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Leinster's grand plan


F riday night in Ballsbridge: nearly 15,000, by a distance the biggest of the Magners League so far, turned up for what they hoped would be a winning home start to Leinster's campaign. They left some 90 minutes later buzzing about just how good are the good bits in Leinster's game.

For many, it was their first look at the latest stage in the development of the squad, and where they play. Leinster are in the second year of a 20-year deal with the RDS and the roof on the grandstand does its bit to nudge this arena closer to what paying spectators want for their coin. Other bits and pieces are being put into place, with the playing squad as well.

So on a nice evening for running rugby, the home team ran their bogeymen off the perfectly presented pitch to the tune of six tries to zip.

The sale of season tickets is a fair indicator of where this is all heading. In the last three years, they have gone from 3,000 to 6,800 to 9,700. That's between €1.94m and €8.25m in the bank this season, depending on the package bought, before a ball was kicked. Last week Leinster launched a TV platform on their website -- the first of the four provinces to get that up and running. They are likely in the near future to extend their deal with Canterbury for another three years, and are halfway through a very good deal with main sponsors Bank of Ireland. The aggregate makes for an operation that at last is looking like a big hitter, and doing what the best clubs in Europe can manage: to fight the war on two fronts.

For the Leicesters and Wasps and Toulouses, it's about achieving domestically and in Europe. With the jigsaw in Leinster now taking shape, this is where they have to be.

Over the years they have lacked the mental toughness to be consistent home and away, undermined by issues about identity, and the knowledge that the depth of their squad was too shallow. Now their fan base seems happier with who they are and what they're supporting. Since the explosion of professionalism in this country, pride in their side has been the preserve of Munster and Ulster. Incidentally, Leinster and Munster get together here in a fortnight, and already the lure of that clash looks set to overcome the awful scheduling of 7.0 on a Sunday.

Confidence in the Leinster camp starts with the strength of their playing staff. "I'm just trying to have this squad in the right frame of mind to compete in every game that comes along," Michael Cheika says. "We've got a pretty tough start too -- Cardiff away and then this game was difficult (hello?) and then Ospreys, Munster and then Connacht away. It's tough but it's good for us to get that week-in, week-out football, and compete hard and get that under our belt early. So we always want to compete on both fronts and I think we're better prepared for it now because we have more depth. And the guys we're trying to prepare to create that depth -- some of them are coming up, not just the guys we brought in."

All of the imports are not even in harness yet. CJ van der Linde took a bow at half-time on Friday night and Rocky Elsom touches down this week. The advance party then has consisted solely of Isa Nacewa, and with the spotlight on him he has shone like a man who will make a real difference on the big days. He has extraordinary skill. The issue is how and where to use him.

Despite what Jonny Sexton might say in the media, the arrival of Nacewa is neither good for him nor indeed Declan Kidney, who desperately needs to see alternative talent to Ronan O'Gara at 10. Just when Sexton was really coming along in his game-management, and looking like a player who could bring some physicality and confidence to the position, Nacewa drops by to say hello, and then pulls up a chair.

If inevitably this will hamper Sexton's development, it can't have enthused Felipe Contepomi too much either. It is ironic that soon enough after he has put all his medical studies out of the way, the chance to focus solely on his rugby only highlights how his position has suffered in Leinster. The season before last Contepomi was performing a remarkable juggling act: with one hand he was flicking through medical textbooks; with the other he was holding down the playmaker's role in a professional rugby team.

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Now he is free of the books, but also has much reduced responsibility for running Leinster's backs. That leaves a whole lot of spare capacity in a brain that was challenged more than most mortals could even contemplate. In what will probably be his last season with the squad, the Puma will need careful management.

Of the home-produced crew, the players whom Cheika refers to as "coming up," the trio of Devin Toner, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy are suggesting they'll make a lasting impression. Now just turned 22, Toner is looking comfortable carrying his 6' 10" frame into a range of situations on the pitch. Healy's extraordinary talent is obvious, but its delivery will be predicated on how quickly he can progress in his scrummaging. As for O'Brien, it's dangerous to bang on about how good a player looks when he comes late into a game and promptly wins every contest put up to him. When he's in from the start we'll know more, but to date he has answered correctly any questions asked of him.

So far so good then for Cheika's grand plan. He must wake at night though for worrying about the health of his current captain -- in the absence of Leo Cullen -- Chris Whitaker. The scrum-half's broken leg last November, away to Toulouse, caused a crisis in the camp and they are no better able to cope now if something else should befall him.

Given the vast range of options elsewhere, that gap at 9 looks especially dodgy. Of the three back-ups -- Chris Keane, Simon Keogh and Paul O'Donohoe -- we know least about O'Donohoe and need to see more. Bit parts for the A team aren't doing it for him.

As long as the Australian is fit, however, this train will keep running. And more punters and corporates will pay more money to get on board. "I think we've made big strides in recent years and the public have got stuck into it," says Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson.

"But it all comes down to what happens on the pitch. You can make it a good day out by having a nicer place to be, but if the team consistently lose you could be playing in the nicest place in the world and nobody's going to go. We're relatively happy with the way it's going. We're the only professional winter outfit in a city of 1.5m people so we should be making ourselves attractive. That's what we're working towards."

They're going the right way about it.

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