Thursday 13 December 2018

Leinster may be forced into reshuffle as reinforcements backed to step up in Champions Cup showdown

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster (right) putting Tadhg Furlong through his paces during Leinster squad training at Energia Park in Donnybrook yesterday with Jamison Gibson-Park (centre) watching on. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster (right) putting Tadhg Furlong through his paces during Leinster squad training at Energia Park in Donnybrook yesterday with Jamison Gibson-Park (centre) watching on. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Perhaps it's his upbringing on the family farm in Yorkshire, because Stuart Lancaster never strikes one as a person who laments what he cannot have.

Rather, he enthusiastically embraces what he has.

And so, as Leinster face into what he freely admits is their toughest test of the season, a Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets, the potential absence of two Lions back-rowers - the long-flagged Jamie Heaslip and the long-flogged Sean O'Brien - not to mention the possibility of losing Irish captain Rhys Ruddock, he barely bats an eyelid.

Leinster supporters may want Sean O'Brien to play. But they don't need him.

Fray

As with Ireland, the emergence of Dan Leavy has proved that and, when O'Brien dolefully departed the fray last weekend after just 40 minutes of his latest aborted comeback against Benetton, the reality sunk in that this team, as it has done until now, must move on without him, as it has in the absence of Heaslip.

Leavy has had to listen to supporters' weekly - and weakening - anxiety about the health of their star back-row but a Grand Slam starring role has muted many of the worried whispers.

"Seanie is such a high-calibre player," says Leavy, also cognisant that another back-row colleague, Jack Conan, is also likely to boost the troops for this weekend's task.

"We want Sean to play every week. There is always a lot of talk about back-row variations and who will move where, who will play where and whatever. But, you know, I will play wherever as long as the team can perform to its best and we can get through this round."

Arguably, the return of Robbie Henshaw is of more value to the side, as his midfield partnership with Garry Ringrose will be of more substantial import to Leinster, creatively and defensively, against the West Waleians.

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More worrying for Leinster is the potential absence of Luke McGrath who, given that he shares a similar readiness rating to O'Brien - "50-50", according to Lancaster - would have knock-on ramifications far beyond the role of scrum-half.

Leinster can only select two from scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park and regular European starters, utility forward Scott Fardy and winger James Lowe; hence one of the latter may miss out while Nick McCarthy, who struggled against Saracens, would bench.

"It does have a knock-on effect," Lancaster declares, although the coach remains unbowed.

"This is not different to any team selection. Whilst you guys might not get the team until, say, Thursday, internally we would have clarity about what is happening by Tuesday really.

"That's the bonus of having Robbie back and Isa Nacewa's versatility. "You adapt your game plan to suit the players that you have got.

"The backline that played against Exeter back-to-back had Garry and Robbie in the centre, Isa on one wing, Fergus McFadden on the other, Rob Kearney at 15 and Johnny at ten."

That formation may now have to be re-visited. As for the scrum-half back-up options, Lancaster remains sanguine.

"There are areas of Jamison's game to work on defensively but I thought he did exceptionally well in that Saracens game, defensively particularly, for me," explains the former England head coach.

"Obviously he's quite different as an attacker. It's there for everyone to see.

"But it's a squad thing - winning pool games, winning semi-finals, trying to get to finals - and you can't, to a certain extent as a coach, control the injuries that happen along the way.

"You've just got to trust that the squad that you pick is the right squad and I'm confident that whatever selection we pick will be ready on the day.

"Luke's a good player, but Jamison has been here for a year and a half now. He's played in big games in Super Rugby, he's played in big games for us and if Luke's not available then this is Jamison's time, and there's no doubt in my mind that he's ready to play to play at this level.

"He's got the ability to play at this level and this will be his first real opportunity to demonstrate that he can do that.

"I'm pleased personally that he actually did play at the weekend and he had the extended game time.

"I'd be more concerned if he was coming in having only benched and come on for 10 minutes.

"When he was in Super Rugby he didn't really get a lot of game time and I think he's had a significant amount of game-time here over the last 18 months. Now is his time."

The same goes for McCarthy. Others have stepped up; so must he.

"It's the same thing. It has to be his time. Scarlets will be having the same conversations. You look at Jonathan Davies injured, they have to be," Lancaster says.

"Nick, again, is someone who has come on in big games for us. He was there for Saracens, he got the nod on the bench and came on. So, I think he's ready."

Ireland and Leinster - so often indivisible in terms of the giant strides their players have taken this season - have emerged strongly due to this devout faith in young players to establish themselves in the absence of their elders this season.

"My philosophy would always have been that if a young player is deserving his opportunity and he's played and delivered, then you need to trust them," declares Lancaster.

"But you can only trust them if they've been involved in training from the start and you've given them the game time and the meetings to learn and develop by seeing the other players.

"There's a lot of senior players in the Leinster team, but there's a lot of young players as well.

"I, for one, as a coach would always trust a young player if he's done the right work in the lead up to the opportunity.

"And I think it is clear that the young players within Leinster have already shown that they can do that during this season."

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