Thursday 16 August 2018

Deegan proving he has all the attributes to be a magic No 8 for club and country

Max Deegan of Leinster scores his side's fourth try during the Guinness PRO14 Round 19 match between Leinster and Zebre at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Max Deegan of Leinster scores his side's fourth try during the Guinness PRO14 Round 19 match between Leinster and Zebre at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Victor Costello

When you play a team like Zebre and are expected to put 50 points on them before the game kicks off, the psychological pressure of the clock is enormous.

As the game passes through its first quarter and you are nowhere near your expected target score, the pressure piles on again.

There's always a smug awareness from the rest of the squad in the stand who will undoubtedly have all the answers to the mini crisis should they be on the pitch, as the clock keeps ticking for those who are playing.

It wasn't as if Zebre suddenly came good, in fact it was quite the opposite. The Irish influence in Italy is vast and there is no doubt that from the top down with Conor O'Shea at the helm, there is recognition that the skill levels are inadequate.

Prior to and during the rain last weekend, the Italians could barely field a ball or pass it through sets of hands at ease, so it clearly has got worse before it has any hope of getting better.

Incredible

However, when Zebre realised they could not get the ball to the wings, they went up the centre to incredible effect.

This is where Leinster will have to review the first half in detail before being comfortable moving forward to the next game.

This lack of concentration added to the frustration initially on the scoreboard, but nevertheless the bonus point eventually arrived via scores from James Lowe and the impressive Max Deegan.

There were some notable performances from James Tracy, Barry Daly, Rory O'Loughlin and a consistent Ross Byrne, who is proving to be the backbone of this season's weekly performances.

Deegan's growth has been steady since his exploits with the Ireland U-20s.

When first arriving in Leinster, the back-row competition would have been fierce, but he is gradually climbing up the ladder and there is no doubt when he gets there he will stay.

Physically he has strength, power and resilience and mentally he has an ability to read the game beyond his current experience.

Also, the path to the Ireland No 8 jersey may have opened up with the current line of injured players in that position.

All he needs is consistent games against bigger opposition than last Saturday to develop into the player he is destined to be.

Leo Cullen and his team called it right in selection and player management throughout the game and I expect the same this weekend against Benetton.

The selection process has been far superior than this time last season and it is clear they have learned from their mistakes.

Before the back-to-back games against the Premiership champions Exeter last December, Leinster travelled to Treviso - one of the PRO14's whipping boys.

They collected a victory down there and then completed a clean sweep against the English side over a two-week period.

However, Exeter had a run of games against Bath and Saracens before taking on Leinster at home and clearly did not perform then or the following week, and of course it was very satisfying to see the Irish side follow suit later in the season too.

But play-off games are different, and it is clear Leinster management are planning for these two Italian games extremely well by resting the players with niggles and high mileage, continuing the winning momentum of those fit and finally giving valuable game time to those who will miss out on the tight selection calls in the coming weeks.

There is no doubt that selection for the European semi-final will be at the forefront of the players' minds but they will have to develop some lateral thinking.

There are opportunities for selection over the coming play-offs in both competitions of course but there is also an Irish tour this summer and a World Cup next year.

The Scarlets will provide a nice dose of deja-vu for the Leinster faithful and there is no doubt the Welsh side will not be phased by a trip to the Aviva, but then again neither were Saracens.

Leinster are a better side than they were this time last season and they will be a better side again come semi-final day.

Irish Independent

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