullen's Cubs have added depth to a squad that had gone stale under Matt O'Connor

Alan Quinlan

Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30

Josh Van der Flier (SPORTSFILE)
Josh Van der Flier (SPORTSFILE)

Things appear to be bad. But they're not. While the disastrous European campaign - where Leinster lost five out of six games -left some scars, the wounds are curable and a season which threatened to be remembered for all the wrong reasons, could yet end with a trophy.

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In fact, I strongly believe it will. While my admiration for the progress Connacht have made this season is huge, and while I expect Leinster to be engaged in an extremely difficult game today, my feeling is that by the time May ends, Leo Cullen, rather than Pat Lam, will be the coach bringing silverware home from Edinburgh.

That belief is largely based on the absolutely incredible job that Kurt McQuilkin has done this season with the Leinster defence, restricting opposing Pro12 teams to just 16 tries in 17 games, a huge improvement on what happened last year, when 39 tries were coughed up in 22 games.

Statistics

Considering too that they were missing 18 players for the World Cup - that statistic isn't just impressive but remarkable. Yet, it's worth noting that Cullen didn't spend that period when the World Cup was on having a sulk and pining for the men who were away on international duty.

Instead, he looked at the youngsters emerging from their academy and said, 'right, let's see what these guys are made of'.

Six months on, Josh van der Flier has matured into an international, another half-dozen of their home-grown players look like they might join him, while Garry Ringrose is the most exciting prospect of the lot.

Along the way, they've learned how to win too. Okay, the home game against Bath aside - when their six debutants played superbly in their big Champions Cup victory - Leinster didn't win in Europe, but in the Pro12, the difference in results between last season, and this, has been stark.

The facts are that last season Leinster were vulnerable to conceding soft scores against weaker teams, to losing home and away to the Dragons and Munster, whereas this year they have become tight in defence en route to victories in 13 of their 17 league games.

Plus they are easier on the eye. Under Matt O'Connor - a good coach who the players had plenty of time for - they kicked a lot. And that was not the Leinster way. Always renowned for moving the ball, the change in approach last season seemed to confuse the players.

I'm wary, though, of kicking a man while he's down - or more to the point, while he is out of sight and out of town.

O'Connor, in case you need reminding, won the Pro12 in his first season and it's also worth remembering that under their Australian coach they reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup last season.

Under Michael Cheika, they learned how to win those sort of games. He made them ruthless before Joe Schmidt, his successor, turned them into serial winners, collectors of four trophies in the Kiwi's three seasons in charge.

So when he went, a shadow was left behind. Supporters were used to being entertained as well as success. But when Joe moved upstairs to the Ireland job, the team he left behind was one that was about to lose Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Cullen and Shane Jennings to retirement, Johnny Sexton to France and Isa Nacewa to a two-year sporting sabbatical.

So things weren't as straightforward as they seemed which was why the province's decision to get rid of O'Connor was a pretty ruthless one. Facts, however, can be damning and the loss of eight league games and acquisition of three draws last season left supporters, who had been spoiled with success under Schmidt, demanding change.

They got it too, although at the time I believed an experienced coach was the way for Leinster to go. In this respect, their decision to give the job to Cullen - just a year after he had retired from playing - was a brave one and when they lost four on the trot in Europe, there were plenty of voices doubting whether it was the right one.

However, by this stage he was seeing things the rest of us were not, namely the quality of the young players who were breaking through.

"Those guys may be even better than what has been before," Sean O'Brien said earlier this year.

That's a big statement to make and only time will determine whether his assessment is accurate.

However there is no doubt that the Dooleys, van der Fliers, Ringroses, McGraths etc have serious talent and there is also no doubt that Leinster have reason to be optimistic, not just in terms of the remainder of this season, but also next year.

Think about it. Having gained so much exposure to top-flight rugby this year, the experience those young players gained will really stand to them next season. Add in the fact that Cullen will have his front-line players available from pre-season - rather than from the tail end of October (suffering from a World Cup hangover) - and you can make a strong argument for Leinster thriving in 2017.

They won't even be thinking that far ahead, though. This is a big challenge for them today because not only are Connacht hard to defeat at home - Ulster are the only team to win in Galway this season - but they are also the most attractive team to watch in the league, the team that has scored the most tries, acquired the most points and taken the greatest number of bonus point wins.

Their position, on top of the table after round 17 of this competition, is an incredible achievement.

What has particularly impressed me about Lam, though, is the way he has responded to the wobbly patch his team went through in December and January, when they lost four league games on the bounce and when everyone predicted that their bubble would burst.

But did it?

Quite the opposite. Rather than fall apart, they have won five league games on the spin - plus, in complete contrast to Ireland's other three provinces - they still have a European quarter-final to look forward to.

Demolition

That they put together this winning streak while five of their players were involved in Ireland's demolition of Italy was a great achievement.

And they have the potential to achieve more. There is no doubt that they will definitely make it into the play-offs which would represent a fantastic achievement for a side that has - by all accounts - the third smallest budget in the league. Before then, though, they have three inter-provincial derbies, and the visit of Glasgow, last year's champions, to occupy them.

Today's derby promises to be tough because not only have Leinster named a strong team but they have also the luxury of including six Irish internationals - Cronin, McGrath, Ross, Toner, Heaslip and Reddan - on the bench.

That Cullen can name such a strong squad for today's game - while knowing that three Lions, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien, will be available to come back into proceedings for the business end of the season, allows us to believe that transitional years can also end up being successful ones.

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