Leinster's new trio add extra strength
Leinster's immediate focus may be Saturday's Thomond Park challenge against Munster in the Magners League, followed swiftly by the Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown with Leicester, but their future endeavours received a boost yesterday with the announcement of three significant signings.
The return of Jamie Hagan on a three-year deal had been well flagged (first appearing in the Irish Independent on January 27) and means that, despite Stan Wright's departure for Stade Francais at the end of the season, the province is well catered for at tight-head prop as Mike Ross has also committed to two more years. Simon Shawe has done well when called upon this season and, with the likes of Jack McGrath and Jack O'Connell, there is propping talent coming through as well, even with Stewart Maguire's switch to Connacht.
The capture of Natal Sharks starting second-row Steven Sykes, also on a three-year deal, is another step to help fill the void left by a departing overseas player. Clermont-bound Nathan Hines is a tough act to follow, but 26-year-old Sykes is a big, physical operator who impressed against the Lions in 2009 and learnt his second-row trade from the likes of Johann Ackerman and Johann Muller.
Sykes has represented South Africa U-19s and Emerging Springboks, but the fact he has yet to represent the senior national side means, like Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss, he could qualify to play for Ireland at the end of his three years.
The final signing of Crusaders out-half Matt Berquist on a one-year contract would cater for the expected departure of Australian Shaun Berne, who has been desperately unfortunate with injuries.
Berquist (27) is understudy to Dan Carter at Crusaders, having previously played Super rugby with the Highlanders. Known as a quick and skilful playmaker, Berquist is also an accomplished place-kicker and will help cater for Jonathan Sexton's absence during the World Cup.
Before all of that, however, there is the trip to Limerick this weekend, when the province will be seeking to continue their unprecedented run of victories against Munster with a sixth straight win.
Former second-row Malcolm O'Kelly faced Munster numerous times since the mid-1990s and says that Leinster's recent dominance will be hard to maintain.
"It was always very even, there was never this bizarre run that Leinster seem to be on now," said O'Kelly. "It is incredible, but unfortunately these runs are always broken -- hopefully that's not this weekend.
"For every Leinster player, Munster is a team that they want to come up against, I don't think there's any consciousness that they will naturally win."
Now working as manager with the Leinster 'A' side, O'Kelly retains a huge admiration for the Munster second-row pair of Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, and was particularly impressed with O'Callaghan's Six Nations form.
"Donncha is all about physicality, he's become a master at slowing the ball down, getting in the way, being destructive, which is what you want from a second-row. In November he struggled with kick-offs, he struggled to be as effective, he got blown off the park a lot and that continued on a bit.
"But he came through that and he certainly finished with an incredibly impressive performance against England and more power to him.
"He's really come strong and there's no doubt he always had 95pc of the position sorted but has come up with that extra 5pc, and maybe it's Leo (Cullen) pushing him that's bringing the best out of him."
Leinster captain Cullen and his Munster counterpart O'Connell are both line-out tacticians and, having spent the bones of seven weeks training together in the Ireland camp, they are well versed in each other's skills: Saturday's aerial contest is destined to be a real battle of wits.
"They know each other inside out," said O'Kelly. "You don't know their (Munster) calls but you'll have reads, plus they will know what each other do. Both sides have a lot of pride in their line-out and both have very different line-outs. Munster in the last few years have had the better line-out. It'll be interesting how it goes."
O'Kelly also took time to praise Wright's contribution to the Leinster cause ahead of his move to France.
"Stan has been incredible. He arrived straight off the island and he'd been having a good time -- he was a big unit. But his attitude was incredible, his mental toughness is what carried him through and he's a fantastic technician. A great character as well, Stan's a one-off and I'll be sorry to see him go."