Leinster leaders of pack
Published 28/11/2012 | 05:00
It is only three years since Leinster began the defence of their Heineken Cup crown with just one international prop – CJ van der Linde – and one (occasionally) international hooker (Bernard Jackman).
That Van der Linde spent more time getting rubbed down by physios than he did rubbing chins against opposing props was indicative of the fragile nature of Leinster's resources in this area.
The repatriation of Mike Ross and the integration of a South African project player, Richardt Strauss, in the summer of 2009, began a process of strengthening that announced itself so authoritatively last weekend.
In the space of 48 hours in three different cities, the current back-to-back European champions were able to broadcast an impressive resumé of their current prowess in the front-row.
For not only were Leinster able to field a trio to represent their first-team in the 6-0 win in Glasgow on Friday night, another three paraded their wares in an 'A' team success away to Connacht Eagles earlier that day.
All the while, at Lansdowne Road Ireland were fielding a threesome who called Leinster home – backed up on the bench by two more replacements who were eventually called into action during the unexpected blitz on Argentina.
Also this month, South Africa were continuing their imperious march through the northern hemisphere with the aid of Leinster's only currently non-qualified leading front-rower – Heinke van der Merwe.
Indeed, at one stage during South Africa's forceful defeat of an impotent Ireland – just in case you've forgotten – seven current or former Leinster front-rows locked horns in one particular scrum; the irrepressible van der Linde and his big toe were also on view at rugby HQ three weeks ago.
It is a proud feather in the cap of a province renowned for its front-row pedigree, from the astounding Lion loosehead Sean Lynch, right through the 1970s and 1980s as proudly paraded by terrific scrummagers such as Mick Fitzpatrick, Ned Byrne, Johnny Cantrell, Phil Orr and Des Fitzgerald.
After all, this is the province that once housed the famous front-row clinic in Old Wesley under the ever-watchful eye of the redoubtable Roly Meates, whose passion for scrummaging rivalled David Attenborough's for nature.
This week's live scrummaging might have been an interesting session to eavesdrop upon; particularly as van der Merwe meets up with Mike Ross for the first time since badly exposing the Cork man during Ireland's insipid defeat to the Boks earlier this month.
However, no sooner than seeing off Ross, he was then confronted by Michael Bent, who has become an overnight sensation in Ireland green before he has even got a chance to wear Leinster blue.
Naturally, it is not just Leinster supporters who are eager to know – who is better? Ross or Bent? Van der Merwe politely declines to feast upon the easy bait.
"Both are great!" he guffaws. "It is the first time that I've played against Michael Bent, but I have played with Ross a few times. It was a great experience to be part of that Ireland Test as well.
"Everything happened so quickly, but that's how international rugby works. Stuff can change so quickly, so it was great for me to get the call-up to be involved, even though I'm playing in Europe.
"I've been involved with the Springboks before and I've been on tour with them too. But it was great to be part of it again and to see some of the lads I've played with and be with them. It was nice."
The niceties of reintegration with his Leinster colleagues will not detain the front-row rivals for too long – Ross suddenly seems to have a lot to prove while someone like Cian Healy always responds well to a competitor snapping at his heels.
"There will be a good few live scrum battles between us over the next few weeks," confirms Van der Merwe, now capped four times by the Springboks. "That's the benefit of having so many good players here and that's what you need – the competition.
"It is going to be a very important few weeks for us in the Pro12 and with the games against Clermont following immediately after that. It brings out the best in players. I think, at the end of the day, that it has to be like as close to a game as possible when you are involved in live scrummaging.
"That is the best practice for the guys to have the scrum in training as close to as in a game and that is what we will do in the next couple of weeks."
For all of Leinster's progress in the grunt department, now helmed exclusively by Greg Feek after he decamped from his part-time role with the Ireland set-up, the learning never stops.
Twice Leinster were penalised against Glasgow last Friday night and, with Italian side Zebre aiming to target perhaps the only area where they can hope to come close to achieving a degree of competence, Van der Merwe is not complacent.
"We have to go back to the drawing board and stick to the basics," he insists. "We have to take it from game to game and start training and playing together again after the break and work on the small stuff. It can be sorted out.
"Zebre are good. A lot of good Italian guys up front. Their forwards are always good, especially up front, and they have a lot of Italian internationals, so it will be a good challenge for us.
"They have grown a lot and being involved in the Pro12 has definitely helped them. And Italy pushed Australia close last weekend. All of their forwards are always very physical, so it will be a good game for us and a good challenge."