Momentum or starting over?
LEINSTER LOOKED ALMOST unstoppable once they got going and got a packed RDS behind them in the knock-out stages of the Pro12 last season.
Claiming that piece of silverware that for years seemed so elusive must have felt like pure vindication for Matt O’Connor; the man given the toughest act to follow since… well, since Jimmy Gopperth came in to replace Jonathan Sexton.
Now, having timed their league run to perfection last time out, O’Connor is hoping that the start of the season can show Leinster to be a team improved in handling, breakdown work and, as a result, chance creation. Alternatively, with two new coaches there may well be a period of adapting to be done before the heights of May can be hit again.
In case you’ve just come down from a tech-free year in a cave, Brian O’Driscoll has retired. As has Leo Cullen.
Although both will appear on the training ground to varying degrees, their loss may well be felt more in an intangible sense on the field as two of the central reasons for the province’s rise to European greatness head upstairs.
Of course, there are plenty of experienced players already in situ. Though they will be lost to Carton House for stretches of the season, the decision to make current internationals Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien as captain and vice-captains seemed an effort to double down and leave no uncertainty for the future.
It’s a problem that’s been coming down the tracks for years, but now Leinster and Ireland actually have to deal with the loss of O’Driscoll.
Ben Te’o has been ear-marked by some for that slot. The hard-running Samoan would certainly add a new dimension to the back-line, but he is still weeks away from joining the squad and, more importantly, still playing rugby league.
Noel Reid’s brilliant 2014 will give O’Connor some extra room to manoeuvre and after moving Gordon D’Arcy out one place on occasion last season, the veteran may fancy a slight change of scenery.
Like the centre combinations, it looks like another year of chopping and changing in the number 10 jersey.
Jonathan Sexton’s status as prodigal son needs only an ‘i’ to be dotted and, even with consummate professionals involved, it’s difficult to see the situation helping either Ian Madigan or Jimmy Gopperth.
Throughout his first year in charge, O’Connor has cited Madigan’s game management as a ‘work-on’ area and has tended to place his trust in the more experienced Gopperth when push came to shove.
However, there’s no doubt who the Leinster crowd would rather see running from 10. So, with Joe Schmidt undoubtedly also keen to see him play, Madigan can seal his place (for this year) by curbing his instincts a little further.
What difference will Sean O’Brien make?
Getting comprehensively beaten hurts. And that’s exactly what happened the eastern province in their defining game of last season, away to Toulon.
The inescapable mitigating factor in Leinster’S stint as the bullied, was the absence of Sean O’Brien for almost the entire second half of the season.
With Stephen Ferris retired for good, there is simply nobody as effective in contact as O’Brien whether with the ball or without. And while Ireland had Chris Henry to soften the blow of his absence, Leinster were without arguably their best player for the toughest test on offer in European rugby.
On Saturday, O’Brien will be back in the starting line-up after Schmidt left him out of the firing line of a trip to Argentina. A full run at pre-season after successful shoulder surgery will hopefully give the Tullow Tank the fresh start he needs to a long injury-free season.