Friday 19 October 2018

Senior men playing key role in Leinster's reboot

Young guns are getting deserved credit but the survivors of the glory years are still setting standards

Fergus McFadden caught the eye with a vintage performance against Ulster as Leinster’s senior men continue to set the standard. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Fergus McFadden caught the eye with a vintage performance against Ulster as Leinster’s senior men continue to set the standard. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Of the match-day 23 that turned out when Leinster reached the zenith of their all-conquering era between 2009 and 2013 by beating Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final in Twickenham, 11 players are still with the province while the captain that day is now the coach.

Given how much can change in professional sport, that's not too bad a turnover. Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa have been away and come back, but the others have remained throughout the transition.

Right now the province appear to be as strong as they have been since their last European title and while so many remain from that day when Leo Cullen collected his third European trophy in four years, those who have lived through the period believe that the organisation has a different identity now.

The young guns are grabbing most of the headlines this season thanks to their spectacular performances but there is an old guard still driving standards and setting an example for the new faces.

Stuart Lancaster and Cullen are harnessing the energy from both sides into one effective unit.

Complained

Towards the end of his first season back from Paris in 2015, Sexton complained that, "culturally we are nowhere near where we were when we were winning those trophies".

Now, he believes they are in a much better space thanks, in part, to the young guns coming through.

Johnny Sexton. Photo:
Johnny Sexton. Photo:

"It's been great," he said. "There's loads we need to keep working on both on the pitch and off the pitch. It starts at the top and that's the most important thing.

"Leo and Stuart have done a great job in terms of standards are high and that we're expecting more and more from each other every day.

"It's been really good and this year you can see that by how we're performing on the pitch and work off the ball.

"It is difficult to compare because the game is even so different five years on. I look at some of those Heineken Cup games from 2012 and defences even are so much better now.

"In that 2012 team we probably had five or six players who were world class and the rest of us who were at a really good level but I think now in this squad there's guys of that similar quality throughout and similar quality two or three deep in some positions.

"That's our strong point at the moment, our depth, and you can see with some of the injuries we have, particularly in the back-row - we can still put out a back-row of that quality out."

Fergus McFadden is a senior man who has been enjoying a new lease of life in the current set-up, responding to the form of the talented back-three players around him by producing some of his best performances in blue.

He argues that the training levels are behind the ability of the young guns to step up and step in without altering the standard on the pitch.

"I think it's hard to compare them (the 2012 and current teams), even back then the squad probably wasn't as deep as it is now, there's a lot more strength in depth," he said.

"The production of younger talent, there's a new wave coming through that's a lot more than there was when it was the likes of me, Seán O'Brien, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy - we came through together, but over the past two years there's been 15 lads who have stepped up and can be put in for the biggest games in Europe, so it's hard to compare, but competition for places is at an all-time high and that's a good thing.

"I think the level of training has been really, really high this year, and that's transferred on to the pitch from both teams (senior and 'A').

"Down through the past few years we've maybe been guilty of the supposed second string not keeping to the standards of the first string, but now you can chop and change, two maybe three lads around in different positions and there's little or no difference. It's huge."

O'Brien is another who has lived through both eras and he believes the youngsters are putting their own stamp on proceedings.

"What's different is you have lost a load of lads that created that culture so you bring a load of younger lads in and how do they know what that culture is? They haven't experienced it, developed it," he said last week.

"Now it is a bit different. The culture we have now is one they have been involved in, added to and evolved.

"They have grown up with it the last year or two so it is theirs. It is not Brad Thorn's or Nathan Hines's or Leo's or any of those lads.

"That was the culture we were involved in then and it has to change as new players come in or they won't know what it is about."

Sexton believes the condition of the players coming out of the schools system in Leinster is allowing them to hit the ground running

"The academy is producing them," Sexton said. "We're very lucky with the schools system in Dublin that we can get these players in every year and produce internationals every year.

"The difference is these guys are coming out of school and they're almost ready to go into Leinster, they're training as professionals pretty much for the last two or three years whereas in my year when we came out of school we were nowhere near physically ready."

Physically, they're ready but they grew up watching Sexton et al winning trophies and now they're ready to join them on the pedestal with the old guard leading the way.

Irish Independent

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