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Leinster’s starlets in spotlight

Blues could win academy award



Former Dublin U-17 player Niall Comerford has been drafted into the Leinster Academy

Former Dublin U-17 player Niall Comerford has been drafted into the Leinster Academy

Former Dublin U-17 player Niall Comerford has been drafted into the Leinster Academy

One of the more interesting press releases every off-season is Leinster's annual announcement of their first-year academy intake.

With an underage system the envy of world rugby, it's always worth noting which prospects are deemed worthy of a full place inside the tent, and who is left outside looking in.

It is by no means the end of the road for players not selected, nor is it a guarantee of senior success for those who are - but it's instructive nonetheless.

Ahead of the 2020/21 season, seven youngsters will come into year one of the Leinster Academy programme this summer: Niall Comerford, Andrew Smith, John McKee, Sean O'Brien, Alex Soroka, Joe McCarthy and Max O'Reilly.

If the new recruits need any extra motivation, the press release announcing their arrival contains it - five now former academy players were handed senior contracts from Leinster this summer, while one - former Clongowes hooker Dan Sheehan - makes the jump without having even played for the senior team yet.

The names of second rows Ryan Baird and Jack Dunne, out-half Harry Byrne (all ex-St Michael's) and outside back Tommy O'Brien (Blackrock) might be more familiar at this juncture, and all will be in with Leo Cullen's squad next season.

But for now, here are the seven players who make up the latest batch of talent hoping to make the breakthrough at Leinster.

Sean O'Brien (Flanker, Blackrock College class of 2019, UCD)

The former Blackrock College forward has amassed an impressive CV to date, and now becomes the fourth O'Brien operating in the Leinster set-up. The 19-year-old started all three games at flanker for Ireland during their unbeaten U-20 Six Nations campaign that was halted by Covid-19 earlier this year, and also enjoyed an illustrious schools career.

He played alongside fellow academy inductees Comerford and McCarthy with Blackrock, and showed his versatility by lining out at second row in the 2018 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final win over Belvedere.

He also wore the number six jersey when beating St Michael's in the 2016 Junior Cup final, while earning caps for both Leinster and Ireland schools during his time in Blackrock.

Niall Comerford (Wing, Blackrock College 2019, UCD)

Comerford initially made his mark in the aforementioned Junior final in 2016 when he scored the winning try against St Michael's. Since leaving school in 2019 he has already had an impact with Leinster A, playing his part in the province's Celtic Cup triumph before Christmas.

He was selected in Noel McNamara's Ireland U20 squad for the Six Nations, but injury hampered his chance to shine, and he is one of two outside backs among the seven academy newbies. He is also a fine Gaelic footballer, with the Kilmacud Crokes clubman representing Dublin at U-17 level.

Alex Soroka (Back row, Belvedere 2019, Clontarf)

The big Belvedere back row was a key part of a schools team that ran eventual champions St Michael's agonisingly close in the 2019 schools cup semi-final at Donnybrook, and he has kicked on since then. He represented Leinster at schools level and made the jump into the Ireland U20 Six Nations squad earlier this year, coming off the bench against Scotland and starting against England.

Andrew Smith (Wing, St Michael's 2019, Clontarf)

Smith must feel a little lonely as the only St Michael's man in his academy class, as recent years have seen players drafted into Leinster in droves (to be fair, he is likely to be joined by a few school-mates next year). Already Smith has an eye-catching highlight reel, with one particularly athletic finish for Leinster A grabbing attention last year, while he showed similar instinct with Ireland U20 in the spring.

Smith was one of the standout stars on the St Michael's team that won the senior cup in 2019, a squad that secured a first ever win over Blackrock in the competition en route to glory. He probably never brings it up with his three Blackrock academy team-mates.

Joe McCarthy (Second row, Blackrock College 2019, Dublin University)

McCarthy is a strong second row prospect, who despite featuring off the bench for Ireland U20 earlier this year, is eligible for another season at the age grade. The 19-year-old lined out alongside O'Brien and Comerford at Blackrock.

Max O'Reilly (Back three, St Gerard's 2018, Dublin University)

One of two players, along with John McKee, who left school in 2018 rather than 2019. O'Reilly was a star on the St Gerard's team that almost upset eventual champions Blackrock in the 2018 senior cup quarter-final. O'Reilly featured for Ireland U20 off the bench against England during last spring's Six Nations.

John McKee (Hooker, Campbell College 2018, Old Belvedere)

McKee is an interesting case, having captained Campbell College from loosehead prop to the 2018 Ulster Schools Senior Cup while representing the northern province's schools team, before making the switch into the Leinster system.

Campbell is in college in UCD, where he came on the radar of the Leinster sub-academy, and makes the step up having switched across the scrum from prop to hooker, like James Tracy before him.

2020 was McKee's second year playing for Ireland U20, where he split time with Ulster hooker Tom Stewart before getting a start in the impressive win over England. In 2019, he featured at both the Junior World Cup as well as getting game time as Ireland won a Six Nations Grand Slam.