Thursday 8 December 2016

Leinster's hard sell evident by empty seats for derby clash with Ulster

Blues need top-class recruits to avoid being left behind by big spenders

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

Friday night’s game between Leinster and Ulster was a good contest — they are both already looking at the Pro12 as their main course for this season
Friday night’s game between Leinster and Ulster was a good contest — they are both already looking at the Pro12 as their main course for this season

From a selection of messages sent in the aftermath of Leinster losing to Bath last weekend, our favourite landed early in the week.

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Just when this poor lad was recovering from watching his team almost certainly end their interest in Europe for this season, his tickets for the Leinster versus Toulon game at the Aviva Stadium next month dropped through the letter box. "It felt like an ultimatum," he said. "Here are your tickets - you can't take them back!"

He was not alone. A sober enough individual, he hadn't budgeted for the knockout stages of Europe because he didn't think Leinster would get out of their pool. So now that their chances of doing so have been pushed out to 33/1, he's not jumping up and down complaining about the impending early exit.

Nor indeed is he overly sanguine about the immediate future. Between 2009 and '12, you couldn't chisel the smirk off his face as Leinster left Munster further behind. The years of being branded a maid in waiting to the Ladyboys were replaced by halcyon days where Leinster not only ruled the roost at home, but across Europe as well. And they dined out on it.

As the wheel turns, fortune goes with it, the trick being to limit the downturn by staggering the departure of your stars, and to work night and day on producing new ones. Much has been written about the quality of Leinster's Academy, though much of it by way of comparison with Munster's, which until recently was not fit for purpose. This was acutely difficult first for Tony McGahan, and then Rob Penney, given the speed of the turnover of their champion group, post-2008.

Leinster, on the other hand, have been beating off school leavers with a stick, such is the number queuing to get in the door. Their quality varies, but what is fairly uniform is the number of physically well-developed candidates coming through the schools and youth systems. Of the 23 who were on duty against Ulster on Friday night, 15 came through the Academy at some point. This doesn't mean they are all potentially world class, rather the throughput is at a decent level. Exactly where that level is was encapsulated by Eoin Reddan last week.

"You know where you are all the time - that's the first part of moving forward," he said. "I think the current group of players and coaches have no problem being honest with each other, but we need to be pragmatic and sensible, too, and realise that people outside the group are going to be really positive some weeks and really negative other weeks. That's got no bearing on whether we play well or not. It's up to us to actually decipher what we did well or did badly, and it's up to us do more of what we did well and fix what we did badly. I know that sounds really simple, but in a game where there's so much coverage now, that's not always easy."

Reddan was speaking at a gig for sponsors Lifestyle Sports at the time. When his name popped up on the list of players put forward, you thought immediately that the timing was unkind. Being dropped for Luke McGrath last weekend was hugely deflating for a player who throughout his career has cornered the market on positivity.

If the future for Reddan looks uncertain - Leinster hope to buy in an international number nine for next season - then it's the same for his team. In 2012, they had an all-star cast, led by Johnny Sexton, with the heir apparent in Ian Madigan. The return of Sexton this season was great for business all round, but there are complications. At the best of times, when he is fit and firing in a winning team, he is a hard man to please. In the current circumstances then, this is a tricky management task.

As for Madigan, you can't see him signing on for another tour of duty in the RDS. In 2013, we expected him to slot in to the gap left by Sexton, with new signing Jimmy Gopperth running in his shadow. Instead, that turned into Madigan becoming a full-back, and Gopperth the first-choice 10. No sooner had Gopperth left the building, but Sexton comes back in the front gate, with Madigan still looking for a job where his name is over the door marked number 10. It's hard to see him not going somewhere else. Bristol, who are desperate to get back into the Premiership for the first time in six years, have a billionaire backer, who could fill Madigan's wallet with a few bob from petty cash. The problem is they have a habit of coming second in the play-offs to get into the Premiership. Having seen his team-mates Jack O'Connell and Darren Hudson get that gamble wrong, Madigan is wary of second-class rugby.

"That would definitely factor into my decision, if I was considering going there," he said. "Having been in such a fantastic club like Leinster, you're used to competing and winning competitions. That's the way I've always been."

Fine, not Bristol then. But staying in Dublin is not an option for an ambitious 26-year-old who needs a chance to play lead instead of second fiddle.

Replacing Madigan, among others, needs to go well for the novice coaching team of Leo Cullen, Girvan Dempsey, Kurt McQuilkin - the most experienced of the quartet by far - and John Fogarty. This is a twin-track process: first, they need to get IRFU rugby director David Nucifora onside; and second they need to get the right players over the line. Maybe they were spoiled by the arrival of Isa Nacewa in 2008, but since then, there have been far more misses than hits.

Until they can get that side of the business right, then the doomsday predictions of Leinster not being able to compete in the new cash-rich European landscape will come true. Friday night's win over Ulster gave us another glimpse of another home-grown star in the making, flanker Josh van der Flier, whose directness is a real asset. Worryingly for Leinster, the RDS had far too many vacant seats for a derby game. It was a good contest, albeit one between two teams who in November are looking already at turning the Pro12 - their bread and butter - into haute cuisine. So what of the plan to transform that ground into a 25,000-capacity stadium?

Its redevelopment is becoming a mini saga. Laya Healthcare are waiting in the wings to get their name on the stadium, but you can't name what hasn't been applied for, let alone approved. The original schedule was for work on the project to start next year, and that might well happen, but if so, then it will need a smooth passage through the planning stages. It's an RDS-run gig - Leinster are merely the long-term tenants, albeit an attractive part of the mix, given the business they bring - so the ball is in their court, but it's not being played too quickly by an organisation that ticks the three Cs: Cautious, Conservative and Concerned primarily about the horses in August. In the current climate that project might not seem like a big issue, but having presented it initially as a glittering production, Leinster can't afford it turning into a soap opera.

Before we go any further down that road, they will be popping over to Lansdowne Road for their regular December visit. Over the last three seasons in Europe, they have averaged more than 47,000 for that home tie in the back-to-backs. What happens in the away leg in Toulon in a fortnight will determine the final figures on that one, but vast tracts of empty seats would be, as our old mate Lord Denning liked to say, an appalling vista.

Throwing caution to the wind with unlikely move

Who'd be a hooker? Especially if once a centre. Tom Youngs must look back at his carefree youth, frolicking in the open spaces with the other backs, and wonder what pact with the devil it was that saw him give all that away to take up the most exposed position on the rugby field. A winning Lions tour, nearly 30 England caps (and counting), a Premiership title later, and still all people talk about is the bloody throwing in.

The man himself sighs. "I think it's something I'll be tarred with for the rest of my career - that I can't throw. It's pretty frustrating when you look at the stats. . . 93 per cent. . ." That refers to his success rate locating jumpers at the World Cup (which tallies with his 92 per cent for Leicester in last season's Premiership campaign).

He was also second on England's tackle count, fourth on their carry count - by any rational measure, one of the most effective performers of a doomed campaign. But he is still the converted centre in many people's eyes, still the hooker who learned his trade under the merciless scrutiny of the public eye.

As luck would have it, Youngs is a man of rare fortitude. He made his Leicester debut nearly nine years ago as a centre, broke his leg after five minutes, came off after 14. Two years after that, he got into a fight with a Saracens prop during an 'A' league match. Impressed by his gumption, Heyneke Meyer, Leicester's head coach at the time, ambled up to him, presumably with a devilish grin on his face, and made the suggestion that was to change his life. "Have you thought about playing hooker?" Then, like any demon worth his salt, he disappeared almost immediately.

It is just as well that Richard Cockerill, who lives, breathes and eats hooker, took over as Leicester supremo to see the conversion through. Within four years of Meyer's suggestion, Youngs was an England international. We've seen props make the switch, we've even seen back-row forwards, but to go from first-class centre to international hooker, the most thankless position on the pitch, in such a short period is some feat.

It is one of rugby's ongoing absurdities that the hooker must throw in at lineout time. Body wracked with pain and exhaustion from endless scrummaging, tackling and carrying, he is expected to transcend all malice and tension in body and soul to hit a tiny target as far as 15 metres away, which isn't even there when he throws at it. "It's by far the hardest part," confirms Youngs. "You need to be flexible with an open chest, but as the game wears on you are just getting tighter and tighter in your shoulders. You don't want that for throwing."

No wonder a few go awry, however long you've been practising the art.

That's not the only technicality to be mastered - it was at the scrum where England encountered most of their problems in the World Cup. It has been a torrid few months, not just for England but for Leicester too. Recent nightmares will be revisited when they travel to the Rec for this afternoon's Premiership clash with Bath, where their two most recent visits have elicited hidings to the tune of 45-0 and 47-10, the latter in last season's Premiership semi-final, no less.

Leicester's start to the season has been bold, dovetailing with those of other English clubs chastened by their players' perceived failings at the World Cup. There's a new coach on the scene at international level, and everyone's eager to impress. What's more, he's another former hooker.

We can be sure Eddie Jones will appreciate Youngs's worth as a hooker, not view it in the context of his past as a centre. Indeed, he will be all the more impressed by that back story - as should the rest of us.

Observer

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