Friday 19 April 2019

Victor Costello: 'Ireland may be struggling to find their feet but Leinster are keeping the flag flying'

Peter Dooley is the picture of concentration in training. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Dooley is the picture of concentration in training. Photo: Sportsfile

Victor Costello

As the Six Nations is the only show in town at the moment, there will be those who would expect Leinster to sit naturally at the top of the conference table ready for the adoring fans to return with their attention.

For those who are paying attention to the day-to-day business of the PRO14 pursuit, they will realise that not only the minimum requirement of maximum points has been obtained, but there has been some good performances along the way.

In the current days of national frustration and disappointment, the Leinster players have provided a momentum and consistency that may not be at the level that Leo Cullen and his management will require but for Irish Rugby, they are providing the perfect antidote to the morale and confidence deficit coming from Ireland squad representatives.

Anointed

There was a time not so long ago when - as a provincial player particularly - Leinster was the only way up.

All roads pointed to the national team and if you were anointed come selection time you were guaranteed the success, adulation and trophies to go with it.

From a Leinster point of view, winning the Champions Cup paralleled the national team's interest and success and as a rugby nation we were faultless.

Roll on just six months and the landscape has changed for the worse and, from a national point of view, not looking like getting better.

For Leinster, though the intent is still there, the quality of the opposition may not be flagship but the individual performances are, and when nothing in Irish rugby seems to be what it was there are players still playing for Leinster with more representation on their mind.

With Leinster shorn of their internationals, there are players thriving with their given opportunity.

Individually, you could name the whole Leinster team, but it is hard not to avoid recognising the form of Max Deegan, Conor O'Brien, Ross Molony , Ed Byrne, Caelan Doris and Ross Byrne.

These players are clearly showing their belief in the day job without recognition at Irish level, their work rate is high and their frustration levels are low.

Fergus McFadden coming back into the fray gives a great sense of leadership to the squad and the performances from the likes of Patrick Patterson and Conor O'Brien show once again that the future looks bright.

But there is trouble amongst Leinster's Irish contingent and this will have to be managed well over the coming weeks or European hopes will fail.

While Leinster's Irish continent struggle to come to terms with their lack of form, some will be given the chance to play through this patch and some won't. In the case of the latter, the fallout will land on the management.

This season the management will have to pick on form and not reputation. For the returning Irish players, Leinster can be a place of refuge for them to find their form but not for too long.

With the talk of Jack McGrath following Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore to Ulster, Seán O'Brien leaving and Rob Kearney constantly questioned on his plans, there is a changing of the guard on the horizon

Players getting older can be managed but players getting older and losing form take that bit longer to recover if ever.

This year's European challenge has become more important than ever as World Cup year is a natural watershed for players and coaches.

Ireland will need Leinster to provide the springboard for players going into World Cup action but the returning players will be fatigued for next season's provincial challenges.

With two more games left before the European quarter-final, Leo Cullen (above) can operate two squads. Against the Cheetahs he can afford to experiment while providing valuable game-time for the younger players and against Edinburgh he will need to have the basis of his current best 15 in mind .

There is no doubt he will have to gamble in selection when it comes to the quarter-final but most of his gambles have paid off in his coaching career.

With time off between these games, Leinster will have valuable rest time for the injured to recover. March looks like it can be a perfect month for club but maybe not for country.

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