Monday 16 July 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Leinster’s youth policy paying off at time when money is seen as the key to European glory

Joey Carbery of Leinster on his way to scoring his side's first try during the match between against Montpellier. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joey Carbery of Leinster on his way to scoring his side's first try during the match between against Montpellier. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The Irish attitude to the European Champions Cup depends to a large extent on how we're doing in it. Back when Leinster and Munster were lifting the trophy on a regular basis the general sporting public agreed that this was a great competition altogether, perhaps even surpassing the Six Nations.

Our recent dip in fortunes had led to agreement that the cup just wasn't the same anymore, having been spoiled by the buy-your-way-to-success approach of the big French and English clubs we would never be able to compete with.

Then came last year's surprise semi-final spots for the big two and suddenly the old dog seemed to have a bit of life left after all.

So how will we feel about the Champions Cup this season? Pretty good I think, at least in the eastern part of the country.

A couple of years ago it really did seem as though the big budgets of the top French and English sides and their Premier League soccer approach to team building would leave the Irish sides in an impossible position. Yet, with the exception of Saracens, who is there for Leinster to fear in this season's renewal?

Clermont-Auvergne, Toulon and La Rochelle are formidable outfits, yet on Saturday Leinster were up against the side who are favourites to finish ahead of that trio in this season's Top 14.

Montpellier are your classic new-model French club, a side with little tradition of success propelled into the top echelon by the largesse of a plutocratic owner.

The side which faced Leinster looked something like a Barbarians side from a bygone era, packed with big names and world-class performers from around the globe and guided by one of the wiliest managers in the game.

Montpellier faced a home team short of Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien, as well as longer-term absentees Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and Jamie Heaslip. On the morning of the game another experienced warrior Scott Fardy pulled out for the excellent reason that his wife was giving birth.

Team captain Isa Nacewa limped off before half-time. Leinster would have to win this one with kids.

It's sometimes said that Sexton is the one player Ireland, let alone Leinster, can't afford to lose. Yet it speaks volumes about his province's display on Saturday that after a little while you forgot about the man's absence entirely.

In the 17th minute came a moment which summed up the confidence of Leinster's new generation, 22-year-old out-half Ross Byrne floating the long pass which gave 21-year-old Joey Carbery the chance to drift in between two defenders and score the first try of the game.

You could underestimate the magnitude of the moment precisely because the two players involved made it look so easy. But here you had two tyros stepping up, taking responsibility against one of the best sides in Europe and looking like they'd been playing at this level for years. Byrne's overall sang froid was oddly reminiscent of that exhibited by Sexton when he was thrust into the limelight by Felipe Contepomi's injury during Leinster's first Heineken Cup-winning year.

Making things look easy is Carbery's stock in trade. In between scoring the first try and creating the last, he did plenty to remind us why the cheque book does not always rule rugby. The big spenders can search where they will but there are very few young players like Carbery, a player Leinster secured by the simple expedient of developing his game at underage level and after. They have countered the financial imbalance by growing their own stars.

Look at James Ryan. When the former St Michael's College lock was rampaging through the 2016 U-20 World Cup like a young Paul O'Connell, it seemed certain he'd be a force at international level in a few years.

Saturday's showing against a huge and ruthless Montpellier pack suggests he'll arrive ahead of schedule.

Barry Daly is in a way the opposite to Ryan, a player who didn't feature in many lists of youngsters most likely to make it and who was playing All-Ireland League not that long ago.

Yet his finish for the bonus-point try was superb, a heady combination of pace and persistence.

Ryan and Daly were Champions Cup debut boys. Both instantly looked like they belonged.

Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Adam Byrne and Luke McGrath, the parade of young talent is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the fact that Leinster's two best performers on Saturday, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw are, despite all they have already achieved in the game, still just 24 years old.

Saturday's performance was impressive enough but the really exciting thing about Leo Cullen's side is imagining how far they can go in the future.

Bringing through the new talent is not as easy a route to success as the lashing out big money, yet in the long run it will surely be much better for the health of the clubs and countries involved. The bonus for Leinster is that they're looking pretty good in the short run too.

The future is not so bright for Munster. Last season's emotional wave may have camouflaged the extent to which they remain a team in transition.

There is an uncertainty about them at the moment. You can argue that a draw in France is nothing to be sneezed at. Yet Castres are a poor enough side, winners of just two out of seven Top 14 matches this season and making seven changes from last week for yesterday's game.

You can't see them finishing ahead of Leicester or Racing in the group.

The final quarter in the Stade Pierre-Antoine was a slow bicycle race of a thing, a symphony of ill discipline, poor kicking and botched opportunities which turned the usual encouraging cliché about draws on its head.

This was a game neither team deserved to win. Munster are never to be written off in this competition but they are currently some distance behind Leinster and the gap promises to become a gulf. We're also waiting to see what happens next with Munster but in this case anticipation is mixed with trepidation.

Right now Leinster are the team with everything to look forward to.

Irish Independent

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