Sunday 19 November 2017

Tony Ward: Leinster reap reward for brave decision to stick with youth

'James Tracy has burst onto the scene and overtaken two of the best hookers in the land in Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss.' Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
'James Tracy has burst onto the scene and overtaken two of the best hookers in the land in Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss.' Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Just to refresh the memory: last year, with the Irish sides out of it, 19 proved the magic number in the Champions Cup, with Northampton and Stade Francais going through as second and third best of the Pool runners-up on that mark.

As ever, two clubs (Leicester and Stade) qualified from the Pool with the token Italian presence.

Ulster led the Irish challenge in 2015-16, finishing on 18 points with four wins, but trailing group winners (and eventual champions) Saracens by 10 points. Twelve months on, all has changed. Now the northerners are out.

Connacht weren't involved last year - through they did reach the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup. This time around, Pat Lam's men are one bonus point away from a place in the last eight of the main event .

Were they to pick up that point in Toulouse on Sunday - and deny their hosts a four-try bonus - they would join Leinster and Munster, who have already qualified for the knock-out stages with a round to spare and are well on course for home quarter-finals.

So it's fair to say that ahead of the Six Nations, the game here is in a pretty healthy state.

And what a weekend we have just had. Leinster hit unprecedented heights in taking a quality, big-spending Montpellier to the cleaners. This wasn't like Racing's white flag the previous week; this was a French side travelling to Dublin in search of a qualifying place they thought well within their powers.

I thought Leinster would win, but not by way of an eight-try extravaganza. Of course, Frans Steyn's red card, which was 100pc deserved, had a significant bearing on the scoreline, but Leinster were well on the way to achieving their five-point objective regardless.

Leo Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and Stuart Lancaster deserve immense credit for giving youth its fling and then sticking with the new generation when the pressure games arrived.

The Robbie Henshaw/Garry Ringrose combination is a no-brainer, so I am referring to Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin on the wings, James Tracy at hooker and Jack Conan on the flank, alongside Josh van der Flier.

In Byrne and O'Loughlin (who is also a natural outside-centre), Leinster now have finishing power comparable with Denis Hickie in his pomp.

Ross Byrne too is looking more and more the business in every game he plays, and lest anyone forget there is Joey Carbery out of commission at the moment.

Tracy has burst onto the scene and overtaken two of the best hookers in the land in Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss.

And then there is Conan. I have long been a fan. He will willingly play any position from No 4 to No 8, but he is most effective at No 6 or No 8.


In Jamie Heaslip Leinster still possess the best all-round No 8 ever to play for Ireland but Conan's turn to challenge for blue and green is fast approaching.

He has already had a concrete offer to move elsewhere, and it could be a constructive switch, but you'd imagine Cullen will do everything in his power to keep him.

I thought Conan would make the World Cup squad after winning his first and only cap in the August 2015 warm-up win over Scotland. He is now ready for that step.

The back-row dilemma for Leinster grows by the game, but whatever else Conan must make the match-day 23. A starting slot is only a matter of time.

It's a similar situation for Munster's Jack O'Donoghue, another immensely talented utility forward on the verge of a major breakthrough. He and Munster were magnificent in Scotstoun.

So too John Cooney was Connacht's John Cooney in an unfamiliar out-half role.

Time to draw breath.

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