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The Leinster depth chart: How do you pick from those back row options?

Leo Cullen’s men will be looking to pick up where they left off when rugby resumes.

Updated Jul 28th 2020, 8:06 PM

SQUAD DEPTH LOOKS like being more important than ever with the resumption of rugby in Ireland now just 25 days away.

The four provinces are due to finish their 2019/20 seasons before swiftly moving into the 2020/21 campaign – which includes an extended Test window from October into early December – meaning the need for options in every area of the pitch is obvious.

This week, The42 is examining how the provinces’ senior squads are shaping up as they continue with pre-season training in advance of the return of the Pro14 on 22/23 August.

Having started with Andy Friend’s 43-man Connacht squad yesterday, today we examine Leo Cullen’s 48-man Leinster squad [that figure is set to drop to 46 when Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney's short-term contracts expire in October].

Included in brackets after each player’s name is their age and number of Leinster caps in the format [age, caps]. Players have been listed by number of caps. 

Loosehead prop

Cian Healy [32, 216]
Peter Dooley [25, 76]
Ed Byrne [26, 52]

leinsters-cian-healy 32-year-old Cian Healy is first-choice at loosehead. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The highly experienced Ireland international Cian Healy remains a key figure for Leinster in this position and has returned to full training after suffering a hip injury during the Six Nations earlier this year.

Dooley and Byrne have racked up plenty of Leinster appearances during their careers but have a single Champions Cup start between them and will be hoping to change that in the coming season.

Academy loosehead Michael Milne has already won eight senior Leinster caps and provides further loosehead depth.

Hooker

Sean Cronin [34, 181]
James Tracy [29, 108]
Ronan Kelleher [22, 11]
Dan Sheehan [21, 0]

22-year-old Ronan Kelleher gained first-choice status at hooker last season with his impressive form, also earning his first Ireland caps on the back of strong showings in the blue jersey.

Sean Cronin is among the oldest players in the squad at 34 but remains a dynamic presence, while 29-year-old James Tracy is an experienced and reliable performer too.

Highly-rated academy graduate Dan Sheehan is a fresh face in the senior squad and will be attempting to put his 6ft 3ins, 11okg frame to good effect as he gets set to earn his first Leinster caps.

Tighthead prop

Michael Bent [34, 135]
Tadhg Furlong [27, 108]
Andrew Porter [24, 62]
Vakh Abdaladze [24, 11]

michael-bent Michael Bent has been consistent for Leinster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With Ireland’s first and second-choice tighthead in their squad in the shape of Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter, this is an obvious area of frontline strength for Leinster. Furlong is now part of Ireland’s leadership group and Cullen will hope to see the pair of them pushing each other to continually improve.

34-year-old Michael Bent has had his contract extended for the season thanks to his impressive consistency for Leinster in the Pro14, while 24-year-old Vakh Abdaladze will hope to stay injury-free and add to his 11 senior caps.

Leinster had expected to retain Roman Salanoa in their tighthead depth chart for next season but he has instead moved to Munster this summer.

Second row

Devin Toner [34, 244]
Ross Molony [26, 95]
Scott Fardy [36, 58]
James Ryan [24, 37]
Ryan Baird [21, 7]
Jack Dunne [21, 7]

The veteran duo of Devin Toner and Scott Fardy carry on into next season having demonstrated in 2019/20 that they remain high-quality players, with Toner forcing his way back into the Ireland squad. Fardy has been one of the best-ever foreign signings in Irish rugby.

James Ryan is the clear first-choice tighthead lock when available for Leinster, although he is likely to have his minutes managed carefully in a busy season for Ireland. 

That Ross Molony is nearing 100 caps for Leinster at the age of 26 underlines his quiet importance to Cullen’s squad, offering consistent displays and ever-improving leadership and lineout skills.

21-year-old pair Ryan Baird and Jack Dunne, both of whom graduated from the academy this summer, are exciting and intelligent players. Baird has already trained with Ireland while his hat-trick against Glasgow earlier this year showed his athleticism. 

Dunne is a heavier lock who can pack down on the tighthead side of scrums and will be keen to progress after injury frustration last season.

Back row

Rhys Ruddock [29, 172]
Jack Conan [27, 89]
Josh van der Flier [27, 80]
Dan Leavy [26, 63]
Max Deegan [23, 62]
Josh Murphy [25, 32]
Caelan Doris [22, 29]
Will Connors [24, 15]
Scott Penny [20, 13]

caelan-doris-and-max-deegan-after-the-game Leinster's back row depth is enviable. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The back row is an embarrassment of riches for Leinster, particularly with Ireland internationals Jack Conan and Dan Leavy set to return from long-term injuries that meant they didn’t play for Leinster last season.

Leavy’s comeback will be of major interest for Leinster and Ireland fans, the hope being that he can return to the impressive heights he hit before that horrific knee injury against Ulster last year.

If he can, Leavy seems likely to regain Leinster’s number seven shirt, although fellow Ireland international Josh van der Flier was impressive there for the province last season, Will Connors had a major breakthrough in 2019/20 to earn an Ireland squad spot, and Scott Penny – still only 20 – is a big prospect at openside.

New Ireland internationals Caelan Doris and Max Deegan – who already has 62 caps for Leinster – will battle with Conan for the number eight shirt, although Deegan has played across the back row.

Vice-captain Rhys Ruddock will be intent on working his way back into Ireland camp from the blindside flanker spot, although many of the aforementioned players could slot into the number six jersey depending on form and injuries.

Meanwhile, blindside Josh Murphy is coming off the best campaign of his career in 2019/20, having improved physically during last summer’s extended pre-season. 

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The reality is that Leinster will have injuries and international call-ups to contend with in the back row but they do have enviable depth in this area.

Scrum-half

Luke McGrath [27, 123]
Jamison Gibson-Park [28, 88]
Hugh O’Sullivan [22, 20]
Rowan Osborne [23, 4]

Luke McGrath has been an important presence for Leinster since Eoin Reddan’s retirement. The 27-year-old will hope for more involvement with Ireland as he battles with the likes Conor Murray, John Cooney, and Kieran Marmion for caps.

Now Irish-qualified on residency, Jamison Gibson-Park has proved to be a good back-up for McGrath, although Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will likely challenge him to apply even more pressure.

Rowan Osborne did well with his opportunities last season after initially joining on a short-term deal based on impressive AIL form for Trinity, while 22-year-old Hugh O’Sullivan will be intent on resuming his progress after being limited to six replacement appearances in 2019/20.

Out-half

Johnny Sexton [35, 163]
Ross Byrne [25, 84]
Ciarán Frawley [22, 25]
Harry Byrne [21, 9]

ciaran-frawley Ciarán Frawley is among the strong options at 10. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

Captain Johnny Sexton will be as motivated as ever to prove there is plenty of rugby left in his career when rugby resumes next month and he is still the obvious first-choice at 10 for Leinster and Ireland.

Ross Byrne has shown he is good enough to be starting European games and earned a return to Ireland’s matchday squad this year. Still just 25, he has demonstrated clear signs of improvement in his attacking decision-making and passing.

His younger brother, Harry, enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2019/20 and his potential saw him training with Andy Farrell’s Ireland too. Following the Byrne brothers’ progress in the coming years promises to be fascinating.

Meanwhile, Ciarán Frawley is still just 22 and has shown up promisingly for Leinster at out-half, while also having the skills to play at fullback and inside centre. Again, Cullen’s men look well stocked here.

Centre

Garry Ringrose [25, 72]
Rory O’Loughlin [26, 67]
Robbie Henshaw [27, 44]
Conor O’Brien [24, 23]
Jimmy O’Brien [23, 17]
Tommy O’Brien [22, 3]

Ireland internationals Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are the balanced, proven front-line midfield combination for Leinster and their challenge now is to continue to improve as elite players at the age of 27 and 25, respectively. 

With Joe Tomane having left the province, Conor O’Brien will be determined to return from his hamstring injury to amass much more game time at inside centre behind Henshaw.

At 13, Jimmy O’Brien had an impressive breakthrough campaign in 2019/20 and also covers fullback. Ireland-capped Rory O’Loughlin will be very keen to underline his quality at outside centre and can play on the wing too.

Finally, academy graduate Tommy O’Brien steps up after winning his first three senior caps last season. The evasive, tough 22-year-old’s first start came in the number 13 shirt but he also has lots of experience on the wing. 

Back three

Rob Kearney [34, 218]
Fergus McFadden [34, 184]
Dave Kearney [31, 148]
Adam Byrne [26, 57]
Jordan Larmour [23, 46]
James Lowe [28, 43]
Cian Kelleher [25, 14]
Hugo Keenan [24, 14]

james-lowe-runs-in-a-try James Lowe qualifies for Ireland in November. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

Veteran duo Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden remain with Leinster on short-term contracts through until the conclusion of the 2019/20 campaign in October, meaning the province will lose major experience at that stage.

James Lowe qualifying to play for Ireland in November is obviously great news for the province in one way but will also potentially deprive them of a player who has been available fairly consistently since arriving in 2017.

Ireland fullback Jordan Larmour will have his minutes managed, while Dave Kearney earned a recall to the Ireland squad last season – all of which means that the depth in this area will be important, particularly with injuries always a danger.

26-year-old Adam Byrne will feel this is a big season for him on the wing, while 25-year-old Cian Kelleher will be determined to feature more prominently at fullback or on the wing after his first season back from Connacht saw him limited to only four starts.

Fullback Hugo Keenan had a strong 2019/2o campaign as he amassed the most minutes of anyone in the number 15 jersey. 24-year-old Keenen, who also covers the wings, will now likely be targeting his first European caps.

Academy:

Leinster’s academy includes two players who have already had senior exposure in Year 3 loosehead prop Michael Milne [8 caps] and scrum-half Patrick Patterson [3 caps].

Given that Leinster used 51 players last season, having capped 57 and 56 players in the two prior campaigns, it is expected that several of their academy players will feature again in 2020/21.

Back three players Aaron O’Sullivan and Michael Silvester will be among those hopeful of making their senior debuts, as well fellow former Ireland U20 international and Year 3 man David Hawkshaw. 

Year 1

Niall Comerford [back three]
Joe McCarthy [second row]
John McKee [hooker]
Sean O’Brien [back row]
Max O’Reilly [back three]
Andrew Smith [back three]
Alex Soroka [back row]

Year 2

Tom Clarkson [tighthead prop]
Brian Deeny [second row]
Cormac Foley [scrum-half]
Martin Moloney [back row]
Charlie Ryan [second row]
Liam Turner [centre]

Year 3

David Hawkshaw [out-half/centre]
Michael Milne [loosehead prop]
Aaron O’Sullivan [back three]
Patrick Patterson [scrum-half]
Michael Silvester [back three].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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