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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 22 February, 2020

'We want to get the best out of them and these are great weeks to do that'

Felipe Contepomi is looking forward to seeing how another young Leinster team fare against the Cheetahs on Friday.

AWAY FROM SPOTLIGHT of the Six Nations, the show goes on for Leinster as they continue to strike an unrelenting balance of plugging international-sized holes with new, emerging talent while blitzing the rest of the Guinness Pro14.

Last Friday’s nine-try rout of the Southern Kings at the RDS extended the province’s lead at the top of Conference B to an unassailable 22-point buffer and Leo Cullen’s side will have focused in on a sixth straight win against the Cheetahs this week. 

Scott Penny Ronan Kelleher and Scott Penny in training yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Just as they did during the November block, Leinster have made light of the loss of so many front-line internationals to record big wins over Zebre and the Kings, with the likes of Jack Dunne, Hugh O’Sullivan, Patrick Patterson and Ronan Kelleher the latest academy players to seize their chance.

21-year-old hooker Kelleher made his senior debut against the Kings and in doing so became the 54th player used by Cullen already this term, just one short of last season’s tally as the province stormed to a Pro14 and Champions Cup double.

The serious business is still a while away yet but Leinster are already in incredibly strong shape in both competitions, knowing a bonus-point win under Friday night lights at the RDS would be their fifth in their last six outings.

While they have all but assured themselves of a home semi-final in the Pro14 given their lead over second-placed Benetton with just five regular season rounds remaining, there are still so many fascinating subplots to follow each time Leinster take to the field.  

The prospect of young, home-grown players coming through a revered system and graduating to make senior honours is an exciting one and will never get old for the RDS faithful, who will arrive in anticipation again on Friday night.

O’Sullivan was outstanding on the occasion of his 10th senior appearance against the Kings before former Blackrock College nine Patterson wasted little time in making his mark on his first RDS appearance, scoring a late try to embellish his night to remember.

Further opportunities are likely to be on offer in round 17 as the defending champions bid to finish off this three-game block in style, maintaining that winning momentum into their trip to Edinburgh after the Six Nations and then the Champions Cup quarter-final date with Ulster at the end of next month.

Among those training with Cullen’s squad yesterday were Ireland U20s stars Harry Byrne — who is awaiting his first senior cap — and Scott Penny, the flanker having made a real impression in his four Pro14 appearances in blue to date. 

Even without 15 players to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, and the injuries to other experienced members of the squad such as Joe Tomane and Dave Kearney, Leinster’s unrivalled reservoir of talent ensures there is absolutely no let-up on any given week.

The back row unit of Josh Murphy, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris were outstanding against the Kings. As was man of the match Ed Byrne and Ross Byrne in pulling the strings. Not to mention Conor O’Brien in midfield. 

“There are many young players and they have had the opportunity to go out and perform,” backs coach Felipe Contepomi says.

Felipe Contepomi Backs coach Felipe Contepomi. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s a great opportunity to see some young talent and also to work with them and as a coach, you always try to give something to the player for them to improve.

“We want to get the best out of them and these are great weeks to do that. The young players are like sponges, they come and they get all the information and you start seeing those things on the pitch. As a coach, they’re interesting and challenging weeks.”

Stuart Lancaster has previously spoken about the enjoyment of getting to work with the province’s younger players for sustained periods of time, and certainly the growth in prospects such as O’Sullivan, O’Brien and Penny — to name just three — this term is a reward for Leinster’s investment in youth.

While Scott Fardy and Rory O’Loughlin are expected to come back into the starting XV on Friday night, adding further experience to a side which could also include Fergus McFadden, James Lowe, Ross Molony, Andrew Porter and James Tracy, opportunity abounds every time a player pulls on a blue jersey.

There is a battle for positions all over the park, no more so than at out-half where Ross Byrne has rebounded from the disappointment of missing out on Six Nations involvement to guide Leinster to back-to-back bonus-point wins during this block. 

Ciaran Frawley is also pushing for further exposure in the pivot while Harry Byrne, having stood out for the U20s during their three championship victories to date, must also be in the running for a first call-up.

Byrne, the older one, will be keen to continue in the number 10 jersey though.

“Ross is a very mature rugby player for his age and a very mature guy,” Contepomi continued. “He said it himself, the Ireland call is something that he cannot control himself. What he can control is getting better and better and that’s what he’s trying to do. I think he’s achieving that.

He has a lot more to improve but he’s getting some solid performances and that’s all he can do. He has got it right in his mind, instead of getting angry or annoyed or depressed or frustrated, he has chosen the right way to do it. He has chosen to go out and keep working hard and keep getting better.

There’s nothing else you can do in this Leinster environment other than focus on getting better because there’s always someone else snapping at your heels, ready to take the jersey if given a sniff. 

It’s that competition which consistently drives standards and while Leinster have afforded themselves some margin for error in the Pro14, there is no sense that they will take the foot off the gas now.

“When you’re on top of every competition, everyone wants to bring you down,” Contepomi added.

“That’s the nature of competing. What we don’t want to do is to slip down. For us, as much as the players need to understand it’s a responsibility and an opportunity, that’s what we try to do every week. We don’t look at the table at the moment, it won’t help.

“At the end of the day, you want to get into those winning habits and mode and performing and getting better on the match day. That will put you in a better position for the final part of the season.”

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Ryan Bailey

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