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Leinster find answers but tougher exams lie ahead

First things first, phase one of Leinster's season closed off on Brian O'Driscoll's 32nd birthday with everything very much on track.

Joe Schmidt's side look comfortable in Magners League top four, the squad is largely injury-free, they now have a widely expanded squad in terms of experience and game time and last but not least they are Heineken Cup quarter-finalists having topped the pool and won five of the six games.

Yet, I haven't even taken into account the home quarter-final and the massive bonus, both from a rugby and financial viewpoint, that will come their way as a result.

And there are other benefits too. Isa Nacewa has emerged to complete the full set of a very threatening backline, having had the best possible season to date. Fergus McFadden is now way more than an adequate utility reserve and is in the mix for selection with that star-studded backline every week.

Mike Ross has obviously benefited from the arrival of scrum coach Greg Feek and while the scrum is still not the finished article, Ross is now a major contributor for Leinster and could undoubtedly do the same for the national team if given the opportunity.

Finally, there is Sean O'Brien, who in my view shades Nacewa for the title of player of the season so far. His uncanny capacity to take a pass at maximum speed on a variety of lines and his knack of getting behind the defence and then offloading in a timely manner has few equals in the competition. But I'll use a GAA analogy to sum up where we are now: the league is over and we are looking forward to a nice little break before the championship starts.

Joe Schmidt will appreciate the opportunity provided by the demands of the Six Nations to further develop the depth of his squad and to consolidate the top-four position in the Magners League.

At the same time, he will be hoping that there is no inordinate wear and tear, either physical or mental, on his players, who will probably for the first time in years provide the foundation for Ireland's assault on the Six Nations. Leinster have everything to look forward to. In a lot of ways, the last few months have provided so many answers for Schmidt and so many questions for Declan Kidney.

There are issues for the Ireland coach at full-back, particularly in the absence of Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney. At scrumhalf, where no one has emerged to nail down the position, at hooker with ongoing doubts around Jerry Flannery and, to a lesser extent, Rory Best, at tight-head where Kidney's lack of regard for Mike Ross and a lack of progress on the part of Tony Buckley combined leave a major question mark.

And also, for the first time in a while, the second row is not automatically filled. Notwithstanding Paul O'Connell's lack of game time, the question remains who will partner him, particularly with the decline of Donncha

O'Callaghan's form and the consistent contribution of Leo Cullen to the Leinster cause.

The biggest conundrum at national level is the make-up of the back row. The form players are undoubtedly Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The question is whether Kidney and his management team can tolerate any imbalance they perceive to be implicit in that combination and especially in the context of the wonderful service provided over the years by the still available and still contending David Wallace.

But still there must be a doubt as to the availability of all four at any one time given the level of injury risk in the modern game.

There have been plenty of answers in the league for Leinster, now we wait and see what the championship brings; meanwhile, the championship beckons for Ireland.


Sunday Indo Sport