Saturday 19 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Former World Player of the Year Deegan still has world at his feet, but must kick on'

Leinster's back-row logjam has seen talented No 8 slip behind U-20 peers in pecking order

Max Deegan of Leinster
Max Deegan of Leinster
To the Max: Max Deegan has the chance to put himself firmly in the frame at Leinster in the coming weeks. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Joe Schmidt was so impressed by the boys of summer in 2016 that he fast-tracked three of them into his Ireland squad with this year's World Cup in mind.

When Ireland won their Grand Slam last season, there they were on the podium. James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale as starters, Andrew Porter off the bench - all under 22 and part of the present as well as the future.

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It has been refreshing to watch Leinster coach Leo Cullen and Schmidt blood these young men so quickly.

So often in Irish rugby's past, the next generation were made to bide their time, but this has been a very different approach and one that could have positive ramifications for the country's hopes of winning the World Cup in Japan next season.

It is easy to forget that not only did Ireland come up short in their one and only World U-20 final, but that the man who was awarded the World U-20 Player of the Year award has not progressed at the same pace as his peers.

No 8 Max Deegan was every inch as influential as the three amigos during that fortnight in Manchester, putting in a series of rampaging carries and scoring crucial tries including a key touchdown in the famous win over New Zealand.

At the end of it all, he went one step beyond previous nominees JJ Hanrahan (2012) and Garry Ringrose in (2014) by being crowned the player of the tournament.

Only two of the men who won the award before Deegan, Luke Braid (2008) and Mark Chisholm (2015), have not gone on to international honours; the majority like Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden and Handre Pollard have gone on to have stand-out careers.

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There is nothing to say Deegan won't do the same, but he has had to be far more patient than his peers.

The 22-year-old is stuck in a bit of a logjam and is finding opportunity hard to come by.

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Jack Conan is the first choice in his position, but when Jordi Murphy moved on at the end of last season having started the Champions Cup quarter-final, semi-final and final there, Deegan might have expected to step up on the ladder.

Instead Dan Leavy and Seán O'Brien have both started Champions Cup games at the base of the scrum, while Caelan Doris has emerged as the province's next big thing and he happens to be a No 8 too.

Last season, he made 10 starts and eight appearances off the bench, one of which was the Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens and another the PRO14 semi-final against Munster.

Deegan has played 14 times for Leinster this term, bringing his total to 35 in three seasons, which is a decent return. He forced his way on to the bench for last month's Champions Cup games against Toulouse and Wasps and started their last league game on the blindside.

Leo Cullen is a fair selector who is seen to pick on form and training-ground performances and, by the standards of most 22-year-olds, Deegan's number of appearances is not a bad return.

His award gives him a place in the spotlight and brings a focus, but the performance of his fellow U-20 World Cup finalists must also give him food for thought. Deegan has spoken about his impatience at joining his peers, but he is part of the most competitive squad in Europe and wants to win with his home club.

He will also have watched Joey Carbery, Murphy, Nick Timoney and others go to rival provinces and thrive, while others like Tadhg Beirne have gone abroad and come back better for the experience.

Transfers

For IRFU kingmaker David Nucifora, the sight of a logjam in a specialist position will jar although the World Cup will see a slow-down in interprovincial transfers as youngsters stay put and try and make progress when the internationals are away at the start of next season.

With O'Brien leaving in May, there will be a chance for Deegan to move up the pecking order and Stuart Lancaster name-checked him this week as one of those coming through the ranks.

As his former underage team-mates fight it out for Ireland in the Six Nations, it is these weeks when he can make a mark while playing in Leinster's understrength side against the Zebres and Southern Kings of this world before the big guns return for the business end of the campaign.

In the summer of 2016, Deegan was earmarked to join that company but it's been slow in materialising.

With the spotlight elsewhere, these next few weeks could help propel him up the depth chart.

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