Leinster's emerging talent are motoring nicely
LEINSTER play their 10th Pro12 league match against Cardiff Blues at the RDS tonight, their 12th competitive outing of the season, and it is a good time to take stock on how they are progressing.
In Joe Schmidt's first campaign in charge, their performances en route to last season's Heineken Cup title and the Magners league decider set the bar incredibly high and emulating 2010/11 was always going to present a significant challenge -- especially when Brian O'Driscoll was taken out of the equation to recover from shoulder surgery.
The European champions are a major scalp for every side they face in the Pro12 and Heineken Cup, not least Cardiff, who, even without eight players on international duty for Wales' meeting with Australia, bring a dangerous team to Dublin -- with game-changers in the shape of full-back Chris Czekaj, centre Casey Laulala and No 8 Xavier Rush.
Schmidt has selected a side that combines the front-line experience of captain Leo Cullen, Sean O'Brien, Shane Jennings and Isa Nacewa with up-and-comers like David Kearney, Ian Madigan and Rhys Ruddock.
These are two attacking sides (Cardiff have scored 21 tries in their eight Pro12 outings, Leinster 15) and a good contest beckons. It is also an encounter to focus minds ahead of the following week's Heineken Cup resumption and one that will address the issues relevant to Leinster's progress this season.
Replacing O'Driscoll (7/10)
Losing O'Driscoll not only denied Leinster access to one of the world's foremost players, but also the psychological security that comes with the Ireland captain's presence in midfield.
A clutch of names were thrown up as possible replacements in the No 13 jersey including Nacewa, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden. The man Schmidt has turned to is Eoin O'Malley, who has another chance this evening to build on the compelling displays he has put in over the past few weeks.
He starts next to McFadden in what could be the long-term centre partnership for Leinster and Ireland. McFadden looks a natural at 12, with tremendous leg strength to go with his pace and kicking skills -- the problem for him is that, with Gordon D'Arcy still going strong, his best opportunity for Heineken Cup selection is in the 13 jersey.
O'Malley is in the Jeremy Guscott mould of outside centres, constantly looking for gaps in the defence with an arcing style of running to make the search productive. If he continues the way he is going, replacing O'Driscoll will not be the issue it could have been for Leinster and could have knock-on progress for O'Malley and Ireland come the Six Nations.
New signings (6/10)
Solid rather than spectacular, Leinster's new signings have not had the same level of impact that Rocky Elsom, Nacewa or Nathan Hines had when they joined the province, but they have given Schmidt considerable depth.
Hines was always going to be missed in the second-row and, from an Irish perspective, the development of Devin Toner has been encouraging, but Leinster needed cover in this position and brought in Steven Sykes and Damian Browne to provide it. The jury is still out on Sykes, who starts next to Cullen tonight, but his pedigree is good, while Browne has brought bulk and industry to his performances.
Elsewhere, Sean Cronin is going very well at hooker, where Schmidt now has two quality options rather than having to depend on Richardt Strauss staying fit, as was the case last season.
In terms of game time and his representative ambitions, Jamie Hagan would have been better off staying at Connacht, but his presence alongside another signing, the rugged Kiwi Nathan White, means Leinster have options at tight-head when their scrum lynchpin Mike Ross is not available.
Like Hagan, Fionn Carr, on the left wing tonight, might have been better served remaining out west as the quality of back three options at Leinster threatens his exposure, but he is a quality attacker and Leinster are stronger for having him in their squad.
Developing talent (6/10)
The World Cup absences and subsequent player management programme has helped provide opportunities and there are several youngsters holding up their hands. Madigan is at 10 tonight and it was in this fixture last season where he gave real indication of his potential, weaving through the Blues defence for a decisive try.
He looks to be a very talented footballer and continued exposure can only be good for Leinster and, down the line, Ireland coach Declan Kidney.
Ruddock starts at blindside tonight and is another player with a big future, having already captained Leinster.
As with Dominic Ryan, the strength of back-row competition threatens Ruddock's Heineken Cup participation, but he has featured in 10 of Leinster's matches this season and is a coming force, while tonight's right winger Kearney has had seven run-outs.
McFadden and O'Malley are further down the road in midfield and can both expect to feature regularly as the season continues.
Munster have, deservedly, been gaining the kudos for bringing through indigenous talent, but Leinster are pushing players forward also.
Trophy chase (8/10)
Going along very nicely. Leinster sit comfortably in second place on the Pro12 table with sevens wins from nine matches and, after a shaky start, are well positioned in their Heineken Cup pool. The back-to-back clashes with Bath will determine Leinster's progress, but the resolve they displayed when battling back for a draw in Montpellier bodes well.
The Pro12 is a longer, less intense, haul, but Leinster are motoring nicely and a win over the Blues would keep the momentum going. So far, so good.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; D Kearney, E O'Malley, F McFadden, F Carr; I Madigan, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, N White; L Cullen (capt), S Sykes; R Ruddock, S Jennings, S O'Brien. Reps: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, M Ross, D Browne, L Auva'a, E Reddan, J Sexton, R Kearney.
CARDIFF -- C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala, G Evans, T James; C Sweeney, R Rees; J Yapp, R Tyrell, T Filise; C Hill, P Tito; M Molitika, J Navidi, X Rush. Reps: M Breeze, N Trevett, S Hobbs, M Cook, M Paterson, L Jones, G Davies, D Hewitt.
REF -- A Macpherson (Scotland)
Leinster v Cardiff,
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