Saturday 20 July 2019

Analysis: Seven of our experts sit down to answer an impossible question... what is Leinster's best team?

Leinster have never had such depth in their squad but, if everyone is fit for selection, what is the best match-day 23 that Leo Cullen can pick?

Leinster's squad depth is in great shape. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's squad depth is in great shape. Photo: Sportsfile

It is a question that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster can barely even entertain, given their week-to-week focus and the reality that injuries will always play a part in their selection calls.

But in the pubs around the RDS last Sunday, fans could allow themselves no such constraints as they debated the best Leinster XV long into the evening.

The Academy have been refining the best talent to come from the schools production line and every year another 'next big thing' is rolling off and into the squad.

On Wednesday, Joe Schmidt named 18 Leinster players in his Six Nations squad while they have overseas talent in Scott Fardy, Isa Nacewa, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe.

Over the Christmas period, Leinster beat all of their provincial neighbours while using 37 players and despite the absence of a host of household names. Every week, the coaches must inform at least one Ireland international that they won't be playing.

Last weekend, it was Rob Kearney who watched from the bench as 20-year-old Jordan Larmour starred in a comprehensive win over Glasgow Warriors.

Reputations matter little.

While the coaches may never take on this discussion for practical reasons, the rugby writers at the Irish Independent have no such constraints and we've asked them to come up with their preferred match-day 23.

It is fantasy rugby, everyone is fit, no one is suspended and there are no finicky regulations to consider; just the best team on paper.

The options are plentiful, the calls are tight and there is plenty of room for debate.

The Leinster squad

Backs: Adam Byrne (winger), Ross Byrne (out-half), Joey Carbery (out-half/full-back), Barry Daly (winger), Tom Daly (centre), Jamison Gibson-Park (scrum-half), Robbie Henshaw (centre/full-back), Dave Kearney (wing/full-back), Rob Kearney (full-back), Jordan Larmour (centre/back-three), James Lowe (winger), Cathal Marsh (out-half), Nick McCarthy (scrum-half), Fergus McFadden (winger), Luke McGrath (scrum-half), Isa Nacewa (out-half/centre/back-three), Rory O'Loughlin (centre/wing), Noel Reid (centre), Garry Ringrose (centre/wing), Johnny Sexton (out-half)

Forwards: Michael Bent (loosehead/tighthead prop), Bryan Byrne (hooker), Ed Byrne (loosehead prop), Jack Conan (No 8), Seán Cronin (hooker), Max Deegan (No 8), Peter Dooley (loosehead prop), Scott Fardy (second-row/blindsideflanker), Tadhg Furlong (tighthead prop), Cian Healy (loosehead prop), Jamie Heaslip (No 8), Mick Kearney (second-row), Dan Leavy (flanker), Jack McGrath (loosehead prop), Ross Molony (second-row), Jordi Murphy (back-row), Josh Murphy (back-row), Ian Nagle (second-row), Seán O'Brien (back-row), Andrew Porter (tighthead prop), Rhys Ruddock (flanker), James Ryan (second-row), Richardt Strauss (hooker), Peadar Timmins (back-row), Devin Toner (second-row),James Tracy (hooker), Josh van der Flier (flanker)

Our writers give their verdict

Alan Quinlan: Cian Healy and Jack McGrath are very difficult to prise apart at the moment but the way the former has been playing, I  don't think he can be left out of their starting team. In the back-row I have resisted moving Seán O'Brien to the blindside to squeeze in Josh van der Flier or Dan Leavy. Rhys Ruddock brings incredible leadership and physicality to the No 6 jersey and complements the skills of the 'Tullow Tank' and Jack Conan very well. Jamie Heaslip is unlucky to miss out on the 23 but that decision is merely a sign of the massive, dynamic strides Conan has been making in his absence. If Leinster were naming a team to win a final they would want Rob Kearney and James Lowe in the back-three, while the experience, versatility and form of Fergus McFadden earns him the nod over Jordan Larmour on the bench.

Alan Quinlan's selection

Ruaidhri O'Connor: This team tries to combine the best of Leinster's worlds, the experience of their Test Lions and veteran captain and their young up-and-comers who bring so much energy to the table. Selecting a starting XV is fiendishly difficult and no coach would relish the conversations with those who miss out. Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa lend experience to the back-three, but Jordan Larmour brings an explosive game-breaking ability which can be supplemented by a fresh James Lowe who would thrive against a tiring defence. The centres pick themselves and while he hasn't hit the heights during an injury-hit season, Garry Ringrose's ability to glide past defenders is a real asset outside Robbie Henshaw's physical presence. Again, the scrum-half and out-half are pretty self-evident, with Jamison Gibson-Park and Joey Carbery on hand to provide a tempo-change if needs be. Up front, Cian Healy edges Jack McGrath out with the dynamism and set-piece excellence of Seán Cronin and Tadhg Furlong a fierce proposition. No room for Devin Toner which is a mite harsh, but James Ryan's dynamism complements Scott Fardy and with Rhys Ruddock able to shift across it gives Leinster two impactful back-rows off the bench in Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy.

Ruaidhri O'Connor's selection

Cian Tracey: I still believe Rob Kearney has plenty to offer from full-back and while Jordan Larmour unquestionably has a bright future ahead of him, he can provide a real spark from the bench - as can Joey Carbery. James Lowe has work to do defensively but the flashes of brilliance he has shown earns him a spot on the wing. For me, the rest of the back line picks itself. Cian Healy's return to form has again brought the best out of Jack McGrath. There isn't much to separate the two looseheads and even though Healy provides more than McGrath as an impact option, he edges what is an extremely tight call.Leinster's back-row is by far the toughest selection dilemma. Seán O'Brien however is the first name down. Dan Leavy gets the nod ahead of Josh van der Flier who misses out on a place on the bench to Rhys Ruddock's versatility. At his best, Jamie Heaslip just about gets in ahead of Jack Conan who has impressed in his absence.

Cian Tracey's selection

Sinead Kissane: This is ridiculous. No place for Josh van der Flier in the squad. Or the Kearney brothers. Carbery on the bench? I'm questioning my own selection because that's what happens with this much talent around. Don't know how Cullen and Lancaster would do it if they had everyone fit but what a brilliant problem it would be.

Sinead Kissane's selection

Neil Francis: Leinster are 6/4 to win the cup which is preposterous odds. They can justify those if they get a home semi-final. What is so good about them is their emotional intelligence - emotional battlefield intelligence. They have an enhanced ability to adapt to the way the game changes.  Pretty much the top 30 players are interchangeable in the group and they can get by even with losing five or six starters. The starting XV picked here have great work ethic and defensively they are formidable - particularly on their own line. Nacewa's determination defensively is exemplary and some of the best defensive players in Europe can be found in Leinster's ranks. Henshaw is one of the best buys that Leinster have splashed out for. Sexton, whether we can bear to watch, is flawless in his technique and aggression. Toulon and Saracens won the last five Heineken Cups with their defence. Discipline here is key - it is why I chose McGrath over Healy. Bryan Byrne will be Leinster's starting hoker next season and all the knockout games in the cup will be won in the last quarter where their bench which picks itself will excel.

Neil Francis' selection

Tony Ward: The main areas of contention for me relate to the back-three and back-row where I really regret having to leave Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Rob Kearney out of the 23. For the Ireland team to open up against the French in Paris, Kearney would be my preferred choice to fill the last line. I would like to see Larmour introduced in the coming weeks but preferably through the wing initially at the highest level. For Leinster, whether Europe or Pro14, he is more than ready. I still don't full get the Lowe signing but his unorthodox style allied to that amazing offload has brought a new dimension to Leinster's attacking options when he is involved, particularly down that left flank. In the back-row, I would be equally at ease with any two from Van der Flier, O'Brien, Ruddock, Murphy or Leavy either side of Conan at 8. A case could also be made for Jack McGrath to start ahead of Healy but on consistency over the course of the season, Healy has more than earned that loosehead slot. Fergus McFadden is very unlucky not to start as is Ross Byrne in missing out on the bench.

Tony Ward's selection

David Kelly: Selecting a fantasy Leinster team should be quite easy because, at this moment in time, Leo Cullen seems to be doing it every week. Who, for example, might have contemplated the peerless and ageless Isa Nacewa as a two-try scoring inside centre? Starting with the luckless injury absentees suddenly deemed fit for fantasy selection, there is simply no argument that a fully-fit Seán O'Brien or Jamie Heaslip could be omitted. Johnny Sexton would play better with Luke McGrath; the first-choice centres are already fantastic. The back-three is a nightmare to pick, not a fantasy. It must include a Captain Fantastic. Simple. Only changed my mind a few hundred times...

David Kelly's selection

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